I never talked to my parents about sex. My father referred to it as “the birds and the bees” and told us that our mother would explain. I don’t recall that she ever did. But in a late January winter in 1973, after I had been home from graduate school in Boston for the Christmas holidays, she helped me drive back across country. The Supreme Court had just announced its unanimous decision in Roe v Wade. I suspect it was that announcement that made her tell me for the first time that her mother had died of a self-induced abortion in 1922.
In breaking the silence around her mother’s abortion, my mother was creating a family history that was more complete. Families always have secrets, ours was no exception, and I know that my mother was very uncomfortable in this telling. I was driving and kept my eyes on the road. I don’t think she ever looked at me or asked for a response while she was telling me this story.
Roe v Wade is one of the cases I teach in both Law and Social Change and Women and the Law. I tell my students that within weeks of the Roe v Wade decision in 1973, abortions were legal and generally available in most states. After all, doctors did know how to do the procedure. Many had done abortions clandestinely. Every state had hospitals and health clinics. Before the decision was a year old, abortions were not being done in secret, in unsafe settings. Women could choose their own reproductive schedule.
Men and women in college today believe that abortion is a settled fact. They cannot really imagine that this reproductive choice would not be available to them if they ever needed to choose it. They have the same attitude toward the birth control that has always been available to them if and when they chose to need it.
But I can remember a time when abortion and birth control were not an option, not easy, and not safe.
For a long time, I have not remembered the hard parts of what it was like to grow up in the 1960s. Not that anyone asks, so what was it like then? But my memory of that time has been generally positive. I am glad to have been born during the second World War, glad to have been in college during the 1960s
Those years were, yes, at some level chaotic and painful, but they were intense and we were alive and committed and deeply involved in our communities and our country. Protests to end the Vietnam War, protests against the draft. Drugs of all kinds, mostly ignored by law enforcement. The psychedelic drugs were enjoyed in groups, watching films, eating potluck meals, tripping on acid and pot and hash.
Sex? The only STDs we knew about were syphilis and gonorrhea and who worried? We had penicillin, right? Most guys knew where to get condoms.
Right. But recently I’ve been remembering the other side of that rosy picture of the sixties. The assassinations began while I was still in college. Kennedy in ’63. Then King, then Bobby Kennedy. I was in graduate school in 1968 when the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) protest at the Democratic convention in Chicago turned violent, Kent State where students were protesting, like me, and were gunned down. And I was marching in anti-war protests in Boston when the tactical police descended on us with bludgeons, breaking heads, leaving dozens of us bleeding in the street.
The Vietnam war was ever-present. We mostly forget how the draft tore apart lives. I graduated from Antioch College in 1966 and those of my male classmates who weren’t going to graduate school were waiting for their draft numbers. And reporting for duty when their number came up. I started teaching college the same year I graduated — as a teaching assistant with responsibility for two sections of freshman literature. I was 21. There were men in my classes several years older than I, coming back from Vietnam and going to school on their GI benefits. They smoked pot. They had stories. Some of them had PTSD but we didn’t call it that then — that diagnosis hadn’t been renamed. It was still called shell-shock.
And sex. My freshman year in college, a girl in my dorm was pregnant. She was frantic, wanted to end the pregnancy — who did we know who would know? Did anyone know how she could do this? I certainly didn’t. But by the end of my undergraduate years, I had probably encountered ten fellow students with the same problem. And then there were the stories, some reported in the news, many not, when the girl or woman didn’t make it — bled to death in a back alley or a swamp.
But what has made me realize that my remembrance of growing up in the sixties was distorted by nostalgia has been the intensified attacks on women’s reproductive rights, especially the right to an abortion. In the last two years, beginning with candidate Donald Trump’s promise that women who had abortions “had to be punished,” the pressure to undo legal abortion has intensified. Roe v Wade would be “naturally” overturned, Trump promised, as soon as he could appoint his own Supreme Court justices. That time is here.
In the year following my mother’s telling of her mother’s story, I wrote a poem about it. It was shocking to me, that what I had heard about in college — those gruesome stories of lives shattered by or lost to illegal abortions — had happened in my family. It has happened in many families; we gain nothing by hiding that fact, refusing to talk about it.
One strand of my mother’s story was about how pregnancy and everything connected to it was a “woman’s problem.” Her mother asked her own mother for help. She told her what to try. It didn’t work and my grandmother’s death took several days and was horribly painful. My mother said she had heard her screaming until she and her younger sister were taken away. And my grandfather never knew what his wife had done or what she died from. The story was handed down, woman to woman. When my mother told it to me, it was the first time she had ever recounted it. She had never told her husband, my father.
Another strand was what happened to women who could not “cope” with closely spaced pregnancies, one after the other. My grandmother had two toddlers and a life that was continually uprooted because of her husband’s job. According to the story, her youngest child was especially difficult, personifying the “terrible twos.” She had just moved into a new home with two young children, away from a community of support — either from her relatives or from neighbors she knew. I know nothing else of my grandmother, but that she felt desperate enough to try and induce a miscarriage.
And finally, of course, the poem and this story are about legacy — hers, my mother’s, mine…
I asked a year later: what was her name?
Your mother, my grandmother,
what was her name?
Judith, she said.
I named my first daughter after my mother.
(©Judith McDaniel, 1983)