How the First Abortion Speak-Out Revolutionized Activism

This story was originally published by Vanity Fair.

“I can tell you the psychological and sociological effect the law has had on me: It’s made me angry!” a woman yelled across the crowded auditorium of the New York City Health Department.

It was February 13, 1969, and a phalanx of female protesters had dramatically interrupted the staid proceedings of New York State’s Joint Legislative Committee on the Problems of Public Health. The issue under discussion was whether or not to liberalize the state’s 86-year-old criminal abortion statute and allow for legal abortion in cases where a woman’s physical or mental health was at risk, or when she was a victim of rape or incest.

Many of the protesters were members of Redstockings, an offshoot of the New York Radical Women, who are best known for organizing the 1968 protest of the Miss America contest—an event that inspired the legend of feminists as bra-burners. Marginalized by the macho radical left, feminist firebrands like Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis launched their own liberation movement. Redstockings saw themselves as an intellectual action group that would take their ideas and anger to the streets with provocations.

That morning, the committee had gathered a panel of lawyers, doctors, politicians, and members of the clergy to testify. Among those 15 experts, there was just one woman: a nun who viewed abortion as a mortal sin. Sitting in the audience, a young activist named Kathie Sarachild (born Kathie Amatniek) leaped to her feet: “Now it’s time to hear from the real experts…Women!” Florynce Kennedy, a radical lawyer and brilliant provocateur, knew exactly how to get the crowd’s attention. Kennedy asked: “Why don’t we shoot a New York State legislator for every women who dies from an abortion?”

Seymour R. Thaler, a New York State Senator from Queens and a Democrat, initially tried to mollify the protesters, telling them that he sympathized with their frustration.

“We have had enough hearings, you are quite right to be impatient,” he said. Once it became clear that the enraged women wouldn’t quiet down, though, the committee meeting moved to a smaller room closed off to the public. Police barricaded the door to keep the furious feminists out.

At the end of the day, several women were finally admitted into the room to testify. As reported by Newsday, nursery school teacher Gale Greenwood quietly told the panel that she’d had an illegal abortion at 17. Ten years later, she still didn’t have any good options if she got pregnant again. “Men have no right to decide these questions,” she declared, leveling her gaze at them. Another added: “We want to be consulted. Even if we accepted your definition of expert—and we don’t—couldn’t you find any female doctors or lawyers?” Senator Thaler accused her of “acting out your personal pique against men.” She hit back: “Not personal pique. Political grievance!

The personal is political: The slogan, which emerged from New York Radical Women, spread like a meme throughout the liberation movements of the late 1960s. The decision to disrupt the Joint Legislative Committee was the culmination of a series of consciousness-raising sessions over the preceding months. One of the group members, 25-year-old artist Irene Peslikis, had been emotionally scarred by her own illegal abortion as a teenager. Not because of guilt but because the trauma had awakened her “to the fact that there was no escaping that I was a woman and that I had limited freedom in terms of what my rights were,” as she says in Abortion Without Apology: A Radical History for the 1990s.

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