How Women Won the Right to Choose — Lessons from Women’s History
The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s reached its peak when women won the right to choose an abortion and the Supreme Court legalized the procedure in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. Women made the right to abortion a central demand of their movement because they understood that women could never be equal with men without control over their reproductive lives.
The right to abortion is especially necessary in a society that ultimately expects women to bear the financial and emotional responsibilities of raising children, but pays women much lower wages than men. The decision to carry a pregnancy to term must be the woman’s and no one else’s – not the church’s, government’s, parents’, husband’s, or boyfriend’s.
When abortions were outlawed before Roe v. Wade, it did not stop them from happening. It just made them humiliating, unsafe, and too often fatal.
It is estimated that approximately one million women had illegal abortions annually before the procedure was legalized in 1973, which directly resulted in the deaths of some 5,000 women every year. (i)
Women who made the agonizing decision to have an illegal abortion were desperate, often because they simply could not afford to raise a child. Scared and ashamed, women often self-induced abortions with coat hangers or other sharp objects or sought out a “back alley” abortionist.
There was no telling for sure whether an abortionist was a licensed practitioner that would use safe anesthesia and sterile instruments, or whether he or she knew how to perform an abortion safely. But in the dark and dangerous world of illegal abortions, women simply had to take whatever was available.
Approximately a third of the million women having illegal abortions each year had to be hospitalized for complications. (ii) When complications inevitably developed, women would often delay medical treatment for fear of criminal charges.
In Leslie Reagan’s 1997 book, When Abortion Was a Crime, a women recounts a story of a college classmate who had an illegal abortion: “She was too frightened to tell anyone what she had done. So when she developed complications, she tried to take care of it herself. She locked herself in the bathroom between two dorm rooms and quietly bled to death.” (iii)
The criminalization of abortion disproportionately forced lower-income women and women of color into these terrifying, dangerous situations. Rich women, though, could afford safe abortions by paying a private doctor exorbitant fees or traveling to a country where abortion was legal.
The reproductive rights movement actually began long before the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s. By the ’60s, an underground network of activists, doctors, ministers, lawyers, and welfare rights groups had already been risking arrest and skirting the law to direct pregnant women to competent physicians who would perform abortions.
Abortion rights supporters had been persistently lobbying the government to legalize abortion under certain conditions but made very little progress until the mass women’s liberation movement exploded onto the streets in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
This new movement was born out of women’s anger at the sexist injustices they faced on a daily basis. To give some examples, it was conventional wisdom at the time that women who were raped had invariably asked for it. As late as 1978, marital rape was illegal in only three states. Incest, domestic violence, and sexual harassment occurred all too often but were never discussed. The median income of working women in 1960 was only about one-third that of men. (iv)
Of course, the oppression of women dates back to long before the 1960s. So why did the women’s movement suddenly emerge in the mid’60s?
The Rise of the Women’s Movement
The growing number of women working outside the home and the rising yet unfulfilled expectations of the post-war economic upswing were crucial factors that prepared the conditions for the emergence of the modern women’s movement.
World Wars I and II, and the massive post-war economic expansion, drew record numbers of women into the workforce. In 1950, approximately 33% of women worked outside the home. By 1970, this figured had climbed to 44%, and by 1999 it had jumped to 64.5%. (v)
When U.S. troops returned home from World War II, the government waged a massive propaganda campaign glorifying the joys of motherhood as women’s duty in America’s fight against “communism,” hoping to push women back into the home to allow men to return to their jobs and superior social status.
However, millions of women did not want to return to the often imprisoning isolation of housework and motherhood, especially housewives who lived in recently expanded suburbia, which many found stale and empty. Working together outside the home and earning their own money increased women’s economic independence, confidence, and collective consciousness.
Rising living standards and the opening of college doors to women to satisfy corporations’ demands for more skilled managers and professionals raised women’s expectations that they could improve their lives through college and a career. However, many women only found doors slammed in their faces by elitist, sexist men.
The ruling class’s cult of motherhood worked for a time in the 1950s, but by the ’60s it backfired. A new generation of young women vowed never to live what they saw as the stifling lives of their mothers, who had given up their own dreams to live through their husbands and children.
The federal government’s approval of the birth control pill in 1960 also contributed to the developing sexual revolution and greater independence for women.
Revolution in the Air
But nothing inspired the birth of the women’s movement more than the anti-Vietnam War movement and especially the civil rights movement. African Americans’ determination to achieve equality through actions such as the famous sit-in at a Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter had a contagious effect. Women became radicalized as they participated in mass protests and began to ask themselves: “If blacks can successfully challenge racism, why can’t women challenge sexism, too?”
The rise of the women’s movement was also directly inspired by the revolutions sweeping the world at the time, especially in 1968. That year, the radical and socialist ideas that inspired the worldwide student revolt, the French general strike, the Prague Spring, and colonial revolutions had an impact on women and other oppressed people in the U.S.
Well-to-do professional women founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 with Betty Friedan, author of the influential feminist book The Feminine Mystique, as president. NOW members organized protests and filed over 1,000 lawsuits against corporations for sex discrimination, many of which were victorious. They also popularized demands for more childcare centers, equal tax and divorce laws, non-sexist textbooks, abortion rights, and an end to sexist stereotypes in ads, employment, and TV programs.
The sudden surge of involvement in the women’s movement was reflected in NOW’s membership figures, which grew by leaps and bounds from 300 in 1966 to 40,000 by 1974.
Young radical women formed women’s liberation groups in 1967, which spread to over 40 cities by 1969, organizing one of the most liberating activities of the new movement, consciousness-raising. The terms “liberation” and “consciousness-raising” were inspired by the black and colonial liberation movements as well as socialist ideas.
Consciousness-raising groups came together to question unequal gender roles and to talk frankly about sexual issues which had long been hidden causes for shame and embarrassment, turning depression into anger and building self-confidence and strength together. They also debated issues and strategies to focus their movement around and how to eradicate sexism and overthrow capitalism.
These younger radicals considered NOW’s emphasis on courtroom tactics too stodgy and conservative. Instead, they organized large demonstrations in the streets and took direct action to confront instances of sexism, making far-reaching demands for changing society with the intention of raising other women’s consciousness, confidence, and expectations. Anything that degraded women became a target for protest.
In 1968 a group called Radical Women attracted national attention when they protested the Miss America contest. They set up a Freedom Trash Can to dispose of girdles, bras, curlers, wigs, false eyelashes and other “women’s garbage,” and then crowned a sheep Miss America.
The movement seemed unstoppable as it scored victory after victory, forcing numerous institutions to change their sexist practices. But each victory embittered the right-wing anti-feminist opposition, spearheaded by the Catholic Church hierarchy along with the leaders of various Protestant religious organizations.
Right-wing groups began actively lobbying politicians to roll back women’s legislative gains. They scored a major victory when President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, which would have made the government responsible for providing childcare for all children.
In his veto message, written by Pat Buchanan, Nixon described the Act as “the most radical piece of legislation to emerge from the 93rd Congress,” and said it would “commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child-rearing” and “would lead to the Sovietization of American children.” (vi)
To challenge the intensifying anti-feminist backlash, NOW called a Women’s Strike for Equality on August 26, 1970 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day women won the right to vote.
A debate opened up among activists over what the demands of the women’s strike should be. The liberal, middle-class wing of the movement limited their demands to the legal right to abortion, childcare, and equal employment opportunities.
The more radical wing, in contrast, thought these demands were steps in the right direction, but unless they demanded free abortion on demand, free 24-hour community-controlled childcare and equal pay for equal work, the demands would fall short of what working women and their families needed to be able to truly exercise these rights.
The radical wing’s demands were heavily influenced by the large current of socialist ideas running through the women’s liberation movement. Socialists had long argued for these demands. The 1917 Russian Revolution, for example, brought to power the first government in the world to establish free abortion, free community-run childcare, and equal pay for equal work, as well as free socialized healthcare and the decriminalization of divorce and homosexuality.
The two wings of the movement carried their different banners together in the largest women’s rights demonstrations since the suffrage movement. One hundred thousand women marched, picketed, protested, and held teach-ins, skits, and domestic strikes across the country.
Hundreds of local protests demanding the legalization of abortion took place between 1969 and 1973. Court actions to do away with laws against abortion began in over 20 states between 1968 and 1970.
Militant feminists rejected the supposedly more “realistic and practical” call for reforming the existing abortion laws, for which previous abortion rights activists had been lobbying for years without success. Instead, the militant feminists insisted on nothing less than the full repeal of all laws limiting a woman’s right to abortion, as well as government funding for abortion to make it free and accessible.
In New York, feminists testified before the legislature distributing copies of their model abortion law – a blank piece of paper. Women organized public speak-outs, admitting to illegal abortions and explaining why they had made the decision to have abortions.
One New York activist explained that their speak-out was “unbelievably successful and it turned out to be an incredible organizing tool. It brought abortion out of the closet where it had been hidden in secrecy and shame. It informed the public that most women were having abortions anyway. People spoke from their hearts. It was heart-rending.” (vii)
By the early ’70s, the women’s liberation movement’s persistent demand for legalizing abortion without any restrictions forced 11 state governments, including New York and California, to make concessions and liberalize their abortion laws, allowing the procedure under certain conditions.
Despite these concessions, the more radical feminists continued to insist on free abortion to prevent market forces from getting in the way of women’s needs. In New York, for example, the availability of abortion attracted women from all over the country, driving the price of abortion through the roof and making it less accessible for poorer women. (viii)
Finally, on January 22, 1973 in the historic Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court struck down state laws prohibiting abortion and permitted a woman and her doctor to make all decisions about reproduction during the first six months of pregnancy.
This crucial victory of the women’s movement took place under the administration of President Richard Nixon – a conservative Republican adamantly opposed to abortion just like George Bush II – and a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees.
Nixon had insisted only two years before: “From personal and religious beliefs, I consider abortion an unacceptable form of population control. Further, unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on demand, I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life – including the life of the yet unborn.” (ix) (The New York Women’s Strike Coalition replied: “We will grant Mr. Nixon the freedom to take care of his uterus if he will let us take care of ours.” (x))
Activists’ persistent public activities had shifted public opinion in favor of the right of women to decide whether and when to have an abortion. The movement’s socialistic demands appealed to millions of ordinary women and men, raising their sights about what they rightfully deserved.
Harris polls showed 64% of those polled in 1969 considered the decision on abortion a private matter, (xi) and 63% of American women in 1976 supported efforts “to strengthen and change the status of women in society.” (xii)
In the early ’70s a majority of ordinary people increasingly supported not only women’s rights but also the black revolt, the massive anti-war movement, and the wave of workers’ militant wildcat strikes.
The ruling class felt that if they did not grant some reforms to pacify the growing outcry for radical change, there would be wider social upheaval, threatening the capitalist system itself. Ultimately, the courts and politicians had no choice but to accept that the political balance in society had shifted to the left, and they begrudgingly legalized abortion, pulled U.S. troops out of Vietnam, ended southern legal segregation, and implemented other substantial reforms.
However, big business remained adamantly opposed to making abortion free, which would have cut into their profits and resulted in women and workers expecting even more radical reforms, such as free childcare and healthcare.
Lessons for Today
The victories of the women’s movement, such as Roe v. Wade, were not handed down by enlightened judges or politicians from either party, but were won in spite of them. Women had to fight hard for these gains by building their own independent mass movement and large-scale protests.
Women also multiplied the power of their movement by linking their struggles together with other social movements. The women’s movement would never have won the right to abortion if it had not been for the millions of others who protested against racism, the Vietnam War, and low wages and benefits. Today we, too, can greatly strengthen different progressive movements by linking them together into a larger movement against our common enemy – big business.
The victories of the women’s movement prove that radical social change is completely possible. In spite of the politicians, courts, corporations, media, educational system, and FBI all being stacked against the women’s movement, a small minority of determined women were able to build a mass movement that won to their side the majority of ordinary Americans – the same working-class people who are so often dismissed as hopelessly conservative and consumeristic.
The explosive growth of the women’s liberation movement disproves the idea put forward by many liberals – then and now – that change only happens gradually, step-by-step. On the basis of huge events, mass movements can seemingly burst out of nowhere, which was recently shown again when giant protests were triggered by Bush’s drive to war against Iraq.
The liberal strategy of lobbying politicians for only gradual changes and the partial reform of abortion laws dominated the early years of the women’s movement. But as the movement grew and learned through experience, the radical and socialist wings of the movement rapidly gained support. The “realistic, practical” liberal strategy was quickly discarded as it became apparent that it was anything but practical, and the “extreme” socialist strategy of mass struggle and demanding the full legalization of abortion was adopted.
We can learn from the younger, militant women’s insistence on calling for radical changes, such as free abortion on demand, free childcare and equal pay for equal work, as opposed to the pragmatic outlook of today’s women’s leaders who continually preach “moderation” and “realism.” The radicals’ bold, unapologetic case for abortion rights raised the confidence of millions of women and changed the terms of public debate. This stands in stark contract to the increasingly apologetic, timid defense of abortion by today’s leaders of NOW and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Although the movement did not succeed in achieving free abortion on demand, subsequent events have confirmed how correct the socialist feminists were to argue for it. The experience of the past 30 years since Roe has demonstrated beyond a doubt that the legal right to an abortion is not enough if abortion services are not also accessible and affordable.
The religious right has seized on this by focusing its strategy on rolling back access to abortion services in order to make them more and more difficult to obtain. The lesson is clear – as we re-build the women’s movement, we need to defend the right to an abortion but also explain that real choice means free and accessible abortion.
The experience of the past 30 years shows that reforms won under capitalism will always be temporary and partial. The ruling class can be forced to make certain concessions (such as legalizing abortion) under the pressure of mass movements, but as soon as these movements subside, the capitalists will move to claw back the reforms.
We must fight for every reform possible, but clearly reforms are not enough. To secure real reproductive freedom and put an end to sexism, we must overthrow the capitalist system itself.
(i) Ruth Rosen, World Split Open (New York: Penguin, 2000), p. 52.
(ii) Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, first edition, 1995), p. 499.
(iii) Leslie Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 197.
(iv) Zinn, p. 494.
(v) Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.stats.bls.gov
(vi) Rosen, p. 90.
(vii) Rosen, p. 158.
(viii) Ellen Frankfort, Vaginal Politics (New York: Quadrangle, 1972), p. 36.
(ix) Judith Hole and Ellen Levine, Rebirth of Feminism: (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company, 1970), p. 293.
(x) Hole and Levine, p. 293.
(xi) Zinn, p. 500.
(xii) Sara Evans, Personal Politics, (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 221.
Updated 3/18/12: This article used to be titled “How Abortion Rights Were Won.”