On Monday night, I’m going to put on my skinny jeans from Target and my really great looking brown boots, wrap a paisley scarf around my neck and put on my brown velvet jacket and I’m going to walk into the Central Michigan University Library Auditorium and try to tell a group of students what it was life was like for women living on their campus 45 years ago.
I’m going to be the featured speaker at a 1 in 3 event sponsored by the CMU chapter of VOX, Planned Parenthood’s student organization. I was asked after a blog post I wrote about having an illegal abortion in 1967 was posted on Salon.com and went viral. Amazingly, 111,000 people read my story, a story that I had pretty much kept to myself for 45 years. Yes, my close friends and, even my kids, especially my girl kids, knew the story. Having had an illegal and very unsafe abortion at age 19 made me a maniac about birth control – ask either of my girls.
Anyway, I was a student at Central when I got pregnant and had a really unsafe abortion. I remember the fall in Mt. Pleasant, the idyllic Michigan town where Central is located. I remember my dorm room, the two beds and two desks; I remember laying on my bed and smoking Salems, balancing the ashtray on my chest and wanting to be so very, very free and cool. I remember the phone calls with my boyfriend back home, how much I missed him, and how I lied to the operator so she would charge someone else’s phone for the long distance calls I made to him every other day.
Today, I researched ‘rules at Central Michigan University in the 60’s’ so I could make sure that the crazy ass curfews and late minutes and penalties and expulsions that I remembered were actually accurate. And they were. Rules for women were pretty intense. My sister, my role model, had gotten tossed out of Central four years prior to my being there, for being caught half in and half out of the dorm’s basement window. She was extraordinarily popular, pinned to a TKE and dating a gymnast at the same time, she was a marvel of her time. (Is it strange that I not only remember this fact but these guys’ names? Yes.)
Back to the dorm after curfew (11 on weeknights and 1 on weekends), she decided to avoid the front door and sneak in the back. Our father was beside himself since his primary purpose in sending her to college was to marry a college man – instead she came home in shame and married a guy who owned a hardware store. It was all cool to me, though, I thought she was amazing.
I talk about the rules for women at Central because they were emblematic of the whole culture. Nice girls were to be protected – from men and themselves. So they needed curfews and bed checks and the dorm mother checking their possibly alcohol breath at the door. If women weren’t protected, terrible things could happen.
They could get pregnant. It was the worst thing that could happen. No joke, my friends. It was the end of life as we knew it. Pregnant, unmarried women just plain disappeared, that is, if they couldn’t afford to go to New York for an abortion. They went away – mysteriously, without explanation, and usually didn’t come back. Shades of Pinochet.
So my job on Monday night is to bridge a couple of generations, probably a couple more than can be accomplished with my Target skinny jeans. My job is to tell them that I don’t think much has changed about being wild in love or making terrible mistakes.
I will be their grandmother telling them that condoms can fail and that if they get pregnant they will be the ones to handle it. That no matter how wonderful their guy is, he can still leave and probably will. I’ll tell them they have options and that they will make the decision that is right for them. I’ll remind them that all women have that fundamental right and that it is absolute and precious.
I’ll sound bitter but I won’t be. What I learned at Central changed my life. It really did. And I couldn’t be more grateful. Or glad to be back.