Five Things Young Women Should Know about Life before Roe v. Wade

Tomorrow night I am going to the campus of the small state university where, as a sophomore 47 years ago, I discovered that I was pregnant and agreed reluctantly to have an illegal and unsafe abortion, the effects of which hung on me for years like a wretched, filthy grey sweater.

I look back at that time, the winter of 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade, and I just thank God I survived. Many women didn’t. The coat hanger that has become the universal symbol of the risk of illegal abortion? It’s not hyperbole. It was really used. In my case, it was a wire. Small difference. Same outcome.

As they should, young woman regard that time as prehistoric. Why would an American woman with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy use a coat hanger or a wire, drink lye, or douche with turpentine? This answer is this and remember it, it’s important. They did these things because they had no choice. No choice.

Of all the things I wish I could tell the college students who will come to the Abortion Speak-Out tomorrow night and politely listen to a woman who could be their grandmother, there are five things I need them to know about life before Roe v. Wade.

First, when I was a young woman, women were off the hook. Beyond marrying well, expectations were low. It’s hard to describe now how low expectations were imprisoning. You’d think a woman would feel liberated being out from under expectations of career, success, and accomplishments. It felt like a small pretty pasture with a barbed wire fence.

Second, when I was a young woman, women were waiting. They were always waiting for the phone to ring, to be asked out, to be told how to act, to be given permission, to do the next thing they were supposed to do. Oh, there were permutations. Some women were more traditional, Betty Crockers on their way to embroidered aprons. Others were hippies. Each did their waiting in their own way but they were all waiting on men.

Third, when I was a young woman, women were expected to be virgins until they were married. I look at that statement as I write it to make myself remember how it was. A woman who had sex was deflowered, no longer pure, shouldn’t wear white on her wedding day. ‘No man will want you if you’re not a virgin,’ said everymother to everydaughter. This caution was not reversed, however. It was expected that men would have ‘experience’ before getting married, with whom it wasn’t clear.

Fourth, when I was a young woman, women were always to blame. Curious, since woman’s power was so circumscribed, but women were to blame for being a tease, getting men into states where they couldn’t control themselves, and, of course, women were to blame for the biggest mistake of all, getting pregnant. If a woman became pregnant, it was her problem to solve. She was alone at that point. He could leave.

Fifth, when I was a young woman, women learned to be angry. They learned to be ferocious, unforgiving, humorless, insistent, and profane. They learned to be fearless. They learned not to wait. They learned to place blame where it belonged. They learned that they didn’t need a man to tell them who they were. They learned that loving a man didn’t mean having to stand behind him. They learned the most important thing of all:  That no woman is free until all of us can control what happens to our own bodies.

The five things young woman should know about life before Roe v. Wade have largely been forgotten. There are now things of the past – women’s obedience and deference, the expectation of virginity, the blaming – and I am glad for that.

But one of the forgotten things is women’s anger. Women’s beautiful, righteous, powerful anger. It’s the only thing I miss about those times so long ago. The only thing I wish we could bring back. It’s been replaced by resignation and cynicism, a sophisticated powerlessness, a throwing up of our collective hands, the belief that nothing can be done to turn the steady tide of anti-choice laws across the country. We’ve forgotten the anger women had when I was a young woman. It’s caricatured into small frames of women with wild hair burning their bras.

It wasn’t a cartoon, the true women’s movement. Our anger was fierce and beautiful.

When we were angry, we were rising. We need to rise again.

7 Comments on “Five Things Young Women Should Know about Life before Roe v. Wade

  1. Hi Jan. I liked this the first time I read it – and this time I like it more. But there isn’t a “like it more” button. I have been remembering the year I went back to high school after being taken for an illegal abortion (luckily by a doctor who was doing them in the basement of his small hospital while the medical profession compassionately looked the other way). The pregnancy was the result of incest and I was not consulted about the abortion – I was just taken by the two men who had raped me and told what to do. After years of therapy I still carry a wee bit of responsibility – it was my fault I got pregnant and my shame to carry. And I remember the shame walking into the high school that was so strong I wouldn’t look anyone in the eyes for fear they would see my terrible sin. Damn those messages were strong.
    My mother-in-law’s sister died as a result of an illegal abortion. When you add in the factor that many male headed organizations also oppose(d) birth control, that puts us in a really small barbed-wire cage. I am thinking about all the things that were our fault in marriage: another pregnancy, having girl babies instead of boy babies, not being available for sex because we were fertile, having a miscarriage, getting pregnant while on birth control, getting raped, Wretched, filthy grey sweaters were the style of the day back then – and I still see them frequently.

    • Pat – I have been thinking about you since I read this earlier today. You are an incredibly wise and powerful person – that has come through in your reactions on this blog and what you’ve said on your blog as well. Your eye for beauty that makes your photography so extraordinary comes from a place of deep experience and knowledge of life and pain and recovery. At least that’s how I see it from here. I wish we could be friends in person. Thank you for telling your story. I will never forget it.

  2. This is wonderful, Janice, and I so remember those days. Rising again is going to be necessary if we’re going to stop the growing onslaught of violence toward women. We’re a culture that promotes becomming vapid as a Kardashian.

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