Abortion Speak-out

Women Had Something to Say About This Issue

Fist in female symbol, women's liberation
Women's Liberation. Shutterstock

edited and with additional material by Jone Johnson Lewis

In 1969, the members of radical feminist group Redstockings were furious that legislative hearings about abortion featured male speakers discussing such a crucial women's issue. They therefore staged their own hearing, the Redstockings abortion speak-out, in New York City on March 21, 1969.

The Fight to Make Abortion Legal

The abortion speak-out took place during the pre-Roe v. Wade era, when abortion was illegal in the United States.

Each state had its own laws about reproductive matters. It was rare if not unheard of to hear any woman speak publicly about her experience with illegal abortion.

Prior to the radical feminists' fight, the movement to change U.S. abortion laws was more focused on reforming existing laws than repealing them. Legislative hearings on the issue featured medical experts and others who wanted to finesse the exceptions to abortion prohibitions. These "experts" talked about cases of rape and incest, or a threat to the life or health of a mother. Feminists shifted the debate to a discussion of a woman's right to choose what to do with her own body.

Disruption

In February of 1969, Redstockings members disrupted a New York legislative hearing about abortion. The New York Joint Legislature Committee on the Problems of Public Health had called the hearing to consider reforms to the New York law, then 86 years old, on abortion.

They roundly condemned the hearing because the "experts" were a dozen men and a Catholic nun. Of all women to speak, they thought a nun would be the least likely to have contended with the abortion issue, other than from her possible religious bias. The Redstockings members shouted and called for the legislators to hear from women who had had abortions, instead.

Eventually that hearing had to be moved to another room behind closed doors.

Who Gets to Speak Out?

The members of Redstockings had previously participated in consciousness-raising discussions. They had also drawn attention to women's issues with protests and demonstrations. Several hundred people attended their abortion speak-out in the West Village on March 21, 1969. Some women spoke about what they suffered during illegal “back-alley abortions.” Other women spoke about being unable to get an abortion and having to carry a baby to term, then have the child taken away when it was adopted.

After the Demonstration

More abortion speak-outs followed in other U.S. cities, as well as speak-outs on other issues in the subsequent decade. Four years after the 1969 abortion speak-out, the Roe v. Wade decision altered the landscape by repealing most abortion laws then in effect and striking down restrictions on abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Susan Brownmiller attended the original 1969 abortion speak-out.  Brownmiller then wrote about the event in an article for the Village Voice, "Everywoman's Abortions: 'The Oppressor Is Man.'"

The original Redstockings collective broke up in 1970, though other groups with that name continued to work on feminist issues.

On March 3, 1989, another abortion speakout was held in New York City on the 20th anniversary of the first.  Florynce Kennedy attended, saying "I crawled off my death bed to come down here" as she called for the struggle to continue.