Reproductive Rights Activism in the Pioneer Valley:
1965 – 1973
The University of Massachusetts Amherst is the large, flagship school located in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, these communities participated in the drastic transformation of societal beliefs around fertility control. The events that occurred in this community epitomize the national struggle for reproductive rights. The movement occurred as a result of grass roots networks and activists who strengthened the resistances to and demand for change of the laws against contraceptives and birth control.
Family planning and fertility control have a complicated history in the United States. The reproductive rights movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s can be fully understood only in the context from which it emerged. In the post World War II United States, society was very conservative: pronatalism and traditional gender roles defined popular social beliefs. Until the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswald v. Connecticut, in which the Court ruled that married couples had a right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution, it was illegal in some states for married couples to access contraceptives. By the 1960’s, the sexual revolution was challenging traditional values, although abortion and contraceptive use by unmarried individuals remained illegal. Simultaneously, the Civil Rights and student movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s were catalysts for the revival of the feminist movement (Gordon: 2002 298). Activism for reproductive rights developed among second wave feminists. Another factor that contributed to a demand for the right to abortion included the intensified repression of abortions during the conservative, pronatalist, and anti-subversive era of the 1950’s. While abortion had been tolerated as a necessity in previous decades of the twentieth century, especially during the Great Depression, the government and the police intensified their prosecution of abortionists (to whom some physicians referred their own private patients) during the post-war period. The increased restrictions on the procedure created the culture in which women resorted to the infamous back alley abortions As a consequence, the “abortion rights movement arose out of the deteriorating conditions of abortion and the frustrations of both women and physicians” (Regan 1997: 216). Although both professionals and women were frustrated with the current laws, the groups had different goals: physicians wanted regulations on abortion and feminist activists wanted the repeal of all anti-abortion laws.
Abortion rights activist Patricia Maginnis founded the Society for Humane Abortion, in California in 1961. Maginnis rejected the professional movement’s demands for reform because they would give doctors the power to decide whether they would perform an abortion. SHA did not want the medical profession to have that power over women’s bodies; they wanted women to make the choice about what was right for them (Regan 1997: 223). The Society for Humane Abortions was the first women’s organization to frame abortion as a women’s rights issue, and it “…radicalized the abortion discourse when it proclaimed abortion as a right and demanded repeal of abortion laws” (224).
In 1965, another grassroots abortion advocate, Heather Booth, began organizing women and female college students in Chicago into a collective called Jane; they formed a grassroots network of information about access to abortion (Regan 1997: 224). Between 1969 and 1973, the underground organization assisted more than eleven thousand women to obtain illegal abortions. Jane was a radical organization not only because it provided clients with abortions but also because counselors – women without medical degrees – learned to perform abortions on their clients. The women in Jane not only broke the law, they also defied the powerful institution of medicine (Gordon: 2002 301).
Although abortion was illegal in most states until 1973, the medical procedure was not as controversial in society as it became. Gordon theorizes that “the spread of a feminist understanding of abortion as a right of self-determinations to which all women were entitled” replaced the “previously dominant view of abortion as…a form of medical treatment” that was intended to solve a private problem (300). As abortion became linked with feminism, society began to reject a historically socially tolerated form of birth control.
In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that married couples had a constitutional right to privacy that guaranteed them the right to contraceptives. One year later, Massachusetts was one of the last states in that nation to legalize the prescription of contraceptives for married couples. In the 1972 the Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v. Baird, which originated in Massachusetts, extended the constitutional right to privacy established in Griswald v. Connecticut to individuals, regardless of their marital status. Massachusetts was impervious to the changing social views on premarital sex and family planning. Because of the extent of the conservative laws and the government’s resistance to change, Massachusetts became an important site in the activism for reproductive rights (Cline 2006: 3).
The Pioneer Valley is a unique community in Massachusetts because of the high concentration of college students. Because of the large proportion of young, unmarried women, the Valley had an increased demand for contraceptives and abortion. Many students and community members who became active in the reproductive rights movement had already been active in other liberal movements like the anti-war movement. In the decades preceding Eisenstadt v. Baird and Roe v. Wade, a network comprised of health professionals, feminist activists, and liberal clergy provided information about and access to contraceptives and abortion in the Pioneer Valley.
Physicians were often placed between the conflicting needs of their patients and the state laws. The director of University Health Services, Dr. Robert Gage, defied the law by providing unmarried graduate and undergraduate women with diaphragms. Before Dr. Gage became the director of UHS, physicians were able to make their own decision, on a case by case basis, about whether to prescribe birth control to unmarried students; the women were often subjected to “humiliating difficulties” (Cline 61). Dr. Gage reformed the system by assigning the task to only physicians who agreed to work in the program and incorporating an educational component (Cline 61). The administration was aware and supportive of his services, even though they were illegal (Cline 5). Although UHS was an important resource for unmarried women who wanted contraceptives, Dr. Gage would not provide abortion referrals; he believed that, because the university was a state-funded school, providing illegal abortion referrals to its students would have been too high of a risk (Cline 2006: 88).
Physicians working in the valley found ways to circumvent the laws that were intended to prevent the prescription of contraceptives to unmarried women. They justified defying state laws on the basis of the health of their patients. Greenfield physician Merritt Garland fitted patients for diaphragms. In order to circumvent the law, Dr. Garland wrote the size of the diaphragm on a notepad – not a prescription pad. The women could then buy the appropriate diaphragm at the pharmacy. Patients could access adequate diaphragms without an illegal prescription (Cline 2006: 71). When patients would consult Dr. Garland about their desire for an abortion, he would refer them to an abortionist and a “post-abortion check-up” (Cline 2006: 72). By defying the laws, physicians were reinforcing a growing social movement of resistance to the laws.
A subversive network also emerged from a surprising place: the clergy. The chaplain of Smith College, Reverend Richard Unsworth, founded the Massachusetts chapter of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. The ministers and rabbis in CCS provided women with counseling services and information about the options they had available to them. Additionally, they reviewed abortion clinics and referred women only to safe clinics (Cline 2006: 6).
The clergy argued that, although they were defying the state laws, they were answering to a higher law. Rabbi Yechiael Lander, for example, felt that he was compelled by his beliefs in Judaism to help women with problem pregnancies, even if it meant breaking state laws (Cline 2006: 155). The catalyst for Reverend Unsworth’s involvement in CCS was the deaths of two young women he knew personally. He remembered that, had he been arrested, he would have said: “I do this in good conscience. I know it’s against the law and if you have to put me in jail, put me in jail, but I’m going to hold this position because I think it’s right and proper and I think the law is wrong” (Cline 2006: 132). The physicians and the clergy in the Valley were not only providing women with resources and support, they were also creating networks of opposition to the laws on abortion and birth control.
A third faction of the abortion and birth control network in the valley were the feminist activists. Amherst Women’s Liberation, a consciousness-raising group founded by the wives of faculty at Amherst College, created the Abortion and Birth Control Group after the death of Nancy Kierzek from a botched abortion in 1970. Kierzek was a twenty-one year old University of Massachusetts student. The ABC group provided women and students with problem pregnancy counseling and abortion referrals.
The women “viewed their abortion referral work as building upon the work of the clergy and health professionals” but they had different motivations (Cline 2006: 181). Unlike the physicians, who based their actions on medical rational, or the members of CCS, who felt they were answering to a higher law, the women in the ABC group advocated for the right to abortion and birth control with a feminist lens. While the medical and religious institutions were dominated by men, the feminist groups “believed that a woman should have the power to make decisions over her own body and that other women should be the ones that helped inform her of her options” (Cline 2006: 181). In this way, the ABC group was arguably more radical than the clergy and physicians.
The Abortion and Birth Control Group also organized public forums and speak outs on the UMass campus. The women emphasized the importance of education: they gave public talks and handed out pamphlets about birth control (Cline 2006: 197). An announcement in The Daily Collegian stated that a panel of speakers would discuss birth control and abortion in the Amherst Regional Junior High School on Monday, September 27th, 1971. However, they had to move the forum to an auditorium at the University; the Amherst schools administration accused the group of being undemocratic because they did not allow men to be members. They were seen as radical because of their feminist rhetoric (Cline 2006: 192). The auditorium was filled with college students. Both Reverend Unsworth and Dr. Gage spoke at the forum, as well as Dr. Castellano Turner, a professor of psychology at UMass. The Clergy Consultation Service provided counseling at the forum (Cline 2006: 193). Robin Dizard reflects that one of the most important contributions made by the ABC group was that they “made abortion no longer a secret” (Cline 2006: 208).
The women in the Abortion and Birth Control group consciously broke the law, and the group lacked the professional and moral protection that the physicians and the clergy enjoyed. As a result, they were concerned about being arrested. These fears and concerns manifested themselves in the women’s suspicions of infiltrators. Robin Dizard remembers: “There were persistent rumors that our women’s movement had been worrisome enough to the FBI for them to have sent an agent or somebody to check us out” (Cline 2006: 198). The women also worried about the clinic, so they protected their clients by destroying their contact information (Cline 2006: 195).
In 1970, in Springfield, another group of women founded the Women’s Health Counseling Service, which provided information about birth control, abortion counseling, and referrals. Like the women in Amherst, the Springfield women felt compelled to become involved in reproductive rights. Sherri Oake, a founding member, reflected that, like many women, she became concerned about women’s rights after being marginalized by the sexism in other leftist movements (Cline 2006: 211).
The Women’s Health Counseling Service was radical because volunteers drove women across state lines to get abortions. Ann Meeropol and Alice Zaft drove to New York, where abortion was legalized, on several occasions. Sometimes they went to inspect a clinic, other times, they drove clients to get an abortion (Cline 2006: 217). Zaft remembered:
“We were all putting ourselves at risk. I think that after we were doing it awhile, there was a crackdown on bringing women across (state lines for abortions). People were being stopped and arrested. I remember this heightened sense of it being like an underground railroad kind of a thing.” (Cline 2006: 214)
The volunteers at the Springfield Women’s Health Counseling Service, the women of the Abortion and Birth Control group, the members of the Clergy Consolation Service, and the physicians at the University and in the community worked separately, often used similar tactics, and were motivated by different beliefs. They defied their government’s laws to provide women with access to safe and effective ways to control their fertility.
University of Massachusetts Students
University of Massachusetts students were a primary population served by those organizations. Many students broke the laws in order to control their fertility, and many of them relied on these organizations as support. On November 9th, 1970, the Daily Collegian published an article about abortion. The first line of the article bluntly states: “If you’re pregnant and have decided on an abortion, it’s helpful to know what to expect” (Daily Collegian). An anonymous UMass student described her experience of seeking out the Clergy Consultation Service for an abortion referral. She described the staff at CCS as “helpful” and tactful. They provided her with a detailed explanation of what to expect in New York as well as information about contraceptives. The woman and the newspaper’s willingness to talk openly about a medical procedure that was illegal in the state was relatively radical, but students on the UMass campus had already been actively involved in the reproductive rights movement for years.
On Wednesday, April 10, 1968, Zelda Bilsey, a junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, purchased Emko Foam at Zayre’s, a department store. Because she was not married, Zayre’s broke the law by providing her with birth control (LeBlanc 2). The Massachusetts law, Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order, stated:
“…whoever sells, lends, gives away, exhibits or offers to sell, lend or give away an instrument or other article intended to be used for self-abuse, or any drug medicine, instrument or article whatever for the prevention of conception or for causing unlawful abortion, or advertises the same, or writes, prints, or causes to be written or printed a card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind stating when, where, how, of whom, or by what means such article can be purchased or obtained, or manufactures or makes any such article shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or in jail or the house of correction for not more than two and one half years or by a fine of not less than one hundred nor more than two thousand dollars.” (Massachusetts General Laws Annotated, Chapter 272)
Emko Foam was advertised as “the family planning product,” and Zelda Bilsey chose to challenge the law “in support of William Baird’s attempts to point out the ‘hypocrisy’ of state laws on the subject” (LeBlanc 1968: 3). Bill Baird was a controversial national activist for abortion and birth control. He had been arrested on April 8, 1967 for “holding up a birth control pill” during a speech in Boston; he also provided an unmarried college student with contraceptives. At the time of Bilsey’s civil disobedience, Baird was facing a ten-year jail sentence for his actions (Hopkins 1968: 7). Bill Baird had been invited by the UMass class of 1970 to speak at the Student Union on the evening that Zelda Bilsey broke the law. After purchasing the contraceptive, Bilsey and others repeatedly called the local and state police to report the store’s crime. However, the law enforcement refused to arrest the store manager; this revealed the hypocrisy: Baird and Zayre’s broke the same law, but only the former was being prosecuted (Fiakow 1968: 1).
Later that day, the Student Senate voted unanimously to support Bill Baird and his campaign. The Senate also endorsed the demonstration at Zayre’s scheduled for the following day, which was sponsored by The Daily Collegian (LeBlanc 1968: 1). The staff at The Daily Collegian was a major force in rallying student support for the demonstration. Adjacent to an article about Bill Baird was an advertisement for the April 11th demonstration, which called on students to become active. It demanded of students: “Will you stop talking about ‘commitment’ and take some action that will bring instant results?” and “Will you support Bill Baird, a man who now faces a ten-year prison sentence because he is fighting a law which determines your own moral code for you?” (Daily Collegian).
In a letter published by The Daily Collegian, Bill Baird wrote that, on the night before the demonstration, he worked with UMass students until one o’clock in the morning: “Some of us were making signs for the birth control rally at Zayre’s; others were getting fliers ready and writing copy for the newspaper” (Baird 1968: 1). Many of the students were editors and staffers at The Daily Collegian. Two hundred students marched with Baird, peacefully, to Zayre’s. Ronlald LaBrecque reported that “student groups (were) forming to carry on Baird’s crusade” after he left the university (8).
John H. Dean Junior, the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Collegian, was a strong supporter of Baird. He urged students to support the crusade not only by signing the petition but also by raising money to fund the activist’s upcoming court cases.
Within twenty-four hours of the first demonstration, approximately nine hundred students signed the petition asking the Governor Volpe to update the state laws (Hopkins 1968: 2). Two weeks later, the petition had more than three thousands signatures (Daily Collegian, April 25, 1968). Students mobilized quickly, and, Baird reflected: “Supporters were mainly the students” (Interview). On April 17th, 1968, The Daily Collegian reported that the recently formed student groups had raised enough money to hire David Burres, an attorney, who would contest that the Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order law was unequally enforced.
On April 30, 1968, students were bused to Boston to rally outside of Governor Volpe’s office. They marched with Boston University students to the State House. A delegation comprised of Baird and UMass students Stafford Sheehan, Karen Morton, Dana Tibow, and Helen Madden presented the petition to the governor (Daily Collegian, May 1, 1968). In a recent interview, Baird reflected that UMass students were some of his strongest defenders, and that their support was instrumental in his activism. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Baird v Eisenstadt: the decision guaranteed people the right to contraceptives, regardless of their marital status.
As second wave feminism gained momentum, identity politics shaped the thinking of students involved in reproductive rights activism. In a 1971 article entitled Abortion: a Feminist Perspective, UMass student Nancy Williamson, writes:
“The question of abortion and a woman’s right to obtain one directly threatens the institutions of the family, the church, and the state; in short, the whole sexist society in which we live. We are not asking for abortion. We are asking for control of our bodies and thus our lives. Once abortion laws are repealed our bodies will no longer be controlled from without. They will be controlled from within – through our own choice, through the dictates of our own minds. Woman will control herself. She will not be controlled by the state.” (Williamson 1971)
Williamson is challenging powerful social institutions. She continues to explain that “voting is not enough” and that women need to “make a concentrated effort right now to change the laws in every state in the country” (Williamson 1971). Williamson called for a mass movement of women and feminists demanding the repeal of abortion laws.
Resistance to the oppressive state and federal laws on contraceptives and abortion had many forms. Physicians circumvented the laws to meet the health needs of their patients. Members of the clergy ignored man made laws in order to answer their “higher law.” Feminist activists created underground networks of support for women with problem pregnancies. University of Massachusetts students mobilized to change the repressive legislation. They often worked independently, but their efforts were always interconnected by their willingness to risk being jailed because of their beliefs: together, these networks fought and defied the laws that oppressed them. The Western Massachusetts community exemplifies the national movement for reproductive rights.
“Abortion and What to Expect.” The Daily Collegian [University of Massachusetts] 9 Nov. 1971: 1. Print.
Baird, Bill. “An Open Letter: Baird Thanks the Students of UMass.” The Daily Collegian [University of Massachusetts] 11 Apr. 1968, XCVI ed., sec. 120. Print.
“Baird Campaign Continues; Boston Plans Formulated.” The Daily Collegian [University of Massachusetts] 17 Apr. 1968. Print.
Bill Baird. Personal interview. 10 April 2011.
“Baird, UMass Group March to Capitol; Present Petitions on Birth Control.” The Daily Collegian [University of Massachusetts] 1 May 1968: 1. Print.
Cline, David P. Creating Choice: A Community Responds to the Need for Abortion and Birth Control, 1961-1973. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.
Fialkow, Jan. “Baird, Students Test Birth Control Law; Police Refuse to Take Action Against Zayre’s.” The Daily Collegian [University of Massachusetts] 11 Apr. 1968, XCVI ed., sec. 121: 1. Print.
Gordon, Linda. The Moral Property of Women: a History of Birth Control Politics in America. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2002. Print.
Hopkins, Joseph D. “Students to Protest Birth Control Laws” The Springfield Union 11 April 1968. Print.
LaBreque, Ronald J. “200 Students Picket Zayre’s; Hope to Meet with Volpe Soon” The Daily Collegian [University of Massachusetts] 12 April 1968: 1. Print.
LeBlanc, Don. “MDC, Senate Endorse Bill Baird; Students to Rally at Zayre’s.” The Daily Collegian [University of Massachusetts] 11 April 1968: 1. Print.
Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley: University of California, 1997. Print.
Williamson, Nancy. “Abortion: A Feminist Perspective.” Women’s Studies. Operations and Administration History. 25/W5.