The old woman with the booming voice clasped her hands under her heavy breasts. Light came in from the side window, outlining her expressive face. Behind her a cookie jar in the shape of a monk imitated her motion. As she spoke she wiped tears out of her eyes with a handkerchief she kept tucked in her bra. I interviewed the woman for my book, Dignity: Lower Income Women Tell of Their Lives and Struggles, 1985.
The woman, the daughter of Yugoslavian immigrants to the iron mining range in northern Minnesota, was the oldest of eight surviving children. Her mother died from overwork when the mother was 29, having given birth to nine children and running a boarding house for unmarried miners. The children were put in an orphanage after the mother’s death.
The old woman cried as she described the abuses of the Depression-era orphanage. Then she told me of her marriage at age of fifteen to a miner of fifty-one because he promised her he would take her siblings out of the children’s home. The man kept his promise but came down with miners’ lung and could no longer work. Right after the wedding, the girl became pregnant. She had to work as well as take care of her brothers and sisters. She also gave birth to four boys in rapid succession.
After the births, she went to her doctor to beg for birth control. “So then I said, ‘Dr. Keating, could you advise me what to do not to have any more babies?’
“He said, ‘Put your feet in a ten-gallon crock.’
“‘My God, is that all the advice I can get from you?’
“He said, ‘I would never advise any woman to use any preventative. Because if that preventative is strong enough to kill a live germ, it’s strong enough to kill your insides.’”
Shortly before her husband’s death, she became pregnant again. She explained, “So I went to the doctor and said, ‘Doctor, you know that I cannot have a baby. Who’s going to take care of it? My husband is dying, we have no money coming in except this money that I work for and make.’
“‘Well,’ he says, ‘I can’t advise you where to go or what to do, and I cannot abort you.’
“Some woman in Duluth. . . told me to come down there,” the old woman continued. “So this girlfriend of mine drove me there. The woman put me in a taxicab, and we rode out to the middle of a woods. She put a blindfold on me so I couldn’t see where I was going. Gee whiz, it was just like going to the electric chair. We came to an old house and she took me out. The lady that went there with me had to stay in the cab. An old woman was there alone in the house, and she said, ‘You got the $300?’
“‘Lay on this.’ She had a ironing board on the bed. So I laid on the ironing board, and she put a long, skinny, smooth piece of wood all the way up my vagina. I had no pain; I must be made of wood. . . But I was terrified. I didn’t abort right away, then after a week I hemorrhaged.”
I think of the woman’s story when I hear the shocking news of the Republican Right’s campaign not only about abortion but even birth control! Abortion is a complicated issue, but I remember clearly what it was like before Roe v. Wade in 1973. Women died. We have also taken birth control for granted since 1965 when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that the constitution protected a right to privacy. We can’t go back to the Dark Ages.
The woman I interviewed is gone now, but we must fight in her memory and for women alive today. Congressman Roy Blunt Roy Blunt (R-Mo) has introduced legislation that would allow employers to exclude insurance coverage for any condition they found morally upsetting. This is not only is it an attempt to kill Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but it is part of a war on women. In the name of millions of women, we can not let them succeed.