By Carol Downer
[Originally published in On The Issues Magazine]
In the 1970s, I got involved in the women's self-help movement in California, traveling the countryside to introduce women to vaginal self-examination and pioneering the use of menstrual extraction. I got there, and from there to here, because one action simply led to the next. And to the next. And the next. In fact, my own progression seems to have been to "Think Locally, Act Globally" – exactly the opposite of the popular activist slogan.
I have always been an active participator. I marched and waved pom-poms on the drill team in high school. I led a Girl Scout troop when my daughters were in elementary school in the late 50s and 60s. But my activities gradually changed from "brightening the corner where you are" to humanitarian, such as volunteering as a leader in a girl's club at a high school in a poor neighborhood in the mid-60s. Then I became involved in electoral-type activities through MAPA (Mexican-American Political Association), as did my Chicano husband.
My involvement mirrored the turbulent times. Everyone was getting more politically aware. I helped write a throwaway paper with other activists who were against U.S. military involvement in the Southeast; I headed a committee to recall the local councilman who was pushing an urban renewal program that would kick old people out of their homes, and my circle of mothers in my neighborhood enlarged to include activists in the northeast part of Los Angeles. When the "Watts riot" exploded in south central Los Angeles, I learned to call it "the Watts rebellion." Then, in 1969, along with thousands of others, I marched with my husband and my 16-year-old daughter, Laura Brown, in the Chicano Moratorium. At the march's end, we sat on the grass lawn of Laguna Park and listened to music and speakers until all of us were attacked by hundreds of Los Angeles sheriffs, clad in riot gear, who came across the field swinging billy clubs and shooting tear gas canisters.
With my moratorium experience, I "graduated" from the naive white liberal school. I saw the faces of my oppressors through their plexiglas masks. Afterward, when I complained loudly to one of my friends in Eagle Rock, the white working-class area where we lived, she asked me, "What were you doing there?" My disillusionment with community volunteer activities and electoral level projects was complete.
Stepping Into A New Women's Movement
I started my "post-graduate" work.
I answered the widely publicized call to work for women's rights and specifically abortion rights. In 1969, I attended a National Organization for Women (NOW) meeting. I had little in common with most of the members, white career women who apparently had not had the radicalizing experiences that I had. I was invited to join a committee. I had had an illegal abortion, so I joined the Abortion Committee, headed up by Lana Clark Phelan.
Lana, along with Patricia Maginnis, wrote The Abortion Handbook. I understudied her for a few months. Listening to Lana's devastatingly sarcastic speeches and reading her book demystified abortion laws for me. I learned that abortion had never been criminalized until the rise of the modern, industrialized nation-state. In nineteenth century France, women had figured out how to block the sperm and the egg, and the birth rate was declining. Napoleon Bonaparte needed more Frenchmen to serve as soldiers to fight wars of conquest for the French Empire; therefore, abortion was outlawed.
French peasants were encouraged in every way possible to have as many children as they could. The French peasant father received tax incentives, forms of "social security" to be paid in his old age and increased personal status based on the number of children he had sired. Under the "Code Napoleon," the status of women sank to an all-time low. French women were given in marriage at the earliest possible age. Young women were to be kept pregnant and at home for their own "fulfillment" as women.
Our three-woman committee -- Lana, Mary Petrinovich and me -- was small, but in 1969 and early 1970s, we were in demand. Progressive people wanted to hear about abortion reform and the need to end the estimated 5,000 deaths each year from illegal abortion. Mary traveled in from Riverside to bring women to an illegal clinic on Santa Monica Boulevard, and she introduced me to the abortionist, Harvey Karman, who was posing as a doctor and had been arrested for performing abortions, along with Dr. John Gwynne. Several demonstrations were held to support him and other Northern California doctors who had been arrested. Under the auspices of our committee, I organized a demonstration at Hancock Park of 500 people, the largest abortion demonstration in Los Angeles at that time.
A small, very loosely organized group of women coalesced around Karman's defense and some volunteered at his notorious clinic, which was under constant police surveillance. In the estimation of some of us, both Karman and Gwynne were "male chauvinist pigs." Also, we had a growing suspicion that we could learn how to do the abortions. Karman used an early abortion device that he claimed to have invented which suctioned the contents of the uterus out without the use of metal instruments to scrape its walls. He called it a "non-traumatic" abortion.
Mary invited me to visit the clinic. I accompanied her into the very small procedure room where Karman was inserting an IUD in a woman's uterus. I found myself looking into the woman's vagina, which was held open by a plastic speculum, and I saw her beautiful pink cervix, the opening to the uterus, which was well lit by the gooseneck lamp.
Following the Path of the Cervix
I was transfixed, looking at her rosy, knob-like cervix with a tiny opening. I thought of Lana's brilliant political analysis and I felt the frustration of our century-long suffering from these unjust laws. I had six children at this time, and I had never looked carefully at my genitals (except to look at my raw, bleeding episiotomy incision in the hospital to see where all that pain was coming from). I marveled at how close the cervix is; how simple it is and how accessible it is with the use of an inexpensive, plastic speculum.
A few weeks later, in April 1971, our small group called a meeting at a local women's bookstore, where we showed women the hand-held device that Karman used, and then we demonstrated vaginal self-exam. The women's skepticism about our learning to do abortion vanished upon seeing my cervix, and by the end of the meeting, we had seen several cervixes and had plans to learn to provide abortions underground. We held weekly "Self-Help Clinics" at the Los Angeles Women's Center. Lorraine Rothman was part of that group and she invented a modification of Karman's device, which we used in minimally-trained women's self-help groups to extract our menstrual periods, whether they were on time or late. We traveled up the West Coast and then across the country, demonstrating vaginal self-exam and talking about menstrual extraction, attracting many women to come to L.A. to work with us.
Our plans to open an illegal clinic were shelved because legal abortion was becoming available in Los Angeles just at that time. We believed that it was more important for us to give women the encouragement and the tools to learn about their bodies so that we would cease to be at the mercy of those who wanted to control us, whether to outlaw abortion or to manipulate birthing American women to consent to c-sections. And, we started WARS, a women's abortion referral service, where we counseled and physically examined women at the Women's Center and then accompanied them to the hospital for their abortion.
Our self-help movement grew; we wrote books, set up clinics around the nation after Roe v. Wade and we traveled to Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Mexico, among other places. Many of us became health professionals in traditional and alternative medical practices (and my marching daughter, Laura, began in self-help and then started the Oakland Women's Choice Clinic.) We attended national and international conferences. I witnessed the efforts of the anti-natalists who force birth control on women and want to limit the number of babies they have, such as in China. And I witnessed the pro-natalists, who want to force women to have more babies, such as the Catholic Church, but are also bankrolled by reactionary wealthy upper class people. I knew activism was needed to stop these forces, as well.
My actions have been rooted in my personal experiences, but as I expanded my worldview and became exposed to other ways of thinking and doing things, I was able to take new actions and develop new solutions, too. This is the power of activism on women's rights – constantly learning, constantly growing and constantly pushing the boundaries of activism in new and creative ways. I think I'll continue to be busy for many years to come.