The Community of Hope

The Community of Hope

There was something deeply profound to the conversation I had with Jane Pincus, Karen Weinstein and Mary E. Summers who directed the film 'Abortion and Women's Rights 1970'—52 years ago. With the recent decision by the Supreme Court to override Roe v Wade, a sudden halt came to the unified progress of society, and more proof calcified the reality that white men in power, by and large, don’t really care about the livelihood or wellbeing of anyone but themselves. I was deeply emotional during the call, sadly weary from the struggles of fighting for decades myself, and I found solace in the words and reflections of Jane, Karen and Mary for the lives that they had lived, but also their sincere dedication to goodness, kindness and fairness. Though the three of them had different perspectives on the past and future, they remained all different kinds of hopeful. This is one of the most meaningful conversations I’ve ever had in my life. I’m grateful for the work of these women, and so many others, who have come before me to pave the way, who realise there’s nothing more fulfilling than devoting to the work to make a better world. -Fariha Róisín
Violet Issue: Violet Book Issue 18
Published: 2022/12/17
Updated: 2023/04/27
Fariha Róisín

Fariha Róisín: Let’s start with feminism in the 70s. What was it like being raised and radicalised at that time?

Jane Pincus: What happened was that the women who had been in political groups, like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and other political groups, decided that at some point they were [going to] get together and talk about their lives. A lot of middle class women all throughout Boston—who had never really spoken about how they lived their days, how much they helped in various offices, and how many papers they had to mimeograph, and really questioned what was their role [in society]. So they started to question their roles in their work lives, in their home lives, in their sexual lives. They began to get together. It was an amazing time to live through. It was as though there was something in the air, almost like a tonic in the air that enabled women finally to get together.

At first, I remember meeting in small groups and then eventually the groups gelled into working groups or personal groups. I was in what I call the personal group of ten women and also in a workgroup, which became the basis for the book 'Our Bodies, Ourselves', which came out of that second group… [For how I got involved in making the film,] my husband was a filmmaker, [working at the MIT film lab]. I wanted to make a film about abortion, because I'd heard on the radio women talking about how they'd had to go and get abortions in Mexico, fly to England, and what their lives were like. I heard them talking at a legislative session in Boston where the male legislators didn't seem to understand the trials [women] had gone through. So I was interested in making a film about abortion, the [actual] issue.

And [a few of us] got together and decided to do the film over a period of a year. There was nothing to stop us from saying exactly what we wanted to say. None of us were filmmakers, we were using a box camera, which we had to wind up. We used MIT's resources, their film labs, their film stock.

Karen Weinstein: So I think we all came from different directions. I had been involved in political work when I was an undergraduate. After school, I really wanted to just do political work. I didn't want to be doing anything else. I went to Cambridge because there was an organization there called Newsreel that was helping to get films out about the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, which was [so] predominant then. We also lived collectively, we worked collectively and it seemed like everything was important. I mean, who washed the dishes, who did the work, who made the films, etc. What I think I became aware of was that there were actually no films at that time that were being made about women. So that was something that bothered me, and the women who lived in the house were beginning to talk to each other about the women's movement having a voice [because] we were not being heard.

And so, I started thinking, well, I [want to] work on something that gives women a voice. And I found out about this film.

[A few years before] I had had an illegal abortion, and it was a fairly traumatic one. I was blindfolded in a locked room, but that was just part of it. I didn't know who the person doing it was—I didn't know if it was a doctor, a nurse— [The way I got there] was through an underground of women saying if you need an abortion to go to so and so. So we have that in the film. Part of it was calling people you didn't know and saying, ‘Can you do an abortion?’

I think because there was so much shame and stigma at that time, I put [that experience] somewhere in the back [of my mind]. I didn't really think about it. Then I became involved in this film and, you know, actually some of those memories did emerge. I was very happy to be working with other women who were making a film about abortion and reproductive rights. For myself at that time, I looked at abortion from a larger perspective—we were fighting for civil rights. We were fighting poverty, we were doing all sorts of things and women's rights was one part of that.

Mary Summers: I had been active in the civil rights and anti-war movement basically since high school, but college was very transformative because of the Harvard Strike of 1969. That experience continued to drive me, as well as seeing Bread and Roses, the women's collective of Boston, come speak on campus and people starting to talk about what was the role of the women's movement in relation to SDS, the anti-war, the civil rights movement. I did get more and more interested in the issues that the women's movement was raising, while at the same time feeling really strongly [that] I wanted to hold on to the civil rights and the anti-war movement. We have to change the broader society, not just get focused on trying to make things better for women in the world as it is.

I also had gotten very interested in film... A grad student who was teaching a seminar I was in [told] me that he knew of a group of women making this film and gave me Jane's name and number. It was one of the interesting things about working on the film [that] we were all in very different kinds of places in our lives but also getting to work together and talk through the different kinds of issues involved in the film.

Thank you so much for this context. I couldn't help but wonder what compelled the three of you to make a film like this, especially, you know, when Karen—you're saying, there were not a lot of films about women that existed during this time. I think it's amazing that there is a perspective outside of just your own that you were wanting to encapsulate. So I guess I am really curious, what radicalised you individually? Was it your upbringing? Was it a family member? What made you consider women's rights, civil rights? How were you empowered?

Jane: At some point, I think most of us were beginning to feel that there was something really wrong with the world, and that if you acted, you could make a difference and help make it right. I was part of the civil rights movement in that I went on marches, sang the songs, which were fantastic. Whatever there was in my family that created the desire in me to do all that was a feeling, I guess, that wrongs needed to be righted. And there were different groups out there to do that. I was even a part of a counselling group for men who didn't [want to] go into the army.

Karen: I would say that it was my mother, who was in the Women's March for Peace back then, and she was also very involved in Democratic Party politics. So I was always taken to Democratic conventions, Democratic meetings, and started to see, via my mother's struggle for leadership, that it was a challenge for women to go into political office. She very much encouraged me just to do what I needed to do to make things better. [Her work] was a little bit more in terms of the Democratic Party, and I was a little bit more to the left of that, but the encouragement was there. She gave me enough encouragement so that I felt like I could go on the path [where] I wanted to go.


Still from the film Abortion and Women's Rights 1970.

I have often struggled to feel that people in my generation and especially around the time that I was growing up in the 90s, where capitalism had sort of overtaken any kind of political consciousness, so I didn't grow up in a time where protesting was necessarily cool. There was a punk kind of aesthetic of like, ‘fuck the system’, but there wasn't really sort of an initiation that I feel like all three of you had that kind of encouraged you to go down this path. And to me, I'm trying to understand how we can bring people back to that. How can we encourage people?

Karen, you mentioned shame, and I think the idea of shame is really important. So how do you contend with your own shame?

Karen: Well that's a really good question. When I had the abortion, I didn't want anybody to know and was very isolated. I think I felt a certain amount of—I won't say stupidity—but like, why didn't I take care of myself? And quite frankly, back at that time, I would have to say I was pretty uneducated. I know it's different today, but birth control was not easy to get. I don't think that I went to Planned Parenthood until after the abortion. So I was having sex and doing the best I could, I guess. When I became pregnant, it all made it real. I think there is a way that you can separate yourself from sex in a certain way and from the consequences of sex particularly. My family certainly didn't have money. I knew that I wanted to go to college, so I just kept things very, very private.

I will say that shame for me is a sensitive issue. I can fall into it fairly quickly. I still struggle with it. I internally fight with it and push myself when a lot of times I really don't want to. Shame definitely isolates women, it stops women from talking to other women.

Jane: There were two women's conferences in Vermont, which were very exciting and very interesting for me. The most memorable event was a panel of women aged from teenager to 88 years old—women from each decade, standing in a row, each one talking about the abortion that she'd had. That stays in my mind as an image of what we could do now, is to talk together in a unified way, in some kind of systematic way about our lives. And [about] what's happening. On the other hand, I find that the atmosphere these days is really scary. And I don't really know how one deals with that when publicly talking about (abortion) is still risky.

I guess that's what I'm doing with the three of you. I'm asking for your guidance and your wisdom, but also your heart and your story and, and what you've been through on your journey and your life, and what brought you here, because I think that we’ve lost that shared wisdom across generations. The overwhelming feeling that I had watching the film was just that we're still there. Everything that you're talking about is still relevant 52 years later.

And how are we getting back here? Why are we back here? And I think it is about shame. I think it is about, uh, societal shame. It's about the ways in which we weaponise women's bodies against them, still. And I think that is a system that we ourselves perpetuate because of our shame and the shame that we feel about our bodies and about what we are told about our bodies. As intelligent and learned as you can be, you still are in this trap, in this weird trap, and it’s so hard to extricate yourself. So I'm genuinely curious about how you have all individually processed and synthesised that for yourselves.

Mary: A movement that calls itself ‘right to life,’ but is clearly not very interested in life… They see abortion as a way to move people to the Right on a whole variety of issues that are not life-affirming. So they've seized on this issue trying to promote shame. They've obviously captured a lot of hearts and minds of well-meaning people. [We have seen the results of that] the ways in which Donald Trump made an agreement that if people elected him president, he would appoint Supreme Court justices that would absolutely rule against abortion rights.

When I got an abortion in the 1980s, it was traumatic only ... because the personal relationships involved were traumatic. I went to a clinic, and the counsellors were great. The procedure was very straightforward. This was in Cleveland. Now in the whole state of Ohio, women are having to leave the state to get an abortion. All those clinics have been closed down by this (anti-abortion) movement. We made a lot of progress and that progress got reversed. So we just have to take whatever platforms we can to say, ‘Yes, I had an abortion. It was really important to me. We still need to have access to abortion.’ Women are now speaking out much more about their abortions. Partly because they [used to think,] ‘Oh, the courts have taken care of this for us.’ And that's clearly not true anymore.


Still from the film Abortion and Women's Rights 1970.


Still from the film Abortion and Women's Rights 1970.

So what are the things then that you're looking to as touch points that make you feel hopeful?

Mary: A lot of what we won in the 60s and 70s was during a period of increasing economic equality in the US in a way that we have not seen since those decades after World War II. They helped nurture these anti-poverty/civil rights/women's movements. [Since the 1980s it has been harder to connect abortion rights to] these broader issues. I don't at all want to be critical of the people who fought so hard to preserve women's rights and abortion rights in the courts, but now it's clear that wasn't enough. We need to build broader movements. We need to connect these issues. There’s hope that we can. Who would've guessed that Bernie Sanders could have as much impact as he [has]?

Karen: We've moved from this [right to life movement] to really not wanting women to have control over their lives in any way, and that's what we're seeing in the states that are not allowing abortion from the time of conception and all sorts of things. It is not just an abortion issue anymore. It is an issue of, I believe, a certain amount of hatred towards women, and the desire to keep them under control. I personally have not heard this kind of dislike, anger, hatred, lack of respect for women's lives that I am hearing now. And so, while I agree with you that there is a larger issue of, let's say healthcare for all—and a number of different issues that are coming up with free college and all sorts of things—I don't think that we can move away from the fact that there is an underlying disrespect, anger, and hatred towards women. And that's something that's a harder issue to deal with.

Jane: I feel that we are lucky now and that we understand better than we did—at least I do—the underpinnings of our society and the forces that are really actively working against humanity, humanness, fertility, joy, equality, all of those forces...


Jane: In a way we rode the wave and the wave is crashing. [W]e were lucky to live through those 50 years of feeling like you could make a difference. At the same time, as soon as the backlash began with 1980s Reagan and grew and grew until finally the opponents of abortion could focus on that one element that would really endanger women's lives. [They made] it bigger than we are, in a way. I look at it like waves and they're now coming down. But what I hear from you is a kind of despair and all I can think of is for women to get together and really tell their stories.

The other thing is that I'm not sure you can change the mind of individual people, but I think we have to learn our history. I think, in other words, there were women working for pro-choice, for abortions to be legal, before they became legal. I didn't even know about that until I began learning our history. And there are always people working for what is right and what is good. And we have to be those people who incarnate what we believe in and give each other hope when sometimes we feel there is no hope, because if we look through history, that's always happened. There have been times where that has been difficult, when people have enabled each other to be free, or to hope, or to live different lives. I don't have a huge amount of hope, but I know that there's a lot of work to be done and that maybe we can find joy in the work that needs to be done. I don't know if that's optimistic or pessimistic. [W]e have to be brave and just keep on doing the good work we need to do anyway.


Still from the film Abortion and Women's Rights 1970.


Still from the film Abortion and Women's Rights 1970.

How do you keep going when you feel exhausted?

Karen: I think about this intermittently because I have cancer… And there are times when I feel like [with] the work that I'm doing, which is a lot of political and a lot of Democratic [party] work, I feel exhausted. Probably no more exhausted than anybody else, but, because in the back of my brain, I know about the cancer, every once in a while, I just say, ‘Rest, you have got to rest.’ And that helps tremendously because I think most of us are driven to keep doing the work to do whatever you can.

I'm [also] somebody that when Kansas happened [voting for abortion rights], I was running around the house. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that's Kansas, I never expected Kansas to do that.’ You know? And I was beside myself. I didn't know what to do. I was like, ‘Oh my God, there is hope.’ And, you know, I was watching [the] news and stuff and there was a picture of a woman who had this poster that said: ‘Don't mess with Texas women’. And it's like, wow! That helps me to keep going.

Mary: When you live as long as we all have, you do learn how to take breaks. If you really [want to] keep doing this, you have to find ways of doing it that sustain you. I think back in the day when every demonstration, every meeting was [so important]. Now [I think] maybe I'm not going to make that much difference at that demonstration. If I want to stay home and take a nap, I do it.

I came from a family with a father who was a conscientious objector during World War II. Before I saw myself as an organiser, I was much more alienated from people [at college]. [But once I started to] knock on people's doors and ask them to sign petitions, then I was looking for ‘what's our common ground,’ you know? And I was really interested in what they [thought].

Figuring out where you have common ground and how you can use that common ground… to change people's ideas and move forward. And where you find support and ways of enjoying your life and a sense of life is worth living. That makes it possible to be part of the struggle.

Karen: I try to help in any election that I think could make a difference for people's lives. And that's where a good amount of my time goes. And sometimes it seems very productive and other times it just seems… nothing is changing. But I speak wherever I can. I have a good relationship with Planned Parenthood locally. They've been very supportive. I will talk to anybody.

Jane: I'm an artist and I believe in works of the imagination. That’s where I've put a lot of my time… ever since I stopped really working and writing [on] women's health issues. I co-wrote and co-edited the book, 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' for at least nine of its editions. The radical ideas that we felt no compunction writing about at first got filtered out through more useful medical information, which is good, but I had to live through my disappointment about the radical statements being fewer. It went through many transitions in its politics. I don't know if anyone's ever really documented them at all, but if you have a chance to read the first newsprint editions, it's just full of passion, full of politics—radical politics. And then as time grew on, as women gained more information, then we were writing the book in its various editions to learn from women's increasing knowledge… That became part of the book that grew organically, because it was never meant to be a book. Like our film it was meant to start a discussion, a political discussion. And as it went on, it began to bring in more and more groups of women who learned as they lived their lives, and who could come back to us and say, ‘This is what we [want to] say’. That's how the book grew over 50 years.


Jane: It was really exciting.

Wow. Well, I mean, so much of revolution is about reimagining the future and dreaming about the future. So making art is such important work! So, in that spirit, what is the future that you are hoping for and dreaming for and imagining?

Jane: I don't know how better to say this but the most important thing when I run into difficulties, the most important thing I'm asking of myself, is to feel love and hope. That love emanates from me and can help change somebody else, possibly. So I'm optimistic and pessimistic, but always hoping.

Mary: When I say I'm the optimistic one, I think it's mainly that I keep seeing things I can do that could potentially make a difference and that seem meaningful. And I realise how much I owe and how deeply I've been shaped, not just by my parents and their friends, but by the people who [were] my parents' teachers. I typically go to a church online most Sundays where my brother is a sort of radical Episcopal priest… I feel sustained by [the language and stories of] people who have been fighting for justice, greater justice and equality, and to take care of each other for generations. I feel that [those connections] have sustained me in my life and that those kinds of traditions continue to sustain people even in the most horrible circumstances, far worse than any I've lived in.

Karen: I can't say that I don't know that the United States and the world won't get more horrible… Everything people have said about reasons why things could be going in that direction is clearly true. But I do feel very lucky to have been sustained by people who have done their best to resist racism and war and exploitative relationships in all their forms and to promote solidarity in community in as many ways as they could. So, that's the piece that I do think will continue whether or not ‘good’ wins. I'm not convinced the arc of the universe bends toward justice... I know we [have to] fight real hard to try, but I don't think there's anything automatic about that.

I'm aware we spoke very little about women's anger today. I suspect that it is often easier for women to be angry for others, for those we see being oppressed, than for ourselves. I know that after my illegal abortion, which I was lucky to survive, particularly when so many women of colour and poor white women lost their lives, it took a little while to realise how angry I was and to realise that women did not have to tolerate this oppression. Working on the film, 'Abortion and Women's Rights 1970', hearing about other women's experiences, understanding that restricting women from making their own decisions about their lives was an essential part of restricting women's freedom. And that restriction could not be tolerated. I'm sure my early experience with an illegal abortion influenced the anger that I feel now and fuels the strength to continue to fight. That anger which is pushing women to stand up for reproductive rights—that anger will not go away. When basic rights are taken away, that anger will not go away. That anger fuels the fight for women's freedom, and thankfully, it will not go away.

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