How we won abortion rights

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In 1970, Washington became the first and only state to legalize abortion through a popular vote, three years before Roe v. Wade. African American Attorney Nina Harding was a pioneer in the fight, which was initiated by women of color in the antipoverty programs along with Radical Women (RW) and the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP). Below are excerpts of her interview with Linda Averill about the story behind the victory.

Averill: What was it like organizing early on for abortion rights?

Harding: In my era, people rarely spoke about sexual conduct. The cultural mores were that women were not supposed to enjoy sex. As women our role was to “service” men.

In terms of our role as African American women, abortion was never on the Black civil rights agenda led by the church under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, and women were not viewed as part of the vanguard. Angela Davis was the only articulate African American woman voice with respect to the issue of abortion.

My role was significant given the storm that I, as an African American woman, had come through alone.

At that time, in the Seattle area, there were only welfare women who were visible and vocal on the issue of abortion. I think I was the only young woman activist. I had one child, was a working woman and full-time student who was coming out of a very hostile and abusive marriage.

To raise the issue of abortion was viewed as not being supportive of the Black struggle. The reality is that the brothers discarded sisters by saying that “when all Black people are free, then sisters will be free.”

I was a pioneer on the issue of abortion. The women who did not get scalded as much as I did by brothers were older more seasoned women who were divorced and had a style of kicking ass and taking names.

As an African American woman, it was storming the Bastille alone because the issues of abortion, equal pay, childcare, equal educational opportunities were viewed as white women’s issues. Black women were to march in step with brothers, and that step was strictly “civil rights” as defined by Dr. King.

Averill: How did you get from there to winning abortion?

Harding: It took almost two to three years of protracted struggle.

In Seattle, the struggle was led by white radicals, FSP and Radical Women. I joined Clara Fraser and Gloria Martin, who founded Radical Women in 1967. In those days abortion was identified as a “criminal act.” I had recently had an abortion using a clothes hanger.

The clothes hanger that conservative feminists use as a symbol for abortion is in reality my symbol. It is the clothes hanger that I used on a sign promoting abortion at a rally at the state Capitol. I then added other items that I had found in my Margaret Mead literature that women used throughout the years to perform an abortion — knitting needles, crochet hooks, and rusty needles. I entitled my sign “Tools of the Trade.”

Ms. Fraser had seen a small article in the newspaper where a bill was introduced in the state legislature by Rep. Joel Pritchard on abortion and it had died in committee. She encouraged Pritchard to reintroduce it in the next session and he did.

Gloria Martin organized the women from the Central Area Motivation Program and Clara Fraser organized the women from the Seattle Opportunities Program. Both of these programs were a part of the Seattle antipoverty movement.

I rarely participated in marches or a demonstration, but we women of color boarded four or five buses and besieged the state Capitol rotunda. The building security barred us from picketing and entering the rotunda. They did not expect to see all these working class and poor white women in the rotunda.

My “Tools of the Trade” sign and I were picked up on the AP and UPI wire services mostly because the media thought it was damn funny. The commentator noted that pregnancy is always a woman’s fault, so he asked me what we women were protesting about. I responded, “We are here to change the horse and buggy laws of Washington state.”

My mom had seen me at home on the news in Massachusetts. I caught hell from my family, my church, and the brothers in the community.

I will never forget all of my wonderful days with Clara and Gloria and all of the significant gains for all women that we achieved. We simply had the chutzpah and did it.

What pains me is that we, African American women of color advocating abortion rights as a woman’s personal choice, were set aside by conservative feminists as not being “ladylike” and invisible. When we gained the victory of abortion rights in Washington state, the conservatives not only claimed the victory but also took my coat hanger symbol for abortion and claimed it as their symbol.

Averill: As a woman of color, what was your experience before abortion was legal?

Harding: We knew through the underground market of an abortion clinic in a downtown business building. When I got to the clinic, I was the only woman of color there. The nurse told us, “I’ve already pre-selected those women who are going to be granted an abortion.” I was not one of them.

So, in spite of the fact that I had the money for the abortion and an abortion option was available, even if it was “criminal,” abortion was still not available to women of color. It was a race-based and class-based decision. Those women from the suburbs were economically secure and far better off than women from the inner city.

My abortion was performed with a clothes hanger.

Averill: Why do you think we’ve lost so many rights and what is your advice to regain them?

Harding: To this day, women do not have an Equal Rights Amendment in the Constitution because our conservative white women colleagues have never seen themselves as sisters in the struggle with women of color or feminists and poor white women.

When you look at the panoply of color, all the ethnic groups of women, it encompasses a lot of cultural mores and religious influences that must be weaved together in order to have a common denominator cloth of women’s issues.

If women today do not fight for rights that my generation gave up our lives and careers for, you will truly lose them. Women should be bonded by our gender. Together we must organize and fight to retain our victories and gain more victories to achieve equality.

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