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Oct. 31, 2022

The Politics of Reproductive Rights in 1960s & 1970s New York

Prior to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, much of the focus of reproductive rights organizing in the US was done in the states, and nowhere was that more effective than in New York, where leftist feminists in groups like Redstockings and more mainstream activists in groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) together pushed the state legislature to enact the most liberal abortion law in the country by early 1970. The wide range of reproductive rights activism in New York also included the headquarters for both the Clergy Consultation Service, which helped women find safe abortion care, and the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA), which fought the often deceptive population control inflicted on women of color. 

Joining me to help us understand more about the push for reproductive rights in New York in the 1960s and 1970s is Dr. Felicia Kornbluh, a Professor of History and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Vermont, and the author of the upcoming book, A Woman's Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is “Betty Friedan, president of the National Organization for Women, tells reporters in the New York State Assembly lobby of the groups intention to ‘put sex into section I of the New York constitution,’” Albany New York, 1967, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-DIG-ppmsca-83073].


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.

On today's episode, we're discussing reproductive rights organizing in the United States, especially in New York State. Prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Constitution conferred the right to abortion. In 1827, New York State first criminalized abortion with abortions before quickening, or when the fetus can first be felt, deemed a misdemeanor, and abortions post-quickening, a felony. By 1845 women in New York could be imprisoned for up to a year for obtaining an abortion. Of course, even with the restrictions, women continued to seek abortions in New York. Famously, Ann Trow Lohman, better known throughout the country as Madame Restell, or the Wickedest Woman in New York, operated as an abortion provider in New York City in the mid 19th century, earning a fortune despite facing repeated legal challenges. She was eventually taken down in 1873 by Anthony Comstock, whom we discussed in more detail in our episode on Mary Ware Dennett. In New York, there was one exception to the abortion restriction. As was the case in many other states, abortions were legal, if necessary to protect the life of the mother. Also, like in other states, women with connections or wealth, especially white women, were more likely to find a doctor willing to say the abortion was necessary. Poor women of color were disproportionately likelier to die as a result of illegal abortions. By the early 1960s, activists and legislators started to push for things to change. New York Assemblyman Percy E. Sutton introduced the first bill designed to loosen the restriction on abortion in 1965. But the assembly never seriously considered it. 

One group in New York chose to help save women's lives by connecting them with reputable abortion providers and negotiating the fees to be accessible. That group, surprisingly, was made up of clergy. On May 22, 1967, a piece in The New York Times stated, "21 Protestant ministers and Rabbis in New York City have announced the establishment of a Clergymen's Consultation Service on Abortion to assist women seeking abortions." The spokesperson for the group was Reverend Howard Moody of Judson Memorial Church, which served as the headquarters for the organization. Church administrator Arlene Carmen served as administrator for the CCS, setting up a rotation of on-call clergy and operating the answering machine for the service. Carmen also went undercover posing as a pregnant woman to check out some of the providers. Eventually, the CCS went national, with clergy members across the country, operating local chapters. In the six years of its existence, the CCS referred an estimated half million women for abortions, including to providers in England and Puerto Rico when the women could afford to travel. New York saw continued attempts at legislative reform. Activists protested that the reform efforts didn't go far enough. But even those were defeated in the legislature. 

In March 1969, a New York City based group called the Red Stockings, which had previously protested at the legislature, decided to hold what was essentially a legislative hearing of their own, with what they called the real experts, hosting an abortion speak-out at Washington Square Methodist Church. Twelve brave women spoke about their abortions to a crowd of 300, possibly the first time American women had discussed abortions in a public forum. One woman who testified said that in her attempt to find a legal hospital abortion, the tenth hospital she visited agreed with a condition. "They'd do it if I agreed to get sterilized. I was 20 years old." 

Publicity and consciousness raising was part of the battle. But it took additional tactics and activists to change the law. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and partner organizations lobbied their legislators, published pamphlets, and demonstrated to legislators the political will of their constituents. Finally, in 1970, democratic Assemblyman Franz S. Leichter and his Republican colleague, Constance E. Cook, a vice president of NOW-New York, wrote legislation debated in the state legislature. In March 1970, the State Senate passed their bill 31 to 26. It then went to the State Assembly, where democrat George M. Michaels, who represented a very Roman Catholic District, changed his vote at the last moment, saying, "I fully appreciate that this is the termination of my political career." He was right. But the bill passed and was signed into law by Republican governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, making abortion legal in New York, up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. New York wasn't the first state to decriminalize abortion. But unlike Hawaii, New York did not include a residency requirement. And it's estimated that more than 60% of the women who sought abortions in New York in the following years came from out of state. 

After abortion was decriminalized in New York, the Clergy Consultation Service opened an abortion clinic to make the procedure more accessible and less intimidating, partnering with Dr. Hale Harvey. The other branches of the CCS throughout the country started to refer women to the CCS clinic, which was called Women's Services. One of the goals of the clinic was to make abortions as affordable as possible. When they first opened, they charged $200 for an abortion, below market rate, but still a hefty fee. Within a year, they reduced the fee to $125. And for one in four patients who couldn't afford the higher fee, they were charged only $25. The existence of Women's Services kept competitor clinics from being able to raise their fees too high. 

The decriminalization of abortion in New York and the right to end a pregnancy was only one step in a larger push for reproductive rights. At the same time that the Red Stockings and NOW were organizing for abortion rights, Puerto Rican physician Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias was organizing in New York City for the rights of women of color to have children. In the 1970s, she co-founded the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, or CESA, which pushed for stricter regulations around sterilization of women, which had been used as a form of population control, especially targeting Puerto Ricans in the archipelago and Black women, Latinas and Native Americans on the mainland. CESA focused first on New York City and then found federal success when the Carter administration published federal guidelines around sterilization in November 1978, including a minimum age and a 30 day waiting period.

Joining me now to help us understand more about the push for reproductive rights in New York in the 1960s and 70s is Dr. Felicia Kornbluh, a Professor of History and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at the University of Vermont, and the author of the upcoming book, A Woman's Life is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice. 

Welcome, Felicia, thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  10:48  
I'm just thrilled.

Kelly Therese Pollock  10:50  
So I love this book, we're gonna talk about some, I wanted to ask a little bit if you could talk about sort of the the personal inspiration for how you got started on writing this particular book.

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  11:03  
Yes, this is a it's a political project, an historical project. But it also is a personal project. And I have two ways into the story. One is through my mother, and one is through someone who was our long term next door neighbor in New York City in the 1980s. So my mother, as I found out, very sadly, after she died, or really after she had a stroke, you know, which, which meant that ultimately, she was going to die soon. My mother was the original author of the bill that decriminalized abortion in New York State. And actually, the draft that my mother wrote, at the end of 1968, was much more ambitious than the bill that was ultimately passed in New York, in the spring of 1970, 3 years before Roe v. Wade. And so, like, my mother's bill was more ambitious than what New York did. But what New York did was more ambitious than what anybody else in the United States had done by that point. So, so New York became by far the leader, in terms of providing legal access to abortion care in the United States and was really instrumental in leading the Supreme Court to rule the way it did in Roe v. Wade. So, we have my mom being kind of the radical outlier. And then New York being being less radical than that, but still pretty much of a radical outlier in that period. So that whole story I got access to because I was thinking about my mother's role. And then I'll just say briefly, our next door neighbor was this amazing person, who is a totally unsung hero of modern women's history and reproductive rights history in Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias. She was a Puerto Rican woman doctor, who was the co founder of the movement against sterilization abuse, which was really a reproductive rights movement, that, that I think historians need to embrace and chronicle more fully than we ever have before. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  13:05  
Yeah. And so you bring all these together in this story that is about, of course, the term reproductive justice wasn't a term then, but it is essentially about that. Can you talk about why why you decided to sort of put these two threads together into one history?

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  13:24  
Well, I think it's both a product of my historian sense of what was going on and this period, so we're talking about the late 60s, into the 70s. And then I follow it out a little bit into the 80s and 90s, and today at the very end. So it's my historian sense about what was really relevant then. But it's also my contemporary sort of gender studies sense about the politics today, that there's a tension today, or there's often a tension between what we call a reproductive rights approach, which really focuses on abortion and access to abortion, which is critically necessary, right? And what's sometimes called a reproductive justice approach, which says, yes, of course, we need access to abortion care. But if we're really going to have reproductive rights, we need a much larger menu of things that would really allow people to choose when and whether to have children. So what my mom helps me understand is the historical roots of the reproductive rights kind of abortion-centered politics, and some of the reasons that that she and many others were so passionate about that why that was so important, and of course, still is. And what Dr. Rodriguez Trias helps me understand is the roots and the significance of this, this broader, more encompassing, more challenging approach which says, yes, we need the right to not have children. We also need the right to have children. And that might mean you know, asking the government to provide us with many more rights beyond the right to access abortion care.

Kelly Therese Pollock  15:04  
Yeah, so let's follow up on this, this thread of the forced sterilizations because I think it's so interesting to think through why on the one hand, reproductive rights activist wanted sterilization to be easier, less complicated to get. But on the other hand, people, communities who were experiencing forced sterilizations or, you know, sterilizations they didn't even know were happening to them, would want to make it harder, would want the government to be more involved in sort of setting limits on how that could work. So can you talk through a little bit that that tension? And what that sort of brings up about these different approaches?

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  15:41  
Yeah, I just kept thinking in writing the book, like, boy is this a perfect example of what intersectional feminism and intersectional history is all about? Like, and the gains that we get the gain in perspective, the gain in understanding that we get from what we call an intersectional perspective. So right, we have people like my mom, who I absolutely revere, right, I loved, I loved my mom and I, and I revere the work she did, and that that other activists did. And for them, reproductive rights meant gaining access to the full menu of options as they understood it. And they they primarily meant birth control, reliable, safe birth control, contraception, and access to abortion care, but they also meant and there was a little bit of a even a social movement organizing around this, access to the option of sterilization, you know, a surgery or an another procedure that would allow you to, to kind of not worry about getting pregnant for the rest of your life, vasectomy for men, or sterilization surgery for for a woman. So they were seeking those options. But for women of color and women coming from a left of center, working class or socialist kind of perspective, what they were focused on was the fact that sterilization was often being offered to communities of color and working class communities, by by medical authorities, or by government authorities, who were saying things like, you know, you're a welfare recipient, and we don't want you to be getting any more welfare. So we're going to either force you to or coerce you, you know, encourage you to have a sterilization surgery so that the government doesn't have to pay for your kids, right. Or it was being used in Puerto Rico, where women weren't given the full menu of reproductive options, they were only in many cases, given the option of sterilization. And so you wind up with, you know, adult women on the island of Puerto Rico have the highest rates of sterilization in the world, something like 35% at the high point. So, and these two groups didn't talk to each other. And white middle class women, like my mom, just didn't understand this at all right, they had no idea that there was a reproductive rights or justice agenda that was different for women of color, for Puerto Rican women, for Black women in the South, for working many working class white women, they just had no idea. And the only way that they ever would have had such an idea was if they really worked collaboratively with these women, and they really talked to them and found out what their experiences were in their communities. And that started to happen in the later 1970s. But in the late 60s and early 70s, before Roe v. Wade, there was no such dialogue. So so white women who were pursuing abortion rights, never never understood the other side of it.

Kelly Therese Pollock  18:38  
So I want to ask a little bit about your your sources and your methods, because you've got a mix, of course, of written materials, oral histories, and then just some stuff you you sort of know from from your own personal background. Could you talk a little bit about sort of how you took all of these pieces and synthesized them into one narrative?

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  19:00  
It was not that easy. I think, you know, it never is. There's a reason that historians take longer, you know, between research phase and writing phase than scholars in any other field. That's that's actually a research finding. The other thing is that, of course, COVID shaped the whole project. So I love doing interviews. I love oral history interviews. I have a background as a journalist, but I relied on interviews way more than I would have otherwise, because the archives were closed. Yeah. I mean, I think it's a very nice mix of sources. And I was able, because I've done these interviews, I was able to include a lot of the interesting and spicy language that people use when they're talking about their own lives. I think that's often more interesting than the way people talk in the memos and court cases that you find in typical archives. But I'll just admit in a moment of transparency, that part of the reason I have those sources is because I couldn't get into many of the traditional archives. So there's that, you know, and then once I saw what I had; I was able to get a lot of paper sources. I mean, thank God for the Schlesinger Library, I'll just do a shout out to them. Because they, they were closed, but the librarians there worked so hard to scan 1000s and 1000s of pages for me and other scholars who are doing women's history work and gender history work. You know, they really have a profound commitment. So I did have some of those paper sources. And I had my interview sources. And I had some interview sources that other people had done, like political scientist, David Garrow, who's written on in this area, and who let me use his own private oral history sources. And so what I tried to do in each chapter was to give a sense of where my mother and Helen were located, you know, since they were my two main protagonists and my kind of entree points into the story, where they were located at each moment, you know. And with the development of reproductive rights and justice over time, and then to have a blend of more traditional paper sources, whether that's, you know, court cases, or organizational memos and records of that kind. And the oral history sources, whether it's my oral history sources, or or Garrow's or some of the ones that they hold at the Schlesinger. So I tried to blend that all the way through and to, and to keep to keep carrying Helen and my mother also through as characters to the greatest degree possible.

Kelly Therese Pollock  21:34  
Yeah, yeah, I, it works really well. So you know, it's unfortunate we had COVID. But it does, the interviews work really well. So I'm glad that they're, that they were part of it. I want to talk some about religion and the role of both religious organizations, but also individual religious actors in this history, because it's so it's so important, sort of both sides, how everything works out. So could you talk some about that the religious actors that you were looking at, and the the role that they played?

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  22:10  
It's so important. Yeah. So there, there's one whole chapter of the book about the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. And I revisited in the epilogue a little bit. And that was very important to me, because I think that there hasn't been enough work done on the Clergy Consultation Service and their very important role in helping people access abortion in the pre Roe v. Wade period. And even in a pre New York State, you know, change of the law period. And what they represent is a faith-based movement for reproductive rights. And, you know, usually when we look back, we think that there were faith-based movements that were going the other way, and faith-based movements that ultimately created a modern pro-life movement, right, and its victories. But I think it's too easy to forget that there also was a faith-based movement on the other side that helped change the law in New York State. And then once the law did change in New York State, they helped bring people to New York, because New York was the most liberal abortion jurisdiction in the United States, and it had no residency requirements. So suddenly, the clergy all over the country, could help people get to New York, and they could get a safe, legal, relatively affordable abortion procedure if they could get there. So it was very, very important for me to tell that story. And, and also to tell it somewhat critically, you know, they were operating from religious bases, mostly liberal, Protestant, and Jewish aegis, for the Clergy Consultation Service. However, it wasn't like these people thought that, you know, that, that the religious institutions they were operating inside of were great. You know, they also they were critical of, of mainstream mainline Protestantism, and they were, they were often critical of their, their synagogues, and national Jewish organizations. And they also did advocacy there, you know, to try and to try and change their perspective on women's rights, and on access to reproductive rights. In fact, there was this woman who was, who was Jewish by, by origin, but she was working as the church administrator of the key church that was the sponsor for the Clergy Consultation Service, Judson Memorial, in Grewich Village, and she said that what this movement was about was, was what people thought the church should be, or should be doing the real the quote, unquote, real church, or the real synagogue, if it was really doing it's doing its job and being a moral beacon in the world. And I just want people to think about that, you know, what, you know, what, what might we be called to do? If we really thought, you know, that our that our politics had to express our deepest moral beliefs and that we weren't, you know, those of us who who are practicing religiously, you know, if we didn't keep that inside the confines of the religious institution, but we're bringing that fully into the world. We, you know, what would that look like? What would that call us to do?

Kelly Therese Pollock  25:08  
Yeah no, it's so interesting. And it's, it's fascinating that so much of what's going on in the late '60s, early '70s, in opposition to abortion is in the Catholic Church. You know, we think so much now of sort of evangelical Protestants as being sort of the the people leading the charge on that, but that was not so much the case, then it was really the Catholic Church, that was the the group opposing abortion. 

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  25:31  
Yeah, I think it's very important to remember that, that, that even the Southern Baptist Convention was pro-choice up until sometime in the 1970s. And also that within within American Catholicism, there was enormous debate and dissent. Right. And I think what I think one of the one of the kind of lost things in 20th century American history that I think we need to pay more attention to, is that there, there was a great liberal Catholic moment, under Vatican Two, it wasn't like, it wasn't like, you know, the Catholic hierarchy ever thought that abortion was great, or whatever. But they thought that there were other priorities that might be more important, like addressing poverty, you know, and addressing injustice. And, and they and, and there were many lay Catholics and even some, some people in the hierarchy who said, you know, let's just let's leave this alone, this this issue of abortion or reproductive rights, and let the government do what it's going to do, and then let people of faith do what they're gonna do according to their faith. You know, but this is not an area that we need to be legislating around.

Kelly Therese Pollock  26:37  
So I was really struck in reading this, you know, I, as someone born in the late '70s, my view has always sort of been shaped by well, Roe happened and like that was it that just changed everything and not a real sense of sort of what what came before that, you know, what, what led to Roe happening in the first place. What I appreciated so much about what you do here is show the the importance of all the activism that is happening, of all the organizing that is happening, leading up to that, that it's not just like a court case happens and boom, everything changes, but there's an actual process to get there. So let's talk a little bit about the this what's happening in New York, how that momentum is building to decriminalize abortion in New York in the late '60s, and how that then eventually gets to this legal judicial framework that ends up changing the status of abortion in the country.

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  27:36  
Yeah, it's a little bit tricky, because if you just look at the opinion in Roe v. Wade, it appears that to a large degree, it appears that it's, you know, it's the result of judicial reasoning. And, of course, there was judicial reasoning, like, I don't want to discount that. And there was an understanding of what the court's own precedence, you know, had done, how they had led to that point. But what I'm trying to show is that there also was activism that was percolating, and that actually shows up in a lot of key areas. So for example, in Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackman relies a lot on changing medical opinion and changing opinion within the public health community. And you know, it's important to Supreme Court justices, if they're going to change their mind about something or change policy in a significant way, they want to say, oh, we're changing this because, you know, facts on the ground have changed or scientific understanding has changed, right.

Kelly Therese Pollock  28:29  
It used to be important to the Supreme Court.

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  28:31  
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. You know, if you look at some of the big, the big liberal opinions, the big ones that expanded people's rights. Yeah, I don't know, I don't know what they're, I can't speak to the contemporary majority. But so Blackman relies a lot on for example, the American Medical Association. Well, why does the American Medical Association change its view on abortion? Largely because of this fight that's happening in New York. There's there's open overt lobbying of the AMA. There is a civil disobedience action in the national meeting of the AMA when it comes to New York City in July of 1969, I guess, before the before New York state changes its law in 1970. Right. And also, after New York changes its law, there's so many doctors in New York, that the AMA is really worried that there's going to be a conflict between the AMA's what was at that time a really strict anti-abortion policy and the fact that New York had just liberalized its law. And so they perceived there was this tension between the New York law and what it allowed, versus what the AMA canon of ethics and you know, AMA standards, allowed or permitted doctors to do. And they didn't want doctors to be running afoul of medical ethics while they were following the law in New York. And so they changed their understanding of medical ethics and because they made that change, Justice Blackman then, you know, shows up at Roe v. Wade, and he's like, oh, the AMA has recently changed its policy, and has had now has a much more liberal approach. You know, and that's just one, one example. But it was also true of the American Public Health Association, and the New York law itself, which allowed a legal abortion for any cause, up until the 24th week of pregnancy. And that's not, that's not the entire length of a pregnancy. But it's roughly that first two trimesters period, which is the period that Roe v. Wade also allows, and echoes. So you really see all these ways in which an intense grassroots fight that achieved legislative change and achieved change in these different professional societies and all of that, sort of came up from the grassroots, and ultimately shapes the decision and the opinion that comes down from the United States Supreme Court.

Kelly Therese Pollock  31:00  
And so as part of this activism, and you point out several places where this happens, there's a lot of both inside and outside organizing, and sometimes that's very literal, like inside the room and outside the room. But it happens sort of all over the place. And it feels like that's important, not just to the history, but also to the sort of future and what, what activists might want to continue to do. And that happens both in the abortion activism, but also in in things like the anti-sterilization movement. So can you talk a little bit about that, sort of where that comes up that inside-outside organizing, and how these things are really working in concert?

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  31:42  
Yeah, I think I think of that as an incredibly important historical point, and also, one for contemporary politics and future politics. It really does seem like it required activism in the streets, you know, which changed public opinion. You know, for example, around abortion, there were radical feminists, who were shouting down legislators, who were breaking up meetings, you know, and, and those, historians have done an okay job of remembering them and putting them into the historical record. But there also were all these people like my mother, who then translated that change in public opinion and translated that that energy that was coming up into actual legislative text, and we need them too write, we need both. I don't think that that my mom and other members of the National Organization for Women would have been able to do it alone. But I also don't think that the radical feminists who were shouting down, the legislators would have been able to do it alone. And similarly, you know, I look at these very important successes that the anti-sterilization movement had, you know, that they were able first to change the way New York City's public hospitals ran things. And then they were able to pass a law in the New York City Council. And ultimately, they got the federal government to change its policy, based on their victory in New York. And they were doing the same thing, right. They were inside the public hospital bureaucracy, and kind of haggling it out, you know, hashing it out with these elite doctors who were like, don't take away our autonomy to, you know, to sterilize people, when we want to sterilize people. Like they were in the room, fighting it out, it's probably really boring. Really frustrating. And they were outside organizing Puerto Rican community members and Black community members to, you know, to have protests, to be allowed to storm meetings sometimes, to testify, right? And what what the people who were involved in that movement, remember is that they needed those strategies, they needed them all, even if it was the same people, essentially, you know, they needed to be working in both ways. And that's how they had these amazing successes.

Kelly Therese Pollock  33:58  
Yeah, I think another key to the success, of course, is just the sheer amount of time and work that went into all of this. You talked, I think, when you're talking about, when you're talking about CARASA, you know, just the length of these meetings, how often they had to meet to get things done. Can you talk a little bit about sort of how, how much work it takes, but also sort of how that affects who can who can do this work? Who is even available to do this kind of work? 

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  34:29  
Yeah, so I end the main part of the book discussing this very extraordinary reproductive rights organization called CARASA, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, and I end with them because they are the ones who sort of start to bring these two wings of the movement together, right. They're deeply committed to abortion rights and abortion access, but they also keep their eye on the fight against sterilization abuse. So they, you know, they understand the agenda of white middle class women and also the agenda of of everybody else, you could say. So, you know, they were fantastic. A lot of the people who became the most prominent activists in CARASA were graduate students. And, you know, some of them are now famous women's studies, professors, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, professors of medicine. And some of them actually told me, you know, I had to step away from CARASA for a while, because otherwise I was never going to finish my dissertation. You know, Atina Grossman is a historian of Weimar and Nazi Germany was very important in this in this movement. I mean, God bless her for being willing to spend as much time as she did. But it was because she was a funded graduate student, essentially, she was able to do some of this work. And, and that was true for many people. And then there were others who said, you know, I was deeply committed, I did all this work, and then I needed to go to law school so that I could have a career, because I wasn't going to, you know, I wasn't going to have a full time career doing this. So I think, I think it does speak to some of the some of the class dimensions. But I think it's also generational, like, part of the problem was that when some of these folks needed to step away, in order to, you know, make more money and move on with their careers, or their family lives, if they had other kinds of obligations to kids, partners, parents, etc, ideally, there would have been another generation up behind them, you know, to do the work, and there really wasn't. And I guess that would have been my generation, you know, I was in high school, and then college in the 1980s. And it was the, the conservative climate of the 1980s, and we weren't there to follow in their footsteps, at least not not to the degree that would have really kept that movement being really robust, you know. Of course, what there was in the '80s was there was a women of color, feminist movement, actually, a whole bunch of women of color, feminist movements, plural, that arose. And, you know, and there too, people took a lot of risks, they took a lot of time out from other obligations in their lives. And what I what I kind of show in the epilogue is that the women of color reproductive rights movement was really only to become, able to become self sustainable, when it received a significant amount of foundation funding, and when and when there was a real investment, not just in taking on this particular issue at this particular moment, but in doing organizational development, for groups like Sister Song, which is now the most readily identified reproductive justice movement, which is a women of color movement in the US. So I think your your question, you know, kind of goes both ways. It's about people at what time you know, what period in their lives are they at? And what's their class background? Can they rely on some family resources or their graduate school resources? And you know, and also, you know, if we're committed to this kind of work, if institutions are committed to this kind of work, then is the funding going to be made available from from the nonprofit sector, the the foundation sector or somebody like that? Because that seems like that was really essential.

Kelly Therese Pollock  38:17  
Yeah. So we've started to touch on this already, but you're talking a lot about coalitions and coalition building and how important that is, and it's interesting to see in these different movements, sort of who does and doesn't come together and to try to work on these issues. Can you talk a little bit about that piece, about the importance of coalitions and really sort of the the downsides of coalitions and how they can sort of fall apart?

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  38:48  
It was, it was absolutely important. So if you look, for example, at the biggest win, that the anti-sterilization movement had, when they when they went to the federal government, they didn't pass a law. Interestingly, they got the Federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which is now HHS, where they got it to change its regulations so that all of the medical institutions in the United States that relied on that agency for funding or for certification or anything like that, that they would all have to comply. And they would all have to have these rigorous guidelines for when you're, when someone can have a sterilization procedure, so that people wouldn't be pushed into it, right. So that's a huge win. And they were able to do that because they were building on, you know, where things were at in the Puerto Rican movement, and where things were at in the Black movement. And where things were at, were at in Indigenous communities, because there's there's also a crisis in the Indian Health Service that was well documented. And they were building on the left, which was pretty robust in the 1970s. The socialist feminist left in particular, groups like CARASA, and they had many, many allies across the country. And with that they were able even to overcome opposition from Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women because Planned Parenthood and NOW were were, you know, were worried that if they if they made it harder for people to get sterilizations, that that would diminish people's reproductive rights. So you have this big coalition, and then you have its opponents, and some of the traditional more elite feminist organizations, and the big coalition wins. They win kind of hands down. Right, it's it winds up actually being a an easy victory for them. And that's because they're bringing all these different people together, all of whom are deeply committed to this issue. There also were some members of that group CARASA who who said that the coalitions weren't enough, where particularly I, I interviewed Sarah Schulman, who later became a well known activist with the AIDS group ACT UP. And I had an oral history interview that I was able to access from, from Maxine Wolf, who also was an important member of ACT UP. So they started in CARASA, but then later, they became became critically important AIDS activists. So they their perspective was coalitions are great. But if people have a kind of a thin commitment to the issue, if it's a coalition that's built on a thin commitment, then that's not going to carry the day, you need a coalition where people are fully invested. And so what they saw happening in CARASA, was that there was a small core of people who were deeply committed. And then there was this coalitional politics, that was not kind of deeply rooted, you know, people didn't feel like it was a do or die issue for them. And so they tried to do something different. They learned from that. And they tried to do something different in ACT UP, where instead of doing a coalition politics, it was a, it was a group, not a formal membership group, but an activist group of people who were affected themselves. So ACT UP is sort of the anti-CARASA, in their view. So you know, those are two different models. If you have a really robust coalition and people are deeply committed, it seems like you can win a lot. But if you have a kind of a thin coalition, where people are saying, oh, yeah, I kind of believe in that, but it's not really my issue. You know, then then it seems like that can that can dissipate and fall apart, too easily. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:25  
Yeah. As you started writing this, of course, you knew reproductive rights were in danger. That that's been obvious for a while, but it was, of course, before the SCOTUS ruling. So can we talk some about, and this is kind of where you go, in the epilogue, about kind of how we can use this this history as sort of a plan for the future, a sort of roadmap for where activists in this space, can look for inspiration, the lessons that they can draw from that past?

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  42:59  
When I started the book I had, I had what I think of as a very, I don't know, very obvious legal history or socio-legal history kind of approach, which was, you know, we overemphasize what happens in the Supreme Court, right, and then we have to look elsewhere. That's, we say that all the time in legal history or in socio-legal history, right. But we don't want to we don't want to spend all of our attention looking at what happens in the federal courts. But I had no idea the degree to which we were going to have to look elsewhere, other than the federal courts, right. I knew that the federal courts were somewhat inimical to women's rights and reproductive rights. But but the the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health opinion, was a surprise, even to me, right, that, that it was a blanket overturning and, and the degree of kind of hostility that was expressed toward women's rights and toward the whole body of liberty-oriented jurisprudence and politics of the past 50-plus years, right. So I think it just really confirmed me, in that, in that starting point understanding that if we focus on the federal courts and think that there's going to be some savior there, or even if we focus on the federal courts, and we're like, Oh, my God, there's so terrible, you know, like, that's really unproductive, right? Nothing could be less productive at this point, as far as I'm concerned. But I think the I think the book does offer some, some guidelines, something in the way of a roadmap, because it shows how, when there was when there was a time when nobody anticipated that this was going to be a federal court matter, right. Nobody saw the Supreme Court quote, unquote, bailing them out as one of my interviewees said, right if you were an activist in the trenches on this issue, you just you you never never thought that the Supreme Court was going to take this up, and was going to provide a kind of charter of liberties the way the way they did, in arguably in Roe v. Wade. So I think that that these people who were, who were building from the bottom up, offer us a lot of a lot of guidance and some hope, because they were able to win enormous, enormous victories, both on reproductive rights and the campaign against sterilization abuse, against huge odds. You know, this was not on anybody's radar, even in New York, which we think of as being so liberal now, New York had one of the earliest anti-abortion statutes in the United States from 1830. And, you know, and one of the most draconian, you know, and people really thought for a period of time that they were going to need a constitutional amendment in New York, to change its law, because they tried and tried and tried, and they couldn't do it. And it was only when they started organizing, and they started creating a real women's movement where people were able to come forward and say, these are my rights, this is my life, right, and I'm fighting on my own behalf. And it was only when that happened, that they were able to change things. And once they did do that, it changed incredibly fast. So I know that people all over the country are fighting these very, very difficult battles right now. But I want to be able to say that historically, it has been possible for people to make what seemed like impossible changes in a very rapid period of time. And you know, same thing with the sterilization stuff, it had been going on for so long, right? The the legacy of eugenics from the early part of the 20th century, the policies that shift in the in the middle part of the 20th century, toward, you know, all these people who were who were recipients of public aid who are being coerced into sterilization, people on the island of Puerto Rico and on reservations. And once it comes to light, and people come forward, and they say this is unacceptable, and they put some muscle behind it, they win very, very fast and very decisively.

Kelly Therese Pollock  47:06  
People can pre order the book now, it's not yet out. And we haven't even told a so many of the stories about the Young Lords and Betty Friedan and all these other people who show up in the book. So people should go ahead and preorder. So how can they do that?

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  47:21  
Well, they can just go to their favorite online bookseller, and look for A Woman's Life is a Human Life. And they should be able to order a paper copy or Kindle version or whatever they, whatever they prefer. And you can also read some some endorsements from some of the wonderful scholars who've been generously supporting the book and a little summary of the book as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  47:46  
Yeah, I'll put a link in the show notes too so people can find it that way. Was there anything else that you wanted to make sure we talked about?

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh  47:55  
I think I just want to end by saying that this is really, to me, this is really, it's scholarly work. It's also heart work, you know. And for me, it's it's been the most fulfilling kind of scholarly project that I could ever have taken on. And I, I feel such a debt to my mother and to Dr. Rodriguez Trias and to all the people I interviewed for doing the work they did. And the ones I interviewed for giving me the time that they gave me. And I don't know what I'm going to do next. But for me, this is the, this is the kind of historical praxis that I want to be engaged in, you know, that's connecting the past and the present, giving the past its due as historians like to do, but at the same time, you know, understanding all the ways in which it's connected to our contemporary challenges. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  48:48  
Yeah. Well, thank you so much for writing this book, and for speaking with me today.

Teddy  48:55  
Thank you. Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode at To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or our used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History. Or on Facebook at Unsung History Podcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


Felicia KornbluhProfile Photo

Felicia Kornbluh

Felicia Kornbluh is Professor of History and of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Vermont. She is the author of The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America and coauthor of Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective.