Editor’s Note: Feminist Conversations is a regular feature, where we talk to feminist activists from across the interwebs to find out what type of pro-choice activism they’re up to. Today we’re talking to Barbara Melrose, one of the founders of the National Network of Abortion Funds.
Barbara was born in Los Angeles in 1928 and attended the public schools and UCLA. At the University of Illinois, Barbara completed a Masters in Communication Disorders and was starting doctoral study, but was thrown out of the program when she married Jay Melrose, a New Yorker and fellow student. Her adviser couldn’t “waste” his time on someone who was “going to stay home and have babies.” When Barbara’s children were in junior high school, she completed a doctorate at the University of Iowa and taught at both the University of Massachusetts and Springfield College.
I was lucky to meet Barbara at the NNAF summit in Denver. Talking to her about her activism was very inspiring. Read her interview and find out what I’m talking about.
1. When was the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts founded, and what was the motivation for starting it?
ARFWM was already established when I joined. Staff at the University’s Health Center grew weary of digging into their own pockets to help students who found themselves pregnant and needed support to get to New York for abortions. Abortion was still illegal in Massachusetts when ARFWM was founded, but it was legal when I joined.
Though I wasn’t a founder of ARFWM, my joining it was a logical extension of other “sociopolitical” work I had done, for example, protesting the Vietnam war early on, when only the hippies and the pastors were standing vigil in downtown Iowa City. I raised the issue of sexism in my professional organization by publishing a paper about the fact that the membership was 85% female but had never had a woman officer. At a national conference, I called attention to racial and gender bias in children’s learning materials by writing on display boxes with magic marker! Incidentally, the woman who did this with me is now president of a prestigious women’s college. At a small college in Massachusetts, I worked with other faculty women to expose gender bias. It was pretty blatant. For example, in the P.E. Department, the men’s locker room had two attendants and all the uniforms and towels were sent to a laundry. The women’s locker room had one attendant, a washer and a dryer!
2. What was the motivation for founding NNAF?
Members of the few Funds of which we were aware at the time, started to feel we should be communicating with and learning from each other. Tom Moss of Cedar Rapids felt very strongly about this and suggested some regular form of written communication. We at ARFWM took Tom’s concern one step further and planned the first meeting of what became NNAF, which was held at the 4H Center in Bethesda, MD.
3. When you look at the state of women’s access to reproductive health care in 2011 and compare it to when your abortion access fund was created, do you think that things are better or worse? What do you think has contributed to that?
Certainly better than the situation before Roe v Wade. However, when I started working with ARFWM, abortion had not become quite the political football it is now. I think the Hyde Amendment brought on increasing “harassment by legislation” in the majority of states. Parental notification laws provide a good example; mandatory counseling and waiting periods are others.
4. If you could meet a famous feminist, past or present, who would it be and why?
That’s a truly hard choice! A professional politico like Bella Abzug? An articulate leader like Steinem? The writers: Simone de Beauvoir? Adrienne Rich? I was fortunate to meet Andrea Dworkin some years ago when she supported the women who, as a result of sexist editorial policies, occupied the offices and shut down the publication of the Daily Collegian at the University of Massachusetts. My daughter was the Women’s Editor at the time, struggling to get out news of significance to women students.
As long as we’re engaged in fantasy, I guess I would like most to meet Sojourner Truth, for her eloquence and for her courage.
5. When you’re not busy advocating for women’s health, how do you spend your free time?
I’m still exploring Seattle‘s museums, galleries, shores and gardens after moving here two years ago from Amherst, Massachusetts. I’m a film buff. I participate in an exercise group. I read and I write–primarily memoirs and poetry. And I’m about to start a writing group based on the work of Pat Schneider, who wrote “Writing Alone and with Others.” A full life– given that I’m 82 years old!
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.