Carol Downer

“My actions have been rooted in my personal experiences.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, October 2021

[Edited transcript, April 2022]

CD:  I live in Los Angeles, in the Eagle Rock neighborhood, for people who are familiar with Los Angeles. I was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma in 1933. My birthday is October 9th. In a couple of days, I’ll be 88 years of age.

JW:  Tell us a little about your life before you got involved in women’s health and the women’s movement.

CD:  During the Great Depression, from when I was two years old to when I was ten years old, my parents moved from Oklahoma to California and back several times. We first lived in Glendale, California, in an upstairs apartment in a Spanish-style building which surrounded a courtyard. My Dad worked as a clerk at the Gas Company, even though he had taught accounting at his parents’ business college. 

Then, when I was three or four, my mother separated from my father, and moved with me back to live with her parents in the village of Dale for a year or two. I believe my brother, Don, was born there. My grandmother, Sarah, my grandfather, Joe Willie, and my young Uncle Frank and Aunt Virginia, took care of me and my brother while my Mom worked as a secretary during the week in Tecumseh.

We lived next to the post office where my Grandmother was the postmistress. I and my neighbor friend, Wilma Dean, roamed around the village, playing with our friends. Mom came home on the weekends. On Mondays, I ran after her and cried until she disappeared from sight around the corner on her way to catch the bus which stopped at the gas station on the interstate highway.    

When I was five, my parents reunited, and we moved to nearby Shawnee, where my paternal grandparents owned and ran a business college. Shawnee, a small town, had grown up around a trading post serving the needs of indigenous tribes and the drivers of passing herds of cattle on their way from Texas to St. Louis via the Shawnee Trail. It now has huge grain silos. We lived at the outskirts of town on a plot of land which we called “the acreage.”  My father tried to raise chickens there. 

I started school in a two-room schoolhouse. I was the only one in the first grade. I sat by the door in the larger room which housed grades 1 through 6. The teacher assigned a third-grade boy to teach me to read. Other than reading and practicing my writing, I sat and listened in on the other grades’ lectures. During this time, I had the measles. I was kept in bed for days in a dark room to protect my eyes. My mother, Nell, read a chapter each day to me from the book, Hopalong Cassidy.

My sister, Thea, was born there. She died six weeks later, due to an unclosed heart valve. She was a “blue baby.” Today, this condition can be corrected surgically. (At her funeral in the cemetery outside Dale, I watched my composed and all-wise mother collapse in cries of grief on Thea’s grave. People carried her to the car.)    

Having never lived on a farm, Dad’s baby chicks often died, sometimes in droves and his venture ultimately failed. Then we moved back to California, and lived for short periods of time in a series of places, first in Santa Maria for a few months, and then in or near Glendale.  Finally, we bought the house where I finished elementary school and attended junior and senior high school in Glendale.     

In elementary school, the other kids mimicked me when I called the teacher “ma’am.” I was the lone “Okie” in the suburban school. In junior high school, my home economics teacher questioned me on whether I had breakfast. My mother came to the school in a rage to tell them that what she fed me was her business. Although I was skinny for my age and very pale-skinned, my daily bowl of oatmeal was probably a more nutritious breakfast than that of my classmates. My mother served us mostly vegetables, including lots of greens and we didn’t eat desserts.      

I did go back to Oklahoma for extended visits a couple of more times. When my mom was pregnant, she took us back to Oklahoma before, during and after giving birth. In other words, to have it delivered in her mother’s home with the family doctor and my grandma in attendance. Sometimes, my aunts were there at the same time to give birth. When my second brother, Harry, was a day or so old, my aunt also gave birth to my cousin, Jimmy in the other bedroom. It was just the way my Mom’s family functioned as far as childbirth was concerned.

Over the years my grandma had delivered other babies of relatives and neighbors. I was told that years before, she had attended her sister-in-law’s birth in the cave she lived in down near the river. But, when I was born in Shawnee, the family called the family doctor. Years later, Mom described his usual procedure. He came after labor was advanced, then he used chloroform at the last minute, giving the birthing mom a little whiff on a soaked handkerchief to dull the pain of the last few big pushes.

Basically, it was a natural, mostly non-interfered-with childbirth compared to today’s births in hospitals. And it was in the home setting. This same family doctor delivered my brothers and cousins. My mom nursed all of us. After Harry was born, she took Don and Harry back to California, while I stayed in Oklahoma several months to finish the school year. The school in Dale served the surrounding rural area. The students who lived on farms were bussed in.

JW:  How many siblings do you have?

CD:  I had three brothers and a sister, who died at about six weeks of age. I was the elder sister and I used my age to my maximum advantage. But I also was expected to, because as I got older and my mom worked, she needed me to help out. I had to boss my brothers sometimes because I was left in charge. For example, during high school, I was in complete charge of the household during one summer. 

JW:  Were you able to go to school?

CD:  Yes, the school curriculum was always about a year or so ahead in Oklahoma. Whenever I came back to California, they often considered advancing me, but they didn’t. And I’m glad, because my birthday fell in such a way that I was one of the younger ones in class, and I was also a tiny little kid. In my adolescence I caught up, and I grew to the average height. But throughout most of my childhood, I was very small compared to my classmates. 

My family was not active in politics, however my grandparents on both sides of my family were active in their communities. My father’s side of the family were Republicans. My grandfather and grandmother had a business college in the small town that drew students from the surrounding farms; in fact, my mother met my father when she went to their college to become a secretary.

My other side of the family were Democrats. My grandma was the postmistress in the village, called Dale, and every day my grandfather carried the big sack of mail a few blocks to the railroad tracks and hung it on a tall stanchion, so that the engineer could slow down just enough to reach out with a long pole and grab it. During the second World War, I accompanied him, and carloads of soldiers smiled and waved at me as they passed.  

I went between those two environments, and I vastly preferred being in Oklahoma. As a child, I was just swallowed up in this big city. I didn’t have the same freedom to run around, and it was no fun. I really did not have that great of a social life in my elementary school years in California. But, I became a super active kid after school once I had my bicycle. 

When I was in the sixth grade, a boy at school would chase me home on his bicycle. I always was able to get home safely, because our house was the last house at the end of a street at the foot of a hill. The last block was all uphill, and he would tire of the game. I schemed how to discourage him. One day, I carried a stick that was a few inches long. I sped up as I left the school, getting a good way ahead of him. Then I stopped, jumped off my bike, and as he got near, I ran over and stuck the stick through his wheel spokes, which threw him and his bike on the ground.    

JW:  I know you have children. Did you have children before you got involved in the women’s movement?

CD:  Oh, yes. I got married and dropped out after my first year at the University of California at Los Angeles to have my first child at nineteen. I had married twice and had six children and was in my mid-thirties when the second wave of feminism came along. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t politically active before that. Actually, I was. I started out first as a Girl Scout mother when Laura was seven years old, and then became a Girl Scout Leader of my own troop when her younger sister, Vickie, became a Brownie. I did that for ten years. 

During this time, I became intensely interested in bussing and racial issues. I lived in an all-white ghetto. (Later, I was able to enroll my younger children in an alternative school in Central Los Angeles that had a diverse student body and was dedicated to anti-racist programming.) I was a Day Camp Director for three years. The last summer, I raised the money to rent busses to daily transport the girls and leaders from the Eagle Rock council and the girls and leaders from the East Los Angeles council to our campsite in the nearby San Gabriel mountains. We had one overnight camp.

One year, I was one of about a dozen volunteer group leaders of “self-selected” clubs of varying sizes. My 8th grade girls were in an innovative program in Pasadena where, one day a week, during school hours, they planned how to use their time and spend their budget for fun, and I used a large van borrowed from the Red Cross, to drive the eight girls who chose to form a club together around Los Angeles to go where they had chosen to go, or to shop for supplies and make the crafts that they needed for their chosen projects.

I was the Chair of the Committee to recall my City Councilman for his initiation of an urban renewal project primarily in the part of his district in East Los Angeles which was predominantly Mexican American. Our committee had a friendly working relationship with others in Watts neighborhood who were being hit by urban renewal on the other side of town.  We joined forces in various actions to protest.    

I was quite active. My second husband, who is now deceased, was of Mexican descent. He and I became active in the Mexican American Political Association. We participated in the anti-war marches, and we had our first experience of being attacked by hundreds of the LA sheriffs in riot gear while resting and being entertained at the Chicano Moratorium in 1968. After I had these tumultuous experiences, I gradually pulled away from my fellow Girl Scout leaders. One of them listened to my report of the violence of the LA sheriffs, and her question was, “Why were you there?” I became much more active in the peace movement and in broader social issues.   

In the late 1960’s there was a certain amount of activity in the feminist movement on campus, but it seemed mostly on the East Coast, as I recall, and I only heard echoes of it. I saw on the television news that the women students at UCLA protested because they didn’t have a women’s health center. They couldn’t get contraceptives. At that time, I was not too sympathetic to them. I thought that they were being very dependent, expecting to be given this; I had kind of a conservative approach to it.

Many feminists say that they were always a feminist. I wasn’t. I was outraged at social injustice, and I was independent and active and had a lot of women friends, but I had not yet experienced sisterhood in the way that I later did when I joined the feminist movement. Of course, having six children, four daughters and two sons, with too little money to live on, I had lots of experiences that were common to working-class women and women of color.

As I said, I dropped out because I became pregnant and I got married. Not an unusual story. It became clear that Wally, my husband, needed to get a college education. He and I just pulled up our sox with our false consciousness of being middle-class. He went almost full-time and worked nights as a cab driver, and I helped him with his homework. I immediately invested my energies into advancing my husband’s career. That was what one did.

Simultaneously, I was idealistic and deplored materialism. I became close friends with several of the mothers at the pre-school child observation activity held at the local playground, where we took our babies and pre-schoolers to play while we observed them and took notes. We then met for an hour or so to study the principles of child psychology while they napped. These sessions were inspirational, and I decided to go back to school also. I enrolled at Los Angeles City College and I loved it.

Then our world fell apart. My husband, Wally, who was an energetic, likable guy became ill. He had liked to burn the candle at both ends. When he was in school, he skipped meals and relied on smoking to keep him going during the day, and then grabbed sleep during the wee hours when the cab company didn’t get many calls. Then, he was hired as a special education teacher, a job he loved and was brilliant at doing.

But, after teaching a year, when he spat up blood, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and we were told that he had to check in at the Veteran’s hospital by nightfall, or he would be subject to being detained in a locked facility. I and my kids were immediately reduced to being on welfare for a year, and when my husband returned home, he was recovering from surgery that took a large part of one of his lungs.

I want to stress that as difficult as it was to be on welfare, we had it better than many, many welfare recipients. We were renting my childhood house from my parents. They didn’t collect rent; my in-laws pitched in with help. His fellow teachers contributed to a fund to supplement our income. Nevertheless, I began to gradually develop a radical political consciousness. I mainly learned that no one survives on welfare without some kind of informal support network or a hustle.

At some point, my night school education kicked in and I came to realize that my false consciousness of my real economic position came from having white privilege. For me, it took having lots of hard knocks.

In retrospect, I came to realize that I was mildly depressed over a period of years. I’d reached the point that I had actually sought out counseling when I was in my late twenties to see if I could be less depressed. I didn’t define it as depression at the time, and my counselor never said the word depression, but that’s exactly what was happening to me. But the counselling was helpful. I had a sympathetic and surprisingly non-sexist counselor, and he did help me.

Later, after separating from my first husband, I became pregnant. Not being sure who the father was at this point, and being determined to end my marriage, I went to another excellent counsellor, and with her help, I decided to have an abortion, and that was not easy to do.

You had to hunt to find an abortionist. It took me several weeks to find someone. It was so hidden and not talked about. And at that time, I had worked awhile at the State Compensation Insurance Fund. I was in a large typing pool. A lot of the women in the typing pool were black, and one of them referred me to a black abortionist who was in the Black business district.  My husband drove me there and waited outside for me.  It was a medically-sound and safe abortion. 

However, it was an excruciatingly painful one, because no anesthetic could be given. You had to be able to get up off that table and run out if you were raided. A week later, I called him at a number he had instructed me him to call. He said, “Well now, here’s what you need to do.  Just put your finger up there, feel around and you’re going to find a little cloth strip, a little strip of tape, and you just grab hold of it as best you can and pull it out. If there’s a lot of bleeding afterwards, call me at this number.” 

After the call, I took my children over to my grandma’s house and went home to get myself situated in the bathtub to do this. And it took me at least a couple of hours, if not more, to pull the yards of stiff and hardened tape through my cervix. Time stood still, really, because it was incredibly painful to take it out and I could only do an inch or so at a time. I had to rest and relax so I could pull out more. It felt like I was pulling out a razor blade. 

The abortion was a very difficult procedure, but it was sound. I recovered. And after I became active in the abortion movement and heard others’ experiences, I realized I probably had one of the better experiences. I was treated respectfully. He didn’t try to come on to me or anything like that. The woman who greeted me was dressed in white like a nurse. It was a vacant office. There was not a stick of furniture in it, except for the table. Years later, having run an abortion clinic for years, I knew he had given me a good abortion.

JW:  What year was that?

CD:  That was 1962. Abortion was a still a long way from being legal. In 1967, which was before I became a feminist, California legalized abortion. I wasn’t aware of it at that time; it didn’t receive the kind of news coverage that abortion legislation now gets, but they passed the Therapeutic Abortion Act. But even when I became a feminist in 1969, abortion was inaccessible. I still didn’t know it was legal, and neither did anyone else. It was not publicized and doctors wouldn’t do it. It was legal. But you had to find a doctor who would do it. That was the biggest part.

As far as getting into the women’s movement, I was having these typical female experiences and reading. I had a friend that lent me a copy of Betty Friedan’s book which was very inspiring. I heard about a NOW meeting that was being held. It was to be held down at 8th and Vermont, at a very large restaurant, in a room where they served banquets for a hundred people or so. It was located in more the big city. My children were old enough to stay home alone together, and my husband, Frank, drove me there and waited for me in the bar. 

Well, I was quite put off by this meeting. For one thing, all the women were professional women. They were there in their suits: this was in ’69. And who was I? I was just a little housewife working part-time in clerical jobs. I thought, what does this have to do with me? None of their issues had anything to do with my life, until they invited newcomers to join a committee. When they came to the abortion committee, I realized, hey, that I know about. I can really work on that one. I was still outraged at the bad experience that I had had, and how hard it was to get it. 

So, I joined the abortion committee. There were only two other people on it. I was the third. But what remarkable people! One was Lana Clarke Phelan who wrote the Abortion Handbook along with Patricia Maginnis who worked up in Northern California. They were leaders, and Lana was a knowledgeable and eloquent speaker. My role was to follow her around as an understudy as a speaker, because we were getting speaking engagements all over town. Groups wanted to know, “What is this about abortion? Why should it be legalized? Isn’t it dangerous?”  So, I was just at her feet, taking notes, learning about the history of abortion and the politics of it.

The other member was Mary Petrinovich. Mary was also active in the environmental movement. She was one of the organizers of the first Earth Day in Los Angeles, which took place at that time. She lived in Riverside and she came in to Los Angeles to participate in the NOW meetings on a monthly basis. She brought women from the University of Riverside who needed abortions. Her husband was a professor.

She invited me over to meet her at this illegal clinic on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was just a little store front; you walked into a little front office, where a receptionist sat in a folding chair behind a small table. Then you walked through the hall straight back, and the tiny procedure room and the other utility rooms are off the hallway. The rear of the building opened to an alley. Across the alley, I was told the police looked down from an apartment on the second floor of the building. The clinic had been busted and the abortionists and their staff were awaiting trial, so we knew about the police presence. We ignored them. 

The committee may have only been three people, but, wow, without realizing it, I had just plugged into both the radical feminist abortion movement and the population control movement in California and even internationally. We were way ahead. The reform movement and feminists in New York was certainly ahead in terms of getting the law changed without the California restrictions.  And women were flocking to New York from everywhere, some being sent by feminist activists around the country.

But we feminists in California had this very revolutionary thing going on. Namely, an illegal abortionist was providing abortion using a new procedure that he claimed to have developed. It was a handheld suction abortion device, consisting of a 50 CC syringe, directly attached to what he termed a “Karman cannula.” The cannula was a narrow, (6 or 8 mm. diameter) flexible plastic, straw-like tube closed at its tip. He made a small opening near the tip through which the pregnancy material was aspirated out. He held the blade at an angle to make a curved edge to the bottom cut, such that when you pulled the cannula back, the curved edge gently scraped the surface of the inner wall of the uterus.

Instead of the procedure using long, metal instruments in the traditional D&C, (dilatation and curettage), the procedure that I and other women usually had, he used this device to directly suction out the material with minimal stretching of the cervical opening by a narrow, flexible cannula. In a D&C, the cervical opening is stretched by inserting a series of smooth metal rods, and this causes intense pain. And, as we could see, it worked effectively, and safely, and it was much less painful.

It was quite revolutionary. My opinion of the man himself, I have to tell you, although he remains a major figure in the history of the abortion movement – he’s famous — was that he was a male chauvinist pig. He was a handsome, charismatic kind of guy. He was real cool in those days when everyone was cool. And he was super cool. 

I didn’t like him whatsoever. But I was very interested in his technique. Also, we appreciated that, in his own way, at his own convenience, he was willing to share the information about how he developed the equipment and how it worked. Therefore, I became involved in his support. As a member of the NOW abortion committee, I organized a large demonstration for him and his co-defendant, Doctor John Gwynne, and I attended community meetings where he spoke about his arrest and his upcoming trial. 

His trial was always getting put off. He called himself Dr. Harvey Karman, and when confronted, he said he had a degree from the University of Geneva. We checked and found out there was no such institution. He had been previously arrested when a woman died from an abortion he performed when he was a UCLA College graduate student. I don’t remember that the death was alleged to be his fault particularly. Otherwise, they would have kept him in jail forever in those days. But he was there for having been involved in it and doing it.

At the time, that gave him some cache right there, his arrest record. And the important thing to us is that Mary referred all these people to him who received good abortions, and he let us hang out. He didn’t give us his special attention or anything. But it was okay if we just sat in the reception room and talked to women and amongst ourselves. There were other women there, like starlets, women in the movie industry with status, who would come and hang around at his clinic. It was just a whole scene, I guess you would call it.

During that time, I would go to the clinic, usually on the weekend. My husband would take the kids to the beach, while I just hung out at the clinic.

It became clear to Mary that by using his device, an early abortion was something that we could learn to do. One day, Mary said, “Carol, why are we out here promoting this guy, when we can do this ourselves? If women were arrested, we wouldn’t have to defend the savior doctor.” I agreed with her. At that point, she and I and a couple of the other women started to do little chores, helping to sterilize, watching abortions, gradually picking up the technology, however, we still had not done any abortions on our own. 

We felt that we needed more people, and although there were a number of women besides Mary and me who showed up who showed interest, we needed some that would be more committed, because at any given time, although there would be maybe four or five of us in the group, it was a constantly changing group. I forget the other members’ names, but Cheryl Libby stands out in my memory. She had led us in an action where we confronted local physicians at a meeting held at a local hospital to sell abortion aspiration machines. 

We stormed the stage and Cheryl read a brief statement while we stood guard by her as her lieutenants so she could speak uninterrupted. She basically said, “Doctors, we’re going to do it ourselves!” But she had some health problems, and she was preparing to relocate to Spain soon. I think anybody who was active in the women’s liberation movement at that time will know what I’m talking about. Things were very loosey-goosey, and that’s how we liked it.

So, we put a notice in Everywoman’s Newspaper that we were going to have a meeting at the Everywoman’s Bookstore in Venice. The article was a vague little notice that we were going to get together and we were going to solve these problems to make abortion accessible. The article mainly consisted of vague and grandiose statements.

Anyway, people got the message. About 30 women showed up on April 7, 1971 to our meeting. We divided up the responsibility to run the meeting. My job was to show the abortion device and explain how it worked. After Mary and others made the introductions and there was a short, general discussion, I pulled out the equipment and described how it worked. I showed how the speculum was used to separate the vaginal wall in order to view the cervix at the back which has an opening to a canal that leads to the uterus.

I described how the operator held the cannula and inserted it into the uterus and sucked out its contents. Looking around at the faces of the women in the group, I could see that I was losing them. They were aghast. Remember, at that time, women were dying of backroom abortions. All women were all facing this ugly situation, and we were scared. Now here comes this woman saying, “And then you push it through, and the fetal material goes out.”

I thought some might not get to my conclusion, because they were practically fainting. It seemed to me that some might think that we were really irresponsible and dangerous, talking about doing this risky, forbidden procedure like it’s no big deal. Then, I remembered how my first view of a female cervix had instantly expanded my consciousness, helping me to realize that the abortion procedure itself was simple and safe, and that it was the law which made women seek out illegal abortion that created dangerous situations.  

I stopped talking about the procedure. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what – I’ll show you.” The bookstore was in a Spanish-style stucco house. Bookshelves were along the wall of the living room and our chairs formed a large circle. There was an arched doorway that led to a dining area where a large, uncluttered desk stood. The bookstore’s owner and the owner of Everywoman’s Newspaper, Varda Murrell, used the area as an office. I happened to be wearing a floor length, lightweight-woolen dress that night. 

I pulled the front up to my waist as I lay back on the desk. The back of the skirt made a covering to lie on. I wasn’t wearing underpants. I started to spread my legs, but at first I couldn’t. Even though I had been using the speculum at home, I had never exposed myself in this way. I slowly parted my legs, convincing myself along the way by thinking that even though it would be very hard to do this at first, it would get easier with practice. 

I put in the speculum and I lay there, still talking a steady stream while opening the speculum and pulled the gooseneck lamp over to shine in my vaginal opening. I had no idea what was going to happen next. Maybe they would think I was an exhibitionist or that this whole meeting was a secret recruitment for some kind of weird stuff.

Anyway, they didn’t think anything like that. Instead, they rushed over and were utterly delighted and fascinated to look at my cervix! Immediately, they were full of questions. The evening just turned into this absolutely incredible experience for all. I shared what little I knew for, I would say, for half an hour, because I don’t think I could do it much longer than that, since having a speculum in usually starts to be uncomfortable. We covered many bases. Someone would say, “Have you had children?” “Oh, yes, six.” I’d explain the cervix and so forth.

I was imparting my knowledge to them, and they shared their knowledge, and suddenly we were creating new knowledge based on our experiences and observation. For example, I said, “Well, you know I have a tipped uterus. You can see that the body or the fundus of my uterus lies back in my abdomen and the cervix sort of tips up. My doctor told me that that’s why I got pregnant so easily.” 

“The woman who was holding the flashlight and looking said, “Oh, really? My doctor said I had a tipped uterus and that’s why I couldn’t get pregnant.” The whole room laughed heartily, and several others shared what their doctors had told them about the angle of their uteruses. We realized how much we’ve been had by these doctors. It was just amazing that our doctors had given us this nonsense, which was really just whatever came in the doctor’s mind, I guess. Talk about old doctor’s tales. 

By the end of the evening, which was full of light-hearted laughter, several women had volunteered to get up and show her cervix. Like one woman said, “Oh, I would really love to do it, but I’m on my period.” The others said, “Oh, please, we want to see what our period looks like when it comes out.” That’s the first time that we had ever thought our period was anything to be welcomed or anything but a smelly mess.” 

By the way, we found out that the menstrual blood comes out a bright red and it’s odorless.  Apparently, it’s when it’s exposed to air it becomes dark and smells bad. It was a total change in how we experienced our bodies. By the end of the evening, we planned to meet the next week. We didn’t want to wait a whole month. And also, women started thinking, “Well gee, what about if you put a little Q-tip in the opening and jiggled it? Would that maybe cause it to irritate? Could it start your period?”

I want to emphasize that we discovered the Self-Help Clinic that night. Neither me nor any of the participants, had any clue that the simple act of one woman sharing her cervix with other women would be so liberating and that it would unleash the delight and creativity that it always does.

JW:  Tell me what menstrual extraction is.

We started thinking creatively. By the way, we never tried that particular Q-tip idea. But that’s an example of how group self-help is a kind of unleashing of female ingenuity. In fact, what we unleashed that evening, as it turned out, was Lorraine Rothman’s inventive genius. She had come in from Orange County, which was about an hour’s drive through heavy traffic to attend this meeting. She showed up at the next meeting with a prototype of a device to extract the menstrual period when it starts or later if it’s a couple of weeks late. 

The prototype was a quart-sized plastic jar with two three-foot long flexible plastic tubes coming out of a rubber stopper. One of the tubes led to a straw-like flexible plastic cannula. The other tube led to a one-way valve and then continued on to a 50cc syringe. We tried using Lorraine’s equipment ourselves, so she could check the length of the tubes. In pumping the syringe to create the suction, the plastic container collapsed in itself. Apparently, the plastic jar was too flexible. 

She took it home to work on it more. We continued making adjustments over the next few weeks, mostly to be sure that the pressure on the syringe would be adequate to suction out a menstrual period, but not so strong as to injure the uterus. Mainly, she substituted a rigid glass jar, because pumping the air out of the collection bottle caused the plastic jar to collapse. Lorraine explained why she included a one-way valve.

Harvey had placed plastic sticks along the sides of the syringe and attached them at its base with a rubber band. As the inner part of the syringe was pulled out, these sticks flared out to brace the syringe in an open position, thus preventing an accidental pushing of the syringe back in, forcing air back into the uterus. 

Lorraine explained, “Using these sticks works okay for Harvey, and probably for any abortionist who’s doing abortions all the time. But it worries me. What if this material, instead of coming out, accidentally got pushed forward and the air was pumped into the uterus? The air could get into the bloodstream as an embolism and possibly cause death.” Lorraine wanted to eliminate the only serious complication of menstrual extraction.

We agreed with Lorraine. She added a collection jar for the material. Karman didn’t need a collection jar, because when he filled up the syringe, he would disconnect the cannula and take the full syringe out and empty it into a basin. Then he’d reattach the syringe to the cannula which was still in place and continue. He would often withdraw and replace several syringes in a procedure. Using the Karman device was quicker. The entire procedure would take only a few minutes.

Using the Del’em, especially with a 4mm cannula and taking breaks, could result in a much slower procedure. The speed or slowness of the procedure was not a major concern for us, however, since the extraction wasn’t that unpleasant. Also, we were not in a hurry. We discussed a name [for the device], but we couldn’t come up with one we liked.

JW:  Tell me more about the self-help part of it.

We met weekly at the bookstore for a few months, but we soon moved to the Women’s Center on Crenshaw Boulevard to hold weekly self-help clinic presentations in a room in the back. From then on, we presented the basic facts about menstrual extraction in each and every presentation of self-examination. We abandoned the idea of opening our own illegal clinic, because at that very time abortion had become available on a limited basis in the Los Angeles area. We would be risking arrest and jail. If we were arrested and tried, we would not be able to justify the decision to challenge the law to the public as coming from dire necessity.

Our original purpose had been to challenge the existing abortion laws. The spontaneous creation of the self-help clinic and the invention of menstrual extraction sent us in a much deeper direction. If females had control of their own fertility without relying on medical professionals, Lana Phelan’s and Patricia Maginnis’ goal of repealing all abortion laws now seemed at least theoretically realizable. 

We had shown that our collective females’ ignorance of our bodies was not rooted in our gender’s prudery or backwardness; it was created and enforced by a male-dominated society’s customs and laws—and this ignorance and lack of the technology had been keeping us down. 

In the next couple of months, some of us traveled up the coast to meet with other feminist groups and to share self-help, and then Lorraine and I drove together up to Washington to visit Dr. Franz Koome. His clinic was famous. After his arrest for doing abortions and his trial and acquittal a couple of years before, the people of Washington voted to pass a referendum legalizing abortion. He still used the D&C method, and we wanted to compare that with the Karman Cannula Method. 

He welcomed us, and he offered to teach Lorraine and me to perform abortions at his clinic as he had done with several clinic staff. He did so. Lorraine performed several, but I was more than happy to do just one. Blindly inserting a foot-long metal instrument into a woman’s uterus terrified me. I managed to follow his instructions well enough to complete the procedure with no problems, but afterwards, I went back to the apartment where we were staying and slept the rest of the day and through the night.  

Doing D&C abortions convinced us that early surgical abortion, even when non-doctors performed them using steel instruments was a safe and simple procedure. We still liked the small flexible cannulas better, however.

We had no trouble convincing the women that came to our self-help presentations that menstrual extraction was safe, and that minimally-trained laywomen could perform menstrual extraction. Lorraine’s invention (which, at our insistence, she patented) guaranteed that the suction could never be reversed, and while more than one person was needed to do the menstrual extraction, it further reduced the skill level of each of the team tremendously.

You needed one person who sits between the woman’s legs to put in the cannula, making sure it doesn’t touch the vaginal walls, keeping the germs on the vaginal walls from being introduced into the uterus in significant amounts. (Remember, however, that the uterus is not a closed cavity and it normally has some bacteria in it. Also, when an infection develops in the uterus after an abortion, the infection comes from retained fetal tissue becoming necrotic; it is easily removed with a repeat procedure). That person then manipulated the cannula by pulling it gently back and forth. 

The person pumping the syringe stands at the woman’s side, and the third person stands on the woman’s other side. The woman holds a mirror while the third person directs a flashlight to illuminate the tubing so the woman can see the material coming out. Each of these functions can be learned quickly, and the woman is an active participant. Her participation is an important element. Since she is not anesthetized either generally or locally, she can feel the cannula when it touches the back wall of her uterus and inform the others.  

We felt a sense of urgency to spread the idea of menstrual extraction past Southern California and the west coast. The increasing public attention to the abortion question gave us the feeling that the Supreme Court was going to be pressured to loosen the abortion laws a bit. Abortion would become somewhat more available. We feared women would become complacent again.

Fortunately, a few months later the opportunity to reach fellow feminists came because hundreds of them came to our doorstep. NOW held its annual national conference in Marina Del Rey, a beach city nearby. We set up a table in the conference exhibit area and invited the attendees who represented the one hundred-plus NOW chapters around the country to come to workshops on how to use a speculum. 

For the next couple of days, we held continuous 1 hour workshops in two hotel rooms and at the end of each always-crowded session, someone would come up and say, “I wish you could come to our community. No one will believe us how great this is!”

After the conference, we decided to tour the country. By then, the women’s health movement had spread across much of the country, we were able to write many of the small health groups who were listed in the women’s newspapers and the hand-outs and pamphlets that were circulating amongst us. We distributed copies of the stapled-together newsprint book by a women’s health group in Boston, Women and Their Bodies. We wrote to the hundred NOW chapters that had come to the conference. 

We were invited to and went to 23 cities, holding self-help clinics for NOW chapters, college groups, health projects and abortion action groups and socialist feminist groups. Lorraine and I boarded a Greyhound Bus at 10:00 pm on October 15, 1972 with several big boxes of speculums loaded in the baggage section, which Lorraine had labelled, toys. Everywhere, we received a wonderful reception. Women put us up in their homes, fed us, and drove us around. 

In Wichita, our first stop, we started out with a formal lecture combined with a self-help presentation which was well-received, however, we realized that people were wanting to hear about the speculum. We subsequently dropped the presentation. Lorraine would immediately set up our portable slide projector and in the semi-darkness, we explained why knowing your own cervix was safe and easy and so liberating. We showed women their cervixes. We gave a quick preview of what they could see and learn. And then we demonstrated self-exam, and offered to show them how to look at their own cervix.

Generally, most or all of the women would take turns. If there were many and we had the room, Lorraine and I would set up two self-exam areas. The sessions were always busy and fun. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously. I think the biggest audience Lorraine and I got was at a meeting held in the auditorium of a college in Rhode Island. It had gotten quite cold, especially for us California girls.

When it came time to demonstrate the self-exam up on the stage, I took off my pants and my long-johns. Once the audience saw my flannel underwear, they cracked up. Believe it or not, the audience came up on stage en masse and each woman filed by to look at my cervix. Little clusters of women took their speculums and set up small self-exam areas on the stage. 

Although many self-help clinics and menstrual extraction groups started up in the wake of our tour and other presentations, many self-help clinics are one-night events, but the most durable and productive results from these groups were the setting up of women’s health centers offering abortion care.   

In 1975, a number of women’s abortion clinics started by self-helps formed a Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers. Later, in 1985, when the Oakland FWHC stepped in and continued the operations of the failing Los Angeles FWHC clinic, the Federation set up an office next to the clinic, and I became its Executive Director for several years.

We’re always asked how many self-help groups or how many menstrual extraction groups there are in the country. We settled on the answer “100,” because that was often a rough count of the number of groups we heard from occasionally. We found that this was both an exaggeration and also an undercount. Self-help groups were constantly breaking up, or transforming themselves into doulas or some practical application like fertility awareness groups.

Later on, females bought our books and gathered their friends or fellow students together. Self-help groups spawned new self-help groups that we never directly heard from.  Occasionally, when we travelling or at conferences, we’d hear of a long-standing group delivering babies in their commune, or groups incorporating a self-help clinic in their project to help each other achieve orgasm or female ejaculation. 

The remarkable thing about self-help clinics is that any group of females can organize themselves without first asking anyone for permission; in fact, that is how it often happens. Over the decades, holding a self-help clinic to learn vaginal self-examination has been the first step in starting a women’s health project, like fitting cervical caps, home birth projects by lay midwives, or feminist health research projects, or menstrual extraction groups. 

Some women’s health movement projects in the Second Wave of women’s liberation weren’t attracted to the self-help philosophy or they were concerned about the safety of menstrual extraction; some were even concerned about the danger of someone overlooking a serious health problem when they did vaginal self-examination. They preferred to pressure the health system to provide health care to underserved populations or to help females become better consumers of medical care. 

We felt that they didn’t see how learning about our bodies in an egalitarian setting was demystifying and transformed us from consumers to being in charge of our own health care.  And, as far as menstrual extraction was concerned, we were very mindful of the dangers, and by working as a group, we sought to minimize the dangers. We knew that the most significant cause of potentially serious problems in aspirating the contents of the uterus arises when the operator fails to recognize a pregnancy that is too far along for the instruments and procedures that are being used. 

Medically trained abortionists, legal or illegal, take measures to be sure they are not dealing with a pregnancy that their experience and equipment are not able to handle. First, they question the patient about her menstrual history and possible symptoms or feelings that go along with early pregnancy, but even more importantly, at least before the invention of the ultrasound machine, since they are dealing with the general public, and since they’ve found that a woman who is further along in her pregnancy and desperate to obtain an abortion will lie about her symptoms, they rely on objective tests first. But even more importantly, at least before the invention of the ultrasound machine, they perform a bimanual pelvic examination wherein they use both hands to feel the size, shape and consistency of the uterus. If they had the test for the urine, they used it.

We generally did menstrual extraction on ourselves and our friends, usually as part of our self-help presentation, so we were familiar with each other’s likelihood of being pregnant. By doing uterine size checks on each other in our small group, we had found that we could accurately predict the stage of pregnancy. If we were going to do a menstrual extraction on someone who was outside this circle of friends and acquaintances, we then did repeated back-up checks until we were sure that the female’s uterus was not large or soft enough for our equipment and our collective experience. 

Once the uterine contents started coming down the tubes, it was obvious whether or not we were dealing with a pregnancy versus a menstrual period. Menstrual material is dark red, thick and gluey, coming very slowly down the tube. The products of conception are a mottled color of lighter and darker pink mixed with watery fluid which move rapidly down the tube. 

After a pregnant menstrual extraction, we followed up closely with the woman getting the procedure. Within the weak, if a woman still had the symptoms of pregnancy, we met again and repeated the procedure. When we found that the procedure was “incomplete,” in other words, the pregnant tissue had not been totally removed and had become infected, we found that if she had an elevated temperature or pelvic tenderness, suctioning out the fetid material took away those symptoms completely. 

And the group keeps in touch with the woman for the next few days to make sure everything’s fine.

JW: Tell me more about the self-help part of it.

The most powerful attack against the idea of groups of lay females taking care of day-to-day reproductive health care matters came soon after Lorraine and I returned from our cross-country tour. I and Colleen Wilson were arrested in 1972 on the charge of “practicing medicine without a license.” Because Collen was soon to apply for her teaching credential, she decided to make a “plea bargain.” She admitted teaching a group participant how to fit a diaphragm (which is no more complicated than trying on different sizes until one fits, like fitting shoes), and she was sentenced to a one-year summary probation. As long as she didn’t get arrested for anything for a year, the charge would be dropped.

Our defense was that I had not “practiced medicine,” I was demonstrating to women how to learn about the normal, health functioning of their sexual and reproductive bodies, and how to maintain their vaginal health, using a home remedy, the insertion of yogurt, to deal with the common problem of yeast overgrowth. I was acquitted. My trial was covered nationally and we received support from the groups that we had visited around the country previously.   

CD: The self-help clinic was a serendipitous discovery, which has proven to be a tremendous source of energy and creativity in the women’s health movement, both in providing the practical and political philosophy used by self-proclaimed self-helpers in establishing and running their projects, and more generally in impacting the daily lives of those who have attended self-help presentations or read our books which are based on our self-help philosophy and the knowledge we’ve acquired doing self-help.  

I’ve had many women come up to me and say, “You changed my life.” And they say it very sincerely. They’re delighted to share that. I recently attended a self-help group in the East Hollywood neighborhood. Going around the room, many participants shared their early experiences with masturbation. In our self-help clinic meetings in the early 70’s, such stories were a rarity, even though the subject of masturbation was a favorite topic. Some mentioned that their mothers had our book, A New View of a Woman’s Body on their bookshelf. Clearly, we’ve had a huge impact.

Once self-helpers learn the basics of doing self-examination in a group setting, they never need to “check in” or coordinate with other self-helpers, it has always been an educated guess about how far the holding of meetings to learn to share group self-examination has spread. However, self-help groups that went on to open thirty state-licensed women-controlled abortion and well-woman clinics after Roe v Wade around the country worked very closely with the established self-help abortion clinics. 

Without any formal association with the Federation, being part of a self-help group has led to many going on to do fantastic things. Self-helpers have pioneered in starting support groups for female reproductive problems, such as endometriosis. People that were involved in such groups started the Endometriosis Association. Women in Santa Cruz used the principles of self-help to train themselves to become lay midwives.

Although our society has become even more individualistic and alienated, self-help lives on in programs, mini-conferences where creative individuals share female health information and offer their services in teaching females about fertility awareness, cervical self-examination, achieving orgasm or ejaculation. These programs are often organized and presented by feminist impresarios. 

We, and the whole Second Wave, accomplished a lot, especially in our focus on getting abortion legalized, but also when it comes to female liberation, through our surge of energy and learning menstrual extraction. All our efforts helped to bring about the Roe v Wade decision, but the story becomes a lot more complicated than that. We in the self-help movement became aware early on that the larger forces we were working with, like Harvey Karman and the powerful people behind him had other goals than we females did. 

Although we wrote articles about the population control movement directed at fellow feminists, we did not openly oppose it. Our self-help movement needed to work with “the establishment,” including non-feminist reform groups, such as medical providers and Planned Parenthood in order to establish and run our 30 women-controlled abortion clinics that the FWHC and other feminist groups started around the country.

Once Roe v Wade legalized abortion, our energies and our struggles shifted to defending our clinics against anti-abortion-inspired governmental investigations, and often violent anti-abortion picketers. Although we continued to spread self-help and even wrote several books over the next decade to pass on the knowledge and information about female reproductive health, the momentum of our efforts to liberate females from the male-dominated medical profession to achieve reproductive sovereignty were reduced greatly. 

Sadly, in these days of neo-liberal economic policies and their devastating impact on the ability of many females to afford to have even one child, the idea of being part of a weekly or monthly self-help group in order to deal with common problems, like vaginal infection, or to control our fertility through observation can seem a quaint luxury.    

I’m going to say this because I think it’s very important for us to realize what brings about social change and what may not.

There was a real movement in this country to liberalize abortion at least ten years prior to the rise of the Second Wave female emancipation movement. I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that the Second Wave made the liberalization of abortion laws happen. I know we kind of felt that way, but I don’t think it did. But definitely it gave that one-two punch to the ever-increasing rain of blows, and it took the demands to the streets, away from the intelligensia, the professionals, because the movement that had existed was mostly clergymen and doctors and lawyers.

They were all committed to just the liberalization of the law, along the lines of the Therapeutic Abortion Acts that states had passed. And even though Roe v Wade said that abortion was between a woman and her doctor, in actual practice, it was the woman’s decision. The doctors were never brought into the picture, other than doing the procedure. I think we can definitely claim that. We said no, this is our choice. And doctors stepped back. So, females can bring about social change by supporting an already-existing trend by protesting en masse

I think that when groups of females started ending unwanted pregnancies on their own, this had the potential to really bring about a change in the balance of power between females and the male-dominated state. 

We started doing menstrual extraction which can be done whether you’re pregnant or not. That’s literally what it is: menstrual extraction. And not only was this Lorraine’s equipment, but she was also very creative and deep thinking about the political ramifications of it, because she felt that this was just bringing on your period. Whether you were pregnant or not and to get rid of that whole dividing line, and that’s what we stuck to. We never did a pregnancy test. 

Once you start doing the procedure, it is very obvious which one you’re dealing with, because if you’re just extracting a non-pregnant menstrual period, it’s dark red and very thick and gummy. Menstrual material is like that. It’s very dense. And it comes out of the tube quite slowly. And then when it goes into the collection, we put it in a bowl of water. Once it got into water, it forms coils, like spaghetti. 

But if you were dealing with an early pregnancy, it came down the tube faster and easier. And it is kind of broken up between whitish or pinkish pieces of tissue and bloody watery material.  At that point, it isn’t hard to figure out that you were dealing with pregnancy, but we do not determine that in advance.

JW:  I think it’s true through history that women just tried to bring on their menses before we understood many biological issues.

CD:  You’re absolutely right, Judy. And we honored that tradition and kept it, to break down what seemed to us as an artificial distinction. It didn’t relate to us. The experience of having a menstrual extraction is a world away from going to a clinic to get an abortion. They are totally different experiences. And in menstrual extraction it’s making sure you have your period. You’re doing it with friends or at least friends of friends. You know these people and it’s not medicated or anything. It’s informal. In fact, in procedures that turned out to be abortions, it was common for everybody to have a nice glass of wine after they were finished.

JW:  When did you stop that activity? That was going on after Roe, right? Into the late ’70s, for sure.

CD:  Well, I want to be clear about our group activities in our homes, and those at our licensed clinic. After Roe v Wade, we started our clinic, calling it the Women’s Choice Clinic. I didn’t personally do much of the hands-on work of starting our clinic in Los Angeles. I was catching up with home responsibilities, because I had been arrested the previous Fall, in 1972 for practicing medicine without a license and I had gone to trial. I did not elect to postpone the trial. You can postpone once, but I said, no, we need to go to trial.

When I say “I,” that’s a bit misleading, because we did this all together, even though I, the defendant, did have the last word in procedural trial decisions. It was a joint activity and everyone participated in the decisions. We decided to get it over with, and I was adjudged to be not guilty by my jury. 

Our attorneys were Jeanette Nolan and Diane Wayne. Wayne was a very new attorney at that time. Later on, Diane became a very prominent attorney in the LA Superior Court. She was one of the leading judges, and she always referred in press interviews to what we called the Yogurt Trial as her main case. And the reason we called it the Yogurt Trial is that is what happened when they raided us.

The search warrant listed the accounts of two occasions where either Colleen Wilson or I had practiced medicine without a license. The night that Collen had led the self-help clinic workshop, a policewoman had come in, pretending to be an attendee. Actually, she was very mild. She did her job. I’m not going to say she didn’t do her job; she didn’t add any lies or any embellishment to it. 

When they came to raid, that was a different story. They went through and they made notes that the kitchen sink was full of dirty dishes, just to make us look stupid and irresponsible. And they also appropriated the food out of the refrigerator. They did so because yogurt had been part of what they had witnessed me doing, that is, putting yogurt into someone’s vagina.  Therefore, they took the yogurt.

And Debi Law, who was a staff member and one of the self-helpers, said, “You can’t take that, that’s my lunch!” On the other occasion cited in their search warrant, I had inserted yogurt into the vagina of one of our clinic regulars who asked me to assist her by inserting yogurt into her vagina for the treatment of a yeast condition. My behavior had been reported to the authorities by a woman who was escorting some teenagers that day.

This was in the fall just a few months before the announcement of the Roe v Wade. At that time, the Women’s Center on Crenshaw Boulevard had moved to Venice to other quarters that they preferred. We stayed, and we occupied both sections of the duplex. We used the two front rooms for general meetings, and an office. We used the back room for conducting our self-help clinics.

This particular time, this woman came with a group of teenagers who wanted to observe how to use a speculum. We demonstrated self-exam and shared the ideas of self-help. It turned out she was an ex-nun, and I guess she was not prepared for what she saw. She must have gotten very upset and reported what we were doing. 

And one of the women came to us and said, would you mind inserting this? I have a yeast condition. And I’ll tell you who this is: Z. Budapest. Z is very well known in the goddess movement, and she considers herself a witch. Anyway, she’s very colorful and very powerful, and she was part of our retinue. She wasn’t actually on the staff. She didn’t have a role, but she was there, a very welcome addition to our group and a very charming person. So that was how yogurt got into the picture – Z used it for her yeast condition. 

I had just been arrested and also Colleen Wilson who was a member of our staff. She was also arrested because the policewoman had attended the self-help clinic that Colleen had conducted. Colleen, at that time, was just about ready to become certified as a teacher. She was in her educational process. It just wasn’t the time for her to be going to trial, so she plea bargained to one count of fitting a diaphragm. That was her crime. And she got summary probation. She didn’t have to go to jail. And it just lasted a year and automatically was off her record. 

I was the one that actually went to trial. I went to trial in December and in January was the Roe v Wade decision. I took a couple of weeks off and that’s when it happened. They legalized abortion. We were not surprised. A lot of people were surprised, but we were not.

And it’s the reason why I really want to talk about the current project that I’m involved in, because my project, the study of population control from a feminist perspective, is a continuation of the one I started over one-half century ago. This guy, Harvey Karman, was a population controller. He may have seemed like a little figure there on the West Coast, and not connected to a larger movement.

But in fact, we came to realize that in his periodic week-long absences from the clinic, he was participating on a national level, doing abortions in a clinic in New York City where the law had recently changed, legalizing abortion. In fact, a few years later, we found out he had been travelling to Bangladesh.

A few years later, there was national coverage of a trip that, Dr. Malcolm Potts, who was his good friend, other Planned Parenthood doctors, and he, went to Bangladesh and provided all these abortions to women with another procedure that was very bad. This super-coil method had caused deaths and some women had to have their uteruses taken out and so forth. He was on a very high level and accepted within the population control movement and highly regarded, especially by the men, because they all admired his prowess with women. 

Our very first encounter was with population control. And that gave us a window into that higher level of political activity that other American feminists, such as ourselves, didn’t have. And we spread the word about it along with spreading information about self-help. Unfortunately, the conservative aspect of our movement has actually joined hands with the population control movement, Planned Parenthood. Which is the official arm of the people who are anti-natalist.

JW:  I didn’t get that connection with Planned Parenthood. Interesting.

CD:  You wouldn’t, Judy, because, as I said, everybody is still taken in by them. They were considered to be the allies. And a lot of people who worked with us or for us in those early times went to work for them and became administrators or higher. Why do you think the black movement accuses the Second Wave of being racist? How can they not, when so many feminists so uncritically teamed up with people that, unbeknownst to them, were going around the world and giving dangerous methods of birth control to women of color. They have a terrible track record and have never been, even today, truly held to account for it. 

The immediate harm they do is to promote the idea of solving the world’s pollution problems and environmental problems by reducing the number of babies, instead of changing industrialization and the use of oil and gas. They worked with a whole laundry list of industrialists, such as Carnegie, Rockefeller.

On the ground, in their actual clinics around the country, they put independent clinics and feminist clinics out of business. Just plain old competition. It goes beyond a political thing. Running clinics and fundraising to keep them open is how they fund themselves. And they have engaged in a lot of unfair competition, which includes using political influence to divert government funding from rival clinics to themselves.

JW:  What’s your project?

CD:  As we speak in my study, I’m sitting right in the middle of the books I’ve read and the notes I’ve written which I hope to synthesize into a book, or series of articles or some YouTubes about how patriarchal societies have used laws and policies to control their populations. An understanding of the twentieth century population control movement underlays all of our strategies, starting with learning about our bodies in order to seize the technology of abortion and challenge the medical profession’s implementation of government’s regulations over female reproduction.

The self-help movement part of this strategy was well received, and other parts of the women’s health movement agreed with our criticism of the male-dominated medical profession. But the more conservative parts of our movement were leery of what we were doing, especially menstrual extraction. But our opposition to the population control movement did not go over; we did not have the same success getting that message out.

Females seem to find it hard to believe that their womb is government’s target of both liberals and conservatives. But, that’s my project. And since I’ve been home now, thanks to the pandemic, with books and reading and so forth, I have expanded my analysis from what we had. 

I’ve come to suspect that patriarchal rule and control of female sexuality may have been established primarily to control female reproduction. When I say the word patriarchy, this kind of separates me and the self-help movement from many of the women’s health movement folks, because we believe that there is a patriarchy. Yes, many feminists acknowledge that there’s patriarchal practices that are obviously anti-woman. But the idea that our societies are organized as a patriarchy just to control population strains their credulity. They just can’t quite picture it.

I think we do have a patriarchy. And until we unravel the history of it’s founding, we’re not going to get very far on anything else. We didn’t always have a patriarchy. It has a beginning; Gerda Lerner very well researched it. And it took several thousand years to get entrenched, and, over the millennia, with the conquest of less patriarchal cultures, it spread.

It didn’t happen overnight, but today it’s very powerful, even as females have been allowed to participate more outside the home. And men are as much victims of it as women in a different sense. Just look at trans-women and how they get murdered. Men are just as oppressed by this gender domination. Anyway, I found that population control has existed throughout patriarchy’s history. It’s the main point of it, in fact.

I found a book written in 1905. I have a copy here, and it’s not even in print anymore. The author was an academic and it’s put out by one of the major universities and quotes all very approved anthropological studies of this time, showing that marriage, for example, is maybe one of the first population control policies the States had enshrined in the law. 

Nearly always, the main point was to get women producing babies. On the most elementary level, they wanted to produce soldiers and laborers. So that’s where I’m starting. But believe me, my reading has taken me afield, and it has led me to see that for the last forty years, anti-natalist governments’ most successful population control policy is called neoliberalism, an economic policy. These policies were instituted by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in 1980 and they spread around the world. 

Leftist economists have documented how these economic policies have shifted wealth of our society that was divided up among the many in the lower classes up to the few in the ruling class. These economists generally don’t see how this has impacted female reproductive choices. It means that even so-called middle-class women can’t afford to have children. Females today have to plan and save for years in order to even have one child. Some feminists have seen the reproductive repercussions, and Michel Foucault, a philosopher and historian, realized how governments, by using policies, such as neoliberalism, could manipulate the population. He called it biopower.

JW:  How do you think your involvement before the second wave and during the second wave shaped your life?

CD:  It just set me on a whole different course. I changed very deeply. It is a very private kind of thing for me to think about. But basically, being a young housewife with several small children, circumstances pushed me to change. I mentioned I was mildly depressed. I went to counselling, which helped somewhat. However, I just kept on being this nice woman, who was polite and helpful and constructive and involved in the community. I was continuing my education in night school. 

Finally, I sank deeper and deeper into this depression until I was just in very bad shape. And thank goodness, there was an upsurge of feminism going on around me. At some point, it clicked. One huge click. I realized that if I didn’t take some action, I was going down. I pictured myself getting diabetes, just being overwhelmed by everything to the point of being immobilized. 

I started fighting and I came out fighting and not all that wisely at first. In fact, sometimes very unwisely. But it didn’t matter as long as I was changing. And when I say that I was going down before my epiphany, I had become what popular psychology books call a codependent. Remember, I said I was disapproving of those women at UCLA? I was very judgmental. I would pick up the newspaper and read some terrible thing and think, gosh, how can that person do that? Some murder or arson. It would be a mystery to me, how anyone could ever be like that. How could they set that huge fire? I think we’ve all had those feelings, at times. 

The “click” I’m referring to was that I suddenly “got” how normal, good people can, in desperation, if they are not allowed to thrive and grow and contribute in society, go the other way. I consciously started being less judgmental of other people and more judgmental of the way society was organized. I started joining these more radical organizations. But even just for my personal life, I became more assertive.

For example, if I went to the market, if somebody cut in front of me, where before I would have said, oh well, so what, who cares? Oh, no. They had a battle. You are not going to cut in line in front of me. That’s what I’m saying. These acts weren’t always a positive thing. I was sometimes downright abrasive. I underwent this transformation over the next year or two. I became active in the feminist movement, and I will remain an activist.  

I would like to reach out to anyone reading this who is in a situation like I was, where they are finding themselves being judgmental of other people who don’t think like them to encourage them to guard against this tendency as I continue to do. I and my family and friends are politically on the left, and I find myself wondering how right-wing people can think and behave like they do. I’m very concerned that now so many people who consider themselves liberals are being very judgmental. And I just think that is something we have to avoid at all costs. We’ve got to understand why this fellow human being feels so strongly in a way that we don’t identify with. So, I’m still abrasive.