Carolyn Montgomery

“I Was Appalled that I Had to Get Contraceptives Under the Table.”

Interviewed by Rosemary Trowbridge, October 2019

RT:   I’m thrilled to be here to ask you all these questions. So, first question is what was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?

CM:  It was pretty normal in terms of [being] a traditional wife and mother. I was going to college, having friends and partying and that kind of thing. I think of it is as really quite traditional. I had a very traditional mother and she encouraged that.

RT:  Where did you grow up?

CM:  Part of the time I grew up in Austin, Texas. And another part of the time I grew up in New Jersey, if I grew up at all.

RT:  You’ve got plenty of time for that. What is your ethnic background?

CM:  My ethnic background is Dutch and English. I think that’s probably about all.

RT:  How did you get involved in the women’s movement?

CM:  I had one of those click moments. I had been living in Britain with my family and came back to the states. I went to the doctor to get contraceptives because I already had two children. I had a female gynecologist and she sent me to her husband with whom she was in partnership, because she was a Roman Catholic and she did not prescribe contraceptives. He had to sell them to me under the counter. This was in Massachusetts in about 1960, prior to Griswold v. Connecticut.

I was appalled, because that had not been the case in Virginia or New Jersey when I was married. At any rate, I was really appalled that I had to get contraceptives under the table. Shortly after that, Bill Baird was in jail in Massachusetts for giving contraceptive foam to an unmarried female on Boston Common. The word came out to protect Bill and get him out of jail. They were encouraging people to get in touch with their state representatives.

I decided I would write letters to my representatives and hand deliver them to the State House. I didn’t put them in the mail. I decided I was going to walk them up to the State House. It must have been a weekend or Friday, because there wasn’t a soul in the State House. Nobody was there, but I was absolutely terrified. I thought I’d just slip them under the door and that’s what I did, just slipped these letters under the doors of their offices.

When I came out, there was a group of women walking around in a circle demonstrating in front of the State House and one woman came up to me and told me they were there demonstrating in support of Bill Baird and opposed to the fact that he was in jail for giving contraceptives to an unmarried woman. She invited me to come to their next meeting, she was a member of the Boston National Organization for Women and they had a task force that worked on the issue of contraception and abortion. That’s how I got involved with NOW.

RT:  What year was it?

CM:  That was about 1970 or ‘71.

RT:  What was your involvement in the Contraception and Abortion Task Force?

CM:  I went to that meeting, it was in a local person’s home and it was absolutely jammed. There was somebody there with an organization called MORAL. Massachusetts Organization to Repeal Abortion Laws was what the acronym stood for. Suzanne – I cannot remember her last name – was really determined and she was the leader of MORAL.

I worked with them in a lobbying capacity going up to the state house and talking to the legislators about the importance of contraception and having legal access to abortion. Those were the main issues that I was involved in for a long, long time. We were trying to get a reform law passed in Massachusetts similar to the one that had recently been passed in New York State in 1971.

RT:  Were you lobbying on behalf of MORAL or on behalf of Boston chapter of NOW?

CM:  I did both. I put on the most conservative clothes that I could get, they had been my mother’s, and I took myself up to the statehouse. I thought it was a good thing to leave an impression as somebody who was very conservative. I was very conservative at that time in many ways. We only had 16 members of the state legislature of the house that were affirmative on the issue of birth control and abortion.

Cardinal Cushing let the word out that they should pass some kind of law to allow contraception for married women. They told Massachusetts they better do something about it otherwise they wouldn’t have any control over it. So, they did.

RT:  What exactly did the Catholic Church do about contraception?

CM:  They got the legislature to allow married women contraception. They encouraged it.

RT:  What were your roles? You said earlier that you were vice president.

CM:  Before I was vice president I was chair of the birth control and abortion task force. We did some historic writing, we had a history of the task force activities and the chapter’s activities. We did a lot of actions. One time we carried a coffin down Park Street, and we had on black hats with veils and a sign that said no safe legal abortion. Something to the effect of reform abortion laws. We had an action every Friday at 5 o’clock at the Park Street subway station. We would carry signs and demonstrate in a circle right in front of the Park Street subway station, probably the busiest station in the city of Boston. That was in 1973, Roe v. Wade.

I had my 5 year-old with me one day and we were walking back to the NOW office. We came to Arlington Street and my daughter looked up, saw the dining room on the second floor of the Ritz Hotel and she said, “Mother what’s that?” I said that’s the Ritz dining room. She said why don’t you ever take us there for dinner? I said, “Well Anna when abortion is legal I’ll take you there.” It wasn’t six weeks before Roe v. Wade was decided and I took the family there for brunch.

RT:  That’s a great story. After the abortion issue did you continue to be involved in NOW?

CM:  I did. I became vice president. National NOW had just developed a public service campaign that the TV stations and the radio stations could air. They asked the chapters to send people to the local radio stations and TV stations and encourage them to use this campaign. They sent tapes to us and being the vice president, I was in charge of all media for the chapter and so I went out to visit all these folks in the public service sector of the local stations.

It was a real learning experience for me, a wonderful opportunity. I ended up getting a job at Boston University in the public relations office based on that activity. At BU you could take courses for free and I ended up going to graduate school for public communications.

RT:  When I think of the early women’s movement, we did things that we wouldn’t have done otherwise. What were your major accomplishments personally that you were involved with?

CM:  The public service announcement had the most impact on my life.

RT:  What were your most memorable and important experiences either politically or personally?

CM:  I think of the Supreme Court decision and the impact on the chapter because my issue was always abortion. I was really concerned about that. I felt the fact that abortion was illegal was really lethal to women. I had three children at that time, I’m grateful for all three of them. They’re wonderful daughters but I still think that women ought to be in a position to control their own lives and their decisions about their reproductive lives.

RT:  Did you make any lifelong friends from your actions and activity back in the ’70s?

CM:  Yes, I did. I worked on the Equal Rights Amendment. One of my best friends was Betsy Dunn and Julia [Wan]. I did see Betsy because I had a lot of contacts in Cambridge and I went to college nearby. I was in and out of Cambridge a lot.

RT:  How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life personally and professionally? Did you stay in public relations for the rest of your career?

CM:  I did. I was in public relations development, fundraising, media work. When I retired I was Director of Public Relations for The Boston YWCA. It was the first in this country. They have records that go way back and they were or keeping them right underneath the swimming pool.

RT:  Have you been involved as an activist since your second wave experience?

CM:  I just send money. I still am a member of NOW and related organizations. There is an active NOW chapter where I live but I’ve never felt they were as active as the Boston chapter. So many people were involved on many different issues. It was an exciting chapter.

I know one thing I haven’t mentioned. My former husband was an Episcopal priest and I decided that it was time that the Episcopal Church acknowledged the importance of abortion and that it should be legal. This was prior to Roe v. Wade. I organized a way for the Massachusetts convocation to pass that as a motion in their meeting.

Someone from the Roman Catholic church said please don’t let this come up before your members. Bishop Burgess said there was nothing he could do about it. It’s a democratic organization. I had lobbied to get plenty of support for it on the floor of the convention and I went to watch at the cathedral in Boston. I was up in the balcony and there were two other people in the balcony. They were both white men in black suits.

RT:  Spies from the Catholic Church?

CM:  Yes exactly! They wanted to find out what was going to happen. It passed easily. The Bishop called  me the abortion lady.

RT:  What was one of the hardest challenges you faced?

CM:  This ad campaign, it was very difficult for me to get up the nerve to go to these high-powered TV and radio stations and confront these executives who had no consciousness whatsoever of what was going on. That was a challenge. It was scary.

RT:  Anything else you want to say that you learned from your whole experience of being active in NOW?

CM:  I learned that I was capable of standing up on my own two feet. It’s self-confidence. I didn’t grow up until I was in my 40s. The expectations of my role changed like 180 degrees.

RT:  How do you think your activity has affected your daughters?

CM:  I used to leave leaflets around the house so they would pick them up. I didn’t try sermonizing or preach to them at all, but I just left it around for them to pick up. At one point my daughter was at Harvard in her senior year and the phone rang and it was Ginny. She said, “Mother you’ll never guess what I’m doing.” I said, “No, I don’t suppose I would.” She said, “I’m in charge of the ERA action at Harvard.” I thought, boy it’s gotten through!