Marlene Gerber Fried

“Friendships with women have been a really important piece of who I am and how I navigate the world.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, October 2021

JW:  May we have your full name, please, and where and when you were born?

MF:  Marlene Gerber Fried and I was born on June 6, 1945, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where I grew up.

JW:  Tell us a little about what your life was like before you got involved in women’s issues, your childhood, your background?

MF:  I am a single child. My parents were not educated, for the most part. My mother never went past the 8th grade, and I don’t think my father, who was an immigrant, did either. I was the first generation who went to college. From my earliest memories, my parents were committed to me assimilating and doing better than they did. They ran a small store all of their working lives. And one of the sentences I never forget is, “We work this hard, so you won’t have to.” I am still working hard, but in a very different way.

My mother worked, which was very unusual at that time. I think she was the only mother on our block who did work outside the home. As a single child, I had a lot of outside the house friendships. Those were very important, and that is continuing throughout my life. It’s mostly sisterhood, but friendships at that point with girls and now women, have been a really important piece of who I am and how I navigate the world.

JW:  How did you get involved ultimately, in women’s issues?

MF:  First, I should say I went to the Philadelphia High School for Girls, which at that time drew from the entire city, and it was one of the few truly integrated high schools for that time. It was a public academic track high school. But as the reunions have gone on over the years, we have learned much more about the internal racism and tracking of the administration and what African-American women were subjected to and how hard their parents had to fight for them to achieve and live basically middle-class lives. That’s where we were all going in some way or another. Having said that, with all those caveats, it was a good launch pad for a lot of us.

I then went to college at Northwestern and then to the University of Cincinnati. It was the time of Martin Luther King having been assassinated. And I was a philosophy graduate student. I stayed in Cincinnati and went to the graduate school of Philosophy, and I think I was an accidental activist. The African-American parents had created a set of alternative schools. There was a boycott. There was a lot of political activity at that time and they asked if any of us, as grad students, would come and teach in the alternative schools and I said yes. To the detriment of the teenage girls, I taught math to them. But it had a transformative impact on my life, which then set me on a trajectory of activism. At that point I was not engaged in women’s issues, but was drawn to civil rights and racial justice.

By the time I came to the women’s movement, which was when I was a graduate student again in the PhD program at Brown, the times were changing. I think I’m very much a creature of my generation. This is the story of so many. Certainly, white women of my generation being shaped first by the civil rights movement and then the anti-Vietnam War movement. And then we used to just say anti-war. But of course, there have been so many wars since then, and by socialist feminism and Marxism, and ultimately by the women’s movement.

When I discovered the women’s movement or when the women’s movement discovered me or saved me, I brought all those politics to it. In graduate school I was part of a consciousness raising group which certainly blew my mind. In terms of the work on abortion and reproductive rights, which has been my most consistent. At that point in the early days, our consciousness raising group and several of us were part of creating Women’s Union in Rhode Island, which was one of these multi-issue, all-purpose feminist organizations. We didn’t have much other consciousness. It was “the sisterhood is powerful” moment, although even then I think we began to be aware of the differences among us.

But then after that, I became involved in reproductive rights. I would say in earnest, when I was finally pregnant with my first child, I had had difficulty getting pregnant and I really wanted to have kids. I had a couple of miscarriages, and I actually could not have explained this at the time, although now I have a lot of theory and language to roll with. But at that time there was something about not being able to be pregnant when I wanted to be and being pregnant when you didn’t want to be, which really resonated. So, I became an activist. I also loved doing it when I was super pregnant. It gave me quite a lot of credibility at that point to be able to be vocal on abortion rights when you’re so clearly also blunting any criticism that says, you people are against having children.

JW:  Were you involved with any particular organizations at that time?

MF:  Ultimately, most of the work I did was in organizations. There was something here in Boston called the Abortion Action Coalition. And I was part of something national called the Reproductive Rights National Network, R2N2, which probably you have encountered before. If not, you should. We saw ourselves as an alternative political pole to the choice movement. We were passionately in favor of abortion rights, but we understood that abortion was not the only issue. One of my favorite T-shirts says, abortion is not the only issue. And then this is kind of, like the beginning of it all. And then on the back, it just has a list of the other things: education, child care, or whatever.

For many of us at that time, the idea of choice, the choice framing for abortion rights, did not cover all of the things that we understood people needed in order to actually be able to have reproductive decision making and choices. At that point, we collected in the R2N2 – a kind of complicated, odd lot of groups. I think at our height, there were 80. Some feminist clinics were part of it, small grassroots organizations. That was the other piece, that the choice movement tended to be focused in DC. I understand why. But there were many grassroots groups that never appear on any horizon that didn’t feel again that the political leadership that was coming from the choice movement was their political leadership.

I was involved at the national level and at the local level. We had a local group which actually endured at the time that the national group endured. R2N2 was in Boston, but there were other groups here. There was also the Massachusetts Childbearing Rights Alliance. There was a coalition for choice. In the ’80s, the Ms. Foundation created coalitions for choice in every state. Obviously, [there were] differences in how strong they were. And our group, even though we were critical of choice, we were part of that. And we also saw ourselves as trying to have an impact on the larger choice movement, trying to steer it to be more intersectional. We didn’t have that language, but that’s what we were doing. Intersectional anti-racist. We didn’t have that perspective either.

And one of the first things that the R2N2 was involved in was raising consciousness around sterilization abuse and opposing sterilization abuse. And there were really strong groups in New York. There was CARASA, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, which had a tremendous impact, not just on us, but I think on the whole movement. And then there was CESA, the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, which was spearheaded by Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias who sadly is no longer with us.

Again, these were issues that were really in the forefront of how women of color thought about reproductive issues. Sterilization abuse was right up there. It wasn’t like, are you [pro] abortion or sterilization abuse? Because if you weren’t both, then what were you, except population control? If all you cared about was the decision not to have children – which usually headed towards certain people not having children and others could – then it didn’t exactly make sense. We were involved in that. Our group was involved in supporting Ana Maria Garcia, who was the producer of a documentary called “La Operación,” which then became an important film/education for those of us here in the U.S. She was in Puerto Rico and had charted the abuse in Puerto Rico.

So that was my own evolution. And then when the Reproductive Rights National Network ended, it ended because of internal dynamics and unresolved tensions or there were tensions around racism that were never resolved. I’m sure different people will say different things. But that is how I saw it. But for me and many of us, how this all distilled in terms of abortion rights was that we were really focused on access, and not Roe v. Wade. I’m not saying Roe v. Wade was unimportant, but for us, we were so acutely aware that Roe had not settled the question of could you have an abortion if you needed one for so many people of low income or people of color? And we were always in the access piece of the movement. And at that point, we just continued to work on access issues. I worked here in Boston with the Abortion Access Project, where we did things like called hospitals and pretended to be pregnant and said we needed an abortion just to see, even here in wonderful Massachusetts.

We uncovered quite a lot in terms of who’s a gatekeeper and who’s not. And in fact, it was a person. The person you got on the phone was opposed to abortion. And so that would be the first roadblock. And I’ve been in abortion access ever since. I was one of the co-founders of the National Network of Abortion Funds, which I came to from a local abortion fund we created in Western Massachusetts, the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Mass.

This was in the Clinton era, and in the Clinton era, it seemed so different from now – the question of legal abortion was settled. And you could take a breath and fight for access, not take a breath and stop fighting, but just go on to these other issues. Many of the abortion funds, the older ones that existed, started in the early ’90s. And then at a certain point, we’re like, gee, we’re probably not the only ones out here. And actually, there had been a New York Times article a man in Iowa, Tom Moss, had put out, saying, who else is out there doing this work? We’re here funding abortions.

And at that point, we created this network, which was focused on paying for abortions. I think many of us felt very mixed about it because we understood we were doing what the state should do. It seemed like direct service. And I say this with all due respect for all of my political colleagues and others who are engaged in this. But at that point, there was kind of a line between, do you do political work, or do you do direct service? Of course, as the social safety net continued to shred, that line became very blurry. And for us, raising money for low-income people who needed abortions was critical after the Hyde amendment. And we created this national network, and we continued to work at the local level to support people. And I feel really proud to have been part of that history.

I was there for ten years. I could say I was the unpaid executive director. I folded it into my job at Hampshire. I guess that’s the other piece of what is very important here is that I went to work at Hampshire College in 1986. It was my job, but it was also kind of a dream job. That is the Civil Liberties and Public Policy program, which has just been renamed as Collective Power for Reproductive Justice. After all these years, we are tired of hiding behind our name. Nobody knows what civil liberties and public policy is. We called ourselves CLPP, because who could say that mouthful.

This was a program that had been funded to educate students, a generation that basically thought abortion rights were settled. So that was the real spirit of the program. And my charge as faculty was to do whatever I thought was important to do that education. I taught courses and also continued to do political work. Our program at Hampshire held other organizations. We held the National Network of Abortion Funds and incubated it along with our sister project, the Population and Development Program and the Boston Women’s Health Collective, created the Committee for Women, Population and the Environment, which was again back to the idea of connecting or really amplifying the aspects of population control that had been a plank in abortion rights.

Actually, the early choice people didn’t disclaim that. They accepted that argument. There was a sort of part of the history of abortion activism, which always had that population control thread. And it was only, I think, last summer that Planned Parenthood basically separated itself from those policies officially now. And the work at Hampshire was also unlike some of the other things that I did. It was really focused on young people. It was the original funder and felt that the new generation really did not understand the threats that were coming to Roe and to abortion, and that it was important to mobilize new generations.

The Hampshire College CLPP work became the mobilizing of new generations. And in particular, the supporting and developing of new leadership for the women, especially young women of color. So that’s what we always did. We’re always doing it. For me, personally, it was amazing because up to then, my two lives, I had a job and I had a political job. But the two trains were not the same. And the Hampshire job has allowed me to do both of them at the same time, which has been a gift that I will never be able to repay.

JW:  Before we got on, you mentioned something about your courses, which have obviously evolved. But I wonder if you could briefly tell us about how you see religion and abortion together. You said you have a course on abortion and religion.

MF:  The course is called The Battle Between Science and Religion in Sexual and Reproductive Health Care. Obviously, I’m addicted to long titles that are impossible to say. But it’s very transparent; you’re not in there thinking you’re doing something else. And again, this was a class that I had started in the ’80s when it was so clear that these questions of church and state and the imposition of religious values and the rise of the new right was all about bringing a religiously grounded, evangelical, anti-abortion voice to the abortion debate.

But it also wasn’t just abortion. It was sex ed. It was stem cell research. So that course came out of that moment. In fact, as I said to you, there’s always a moment. There’s always a new moment in which the incursion of religion into reproductive health is problematic. I had been teaching that class ever since the Bush Administration. I still teach a class called From Choice to Justice. It has had many different names over the years. But the content of the course has always been the politics of the abortion debate.

But of course, that has evolved.  And in this moment, when we have a dynamic and thriving reproductive justice movement, it’s able to encompass so many more concerns, issues, a much more formidable analysis of how this all comes together and why it comes together. Especially in this moment when white supremacy and the way in which so much of what is happening is fueling white supremacy and white supremacy fuels it. And that the role of religion in all of that, is also important. Dr. Toni Bond Leonard, recently a PhD, is someone who is working at the intersections of religion and reproductive justice.

She’s writing, teaching, thinking. I think she is one of the few academics in the country that’s really doing this, like a whole new area of scholarship and activism. And the other thing I wanted to say back on the Hampshire piece, sorry, this is not exactly a straight line, but nothing is. Hampshire is part of a five College consortium with Smith, Amherst, UMass and Mount Holyoke. And the way that reproductive health rights and justice was being taught, we were distributed – sort of one of us at each college maybe.

And we came together and thought together we could actually be our own department.  This could be your academic home. We created this certificate in reproductive health rights and justice. The five colleges had many of these for the same reason that no particular college has depth in any particular area. But when you bring us all together and allow us to do the work across our campus silos, then something new and rich comes up.  And that became the first undergraduate certificate in the country in Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice. It may still be. I don’t actually know that.

JW:  What is the certificate? What does that involve?

MF:  That’s very interesting. What it involves is you have to take a set of courses and we thought of this as a political action requirement. They are not all equally progressive in the same way. It’s like a community engagement. One of the things you have to do is engage with a community group in some way around reproductive health, not just studying and reading, but you have to walk the walk, too.

Why do people get this? We’re not sure. We are in a moment where credentials matter a lot. There are lots of these kinds of certificates in the tech world. I only know this from my students and my children. And I think it also works a lot for people who may be super interested in something else, too, but they also want to see themselves as going forward in the political movement in some way. It’s been a great learning and shaping experience and given all of us in the five colleges a way to build depth in this area, to find more people that do the work, to nurture newer, younger faculty.

JW:  Can the students from another college take your class at your college?

MF:  It’s a consortium and you can go to any one of the colleges and can take classes.

JW:  And that’s in everything, not just in your program?

MF:  Hampshire is the smallest and least well-endowed sister in the consortium. So, our students really take advantage of that because there’s so many courses and other students come to Hampshire because where else do you want to take a course in the battle between science and religion and sexual and reproductive health policy? There just isn’t any place. We at Hampshire get to teach these things, which seem to some, sound a little quirky but are always quite interesting and draw students from the five colleges. And that’s a great thing about these five colleges and also about teaching at Hampshire.

One year when I taught the class and I had students from each of the five colleges, and they would sit in their cohort. I would say I had all the stereotypes, like I could look at it and say, Smith students, baseball caps backwards – completely blew my mind. They’re like, “Well, we can’t be in class next week because we are going to Ohio to register voters to vote for Obama.” I’m like, “Okay, see, don’t judge a book by your cap.” The consortium aspect of teaching and thinking and finding ways for people.

And then this extends also to the political group. The Collective Power for Reproductive Justice has a student activist group. We have a conference four times each year. We have a large conference activist gathering, usually 1000-1200 people. We have a student group from the five colleges. And actually, I think it’s larger. It also draws from the community colleges who organize the conference. And then there are groups at the other colleges who reach out to each other in terms of the political work that they do.

And our collective power also has an internship program, which now for most of its existence, drew from these colleges and the local community colleges. So about eight to ten colleges. And then a couple of years ago, we’re like, we should open this up to students everywhere because we understood how rare it is to be able to have a paid internship in social justice.

And it’s an amazing project. And it has drawn the most incredible group in terms of people who want to do it. For one thing, again, in terms of myth busting, a lot of people are like, oh, people at historically black colleges don’t want to do this. Lower income people don’t want to do this. That is not true. If you offer opportunities, people really want to do it. We have cohorts that are overwhelmingly first-generation students of color, just exciting and often it draws people to the work. Often people get hired afterwards, by the organization where they interned. And it just sets a trajectory that’s really different. When I was in graduate school, having a life in the world of social justice wasn’t impossible. I had many friends who are legal services lawyers, and they’re not a lot of places now. It’s a very different world for people.

And since I’m so aware that I am a creature of a generation and political social movements, making sure that those movements and those opportunities exist is critical in terms of what we all should be doing, especially as we get whiter and older. But it isn’t just about passing the torch. It’s understanding what makes things possible. What gives people dreams? Honestly, I don’t know how to keep doing what we all do if you don’t have hope. Whenever I give a talk, I always say, “Okay, I approach this with outrage and hope. Both of those are my fuel. I am completely pissed off all the time, and the hope that people working together can make social change. And without it, there won’t be any.”

JW:  How do you think the women’s movement affected your later life?

MF:  One of the pieces of my trajectory that I have not spoken into yet is the influence of the feminist work international, especially in reproductive health rights and justice. Early on at my time at Hampshire, my closest colleague was Betsy Hartmann, Director of the Population and Development Program, who is now retired but still writing books, etc. And Betsy was one of the early people who wrote about population control in developing countries. When we found each other, we felt that we were doing the same thing, one in the U.S., and one internationally.

She had a large international network because she was identified as one of the people who was clearly an ally for people in developing countries who were doing this work, who were resisting the work of USAID to sterilize people in developing countries. And for both of us, that international context, especially during really grim times in the U.S., has been an important nurturer of our own politics, that we would go to these international meetings and we’d say, oh, my God, we’re not the outliers.

Everyone here sees the world in the same way. They’re making a connection between U.S. imperialism and colonialism and feminism. They’re not like separate silos. And I think that had a tremendous influence. And in this moment, especially around issues like abortion. I mean, where are we getting hope? We’re getting hope from Argentina, we’re getting hope from Mexico, we’re getting hope from these amazing Polish activists who are trying to hold their line. And we’re getting hope from South Korea. There are places in the world where things are going in a better direction than they are here.

I think in terms of my politics, that has been a really important piece. I worked for years with something called the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights. I was part of that board for ten years, and I did a lot of the trainings around abortion access and how you frame it and justice, which was another tremendous learning and shaping experience, finding political allies and trying to be an ally to people in different countries and finding a global feminism that was radical, that was hopeful and was looking to connect people in the U.S.

We have such a heavy footprint on everyone’s neck that U.S. allies and our responsibility as feminist activists in the U.S. to call out the international oppression and to call out the U.S. on those policies. And we’re in a position where that’s what we can do and what we should do. Things like the global gag rule. Most people, I think, don’t even know about it. We need it to be in all of the work that we do here on abortion access. We need to say, oh, yes, and this needs to be overturned.

JW:  Well, since you mentioned it, why don’t you explain the global gag rule?

MF:  The global gag rule denies funding to any organization or association that supports abortion in any way, including supporting abortion advocacy. So that’s why it’s called the gag rule. And in the developing world especially this has had an unbelievably negative effect because things aren’t part of that. It’s not like, well, here’s the HIV AIDS clinic and there’s the abortion clinic. These are often in the same place. And the money that supports it. This was something that was started by Reagan.

It has become a tremendous political football. Reagan was really influenced by the political right. His presidency brought the political right and the religious right into the Republican Party. So that’s where it all started. They didn’t used to want to be in politics. And as a gift to them comes the global gag rule. And it’s been back and forth. Every Republican President reinstates it. Every Democratic President gets rid of it. And it wasn’t even for a long time. There’s been no funding for the U.S. has not been funding abortions, but the reach of it so that you can’t even discuss, that you can’t even lobby, that you can’t even advocate, is so chilling in terms of what people can, must, and need to do in order to make change in the reproductive health area.