THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“For me, it’s been about doing direct work with people. That has been the way that I’ve expressed my political beliefs.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, May 2022
JT: My name is Jini Tanenhaus, and I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1948.
JW: Tell us a little about your life before the women’s movement, your family background, anything that you think led you to the path you took ultimately.
JT: My father was a doctor, and we lived in a three-room apartment behind his office in Borough Park in Brooklyn. It was a working class Jewish and Italian neighborhood. I had friends in the building, and we all hung out on the stoop. Then at age six, we moved to a big private house, a 14-room house in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn, and it changed my whole life. I think I learned about class at six, at a very young age but I didn’t identify it that way at the time.
My parents were liberal and ethical people. My father, he charged something like $4 for a doctor visit. He had an open clinic. Anybody could walk in at any time. That was a model for me. But I think I also learned about the inequities. We had a Black person who worked for us. At a really young age, I was conscious that this was not okay. It might have been partly because I wanted my mother, because I was so young. This woman was certainly not treated like an equal. It made me very uncomfortable, and I was ashamed of it. And in some ways, I still am.
JW: That’s a bit of consciousness at that age.
JT: I think that really opened my mind and those values just stayed with me. That never really varied. I had those kinds of views for the rest of my life. But what solidified it more was the women’s movement and a couple of other things. One was the war in Vietnam, which I was active in protesting. We had a sit-in at the college that I went to, and that really raised my consciousness more specifically.
JW: How did you get involved then in the women’s movement?
JT: After college, I started out with being in a women’s consciousness raising group, just a talking group with other women who had similar ideas. So, we started to talk about feminism and how it intersected with other issues. At some point, I moved out to Oregon, and that was when the women’s movement really started to take off. I also got involved in relationships with women. It just kept really evolving.
JW: Were you involved with any organizations?
JT: I started an independent free school. More of my general political values were more than just feminism. I always saw the connection between feminism, capitalism, and racism. I always saw those connections. When I came back to Brooklyn, I was involved in the women’s school. I was involved with a women’s martial arts group for a while. I was in a feminist women’s theater group for a while. I was involved with a group called the Women’s Union which focused on intersectionality before that word was popular.
JW: Do you remember any plays you were a part of?
JT: Actually, we did improvisational theater. There was a food co-op that started in Park Slope, and I was involved in that very early on. It was housed in a community center called The Mongoose. That is where the women’s theatre group met. I organized a women’s dances there as well.
JW: What issues were of most concern to you?
JT: Equal rights at the time. But then I became a healthcare provider. I was a physician assistant, and I was most interested in providing reproductive health care. I worked for Planned Parenthood for the last 22 years of my career. I was an abortion provider. I was in an administrative position, but I also was a clinician. We were involved with a trial of methotrexate for medical abortion before mifepristone was registered in the country.
We were going to hire someone else, and they didn’t want to do it. I said, “Well, I’ll do it.” I got involved with that for years before mifepristone was registered in this country. I saw all the patients in that study over the period of four years and was on call for them as well I got very involved in that and was then involved in training other providers nationally and even internationally about more updated abortion practices. For a while, I worked for the National Abortion Federation as well, so it became a very central issue.
JW: Your work led to working with people around the country. What was the international part?
JT: I was sent by both Planned Parenthood and NAF to do some international training. We went to Nepal. We had an exchange with the Family Planning Association of Nepal. I did a training in Moldova. At some point, there was a switch from doing D&C as a means of abortion to aspiration procedures or even manual aspirations and not using heavy duty medications for sedation, but medications that were either less toxic, or less potent, or none at all. In some countries there was no pre-procedure counseling of patients at all.
JW: You were training about that as well?
JT: Yes, we were training about that as well. I went to a conference in South Africa of mid-level providers who were providing abortions. There were a number of opportunities that I had to train nationally and internationally. I was involved with the development of the protocols and the curriculum for the training and counseling.
JW: Well, it is amazing, that there was no counseling part of it. I do a lot of history stuff and women forever are told by doctors, “Just do what I say.”
JT: And also, how they are lied to, basically, and given misinformation about the procedure, and what will happen in the future, et cetera. Pretty horrendous. I did quality assurance visits around different clinics in the US for NAF members. I could see a lot of what people were facing in other parts of the country. It’s quite a bit different than in New York.
JW: Right. Do you have any incident you remember, a memorable experience when you were doing that?
JT: Going to clinics. I had never really faced very antagonistic protesters to the degree that I faced when I went to clinics in other parts of the country. It was really an eye opener how aggressive they were, how frightening it was, how much they tried to interact with patients and convince them not to have an abortion. It was very disturbing. A lot of my activism was really for my work.
JW: Right. So, when did you retire?
JT: I still haven’t officially said I’m retired, but I haven’t worked since early March of last year.
JW: COVID and all that. But I know that you’re part of an activist group now in Brooklyn.
JT: Well, we’re doing an e-blast related to abortion issues We’re not really an activist group, although, it’s made up of people who have been activists in the past. But we’re not organizing people. We’re trying to disseminate information, get information out, and get people talking about the issues. That’s the purpose of the group. It’s not to build an organization. It’s to tell people where to go to get organized and contribute to the pro-choice movement.
JW: Like a conduit. Tell us the name of the group.
JT: It’s called Older Women Remember and Speak Out. All of us have been involved in this movement for quite a long time. Remember, I went to demonstrations for the legalization of abortion.
JW: You mostly are putting out emails and messages?
JT: Yes, like an e-blast on different topics.
JW: Like what?
JT: Crisis pregnancy centers and what they’re doing, the recent changes in laws in different states, the restrictions, who has an abortion, and that is basically everybody from people of all walks of life and all races.
JW: I think that’s so important.
JT: That was one of the issues. We put out an issue out on medication abortion, just because not a lot of people know that you can access medications, even online.
JW: Well, I have to ask this because yesterday there was a leak.
JT: I know all about it.
JW: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about, really. Just for the audience that’s hearing this, yesterday, there was a leak of Alito’s draft opinion on this Mississippi case and the opinion totally overturns Roe v. Wade. Mississippi was a 15-week ban, but this opinion goes further than that and says it’s up to the citizens and the people that represent them to decide, not the Supreme Court. What do you think is going to happen in New York? Why don’t we start there?
JT: I’m pretty clear about what’s going to happen in New York because New York passed a law, I think it was last year, or two years ago, that basically ensured that abortion would continue to be legal in New York state. There would not be a further restriction up to 24 weeks. I think that will continue in NY… I know there’s an organization in New York that provides transportation for people to come here. I don’t know what will happen if they provide that for people who are coming from states where abortion is illegal. I don’t know how it’ll play out in terms of criminal charges. That’s the scariest thing in a way.
JW: It seems hard to imagine there could be a law stopping a woman from going from one state to another, but I do know Missouri has passed such a law already. A lot to play out. And of course, this decision was not announced. It was leaked. It could change some. I don’t imagine it’ll change a whole lot. How would you say that your involvement and all these activities affected your whole life, personally and professionally?
JT: The new laws have caused me to have a lot of despair recently. The situation of the new laws being passed and this possibility also. I spent so much of my time working towards liberalization of the laws. I truly believe that it’s a person’s right to decide.
I know, too, that the majority of people in the US don’t think that abortion should be illegal, certainly not up to 15 weeks or 20 weeks… But still this very vocal and aggressive minority, it’s a growing minority that is shaping the tone of the country. It’s frightening. It’s very disturbing. When we protested against the war, I felt like that was effective. One is it’s hard to get that number of people organized certainly around abortion, that degree of people, and unified about it and out in the streets. I’m hoping that a younger generation will come forward.
JW: Speak up, and I would say, vote. To me, it’s just a political issue at this point.
JT: I remember talking to my cousin like that. This was probably in the ’80s, and he said, “The election will never be decided based on abortion,” but it turned out to be the case. That turned out to be very much a big issue.
JW: Would you like to say anything else to sum up?
JT: I guess we have to really focus on where abortion still is protected. There are at least a number of places where it is protected. I got involved with The Doula Project. It was started by a few people, and I got trained in 2009 and was on the leadership of that organization for about 10 years. We provided doula services at no cost to people for whatever option they chose for their pregnancy. I was an abortion doula for years and accompanied people in the procedure room. This was even while I was still working as a provider.
I would also volunteer my time to just accompany somebody during a procedure and make sure to help them get through the procedure, support them emotionally and physically and sometimes spiritually through the procedure and then in the recovery room. It was a beautiful way to connect with people. We couldn’t go into clinics for the last few years, but we’re trying to revive it and create a virtual doula program now. That work has been very important to me. As I said, a lot of it isn’t necessarily through organizing, but it’s been about, for me, doing direct work with people. It has been the way that I’ve expressed my political beliefs.