THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“The women’s movement has given me a sense of myself and a place in the world.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, September 2020
JW: Good afternoon, I am Judy Waxman, it’s September 30th, 2020, and I am talking to Shelley. Give me your whole name and when and where you were born.
SF: Shelley Farber, I was born in the baby boomer generation in a small town in Iowa, a small farming community. My ancestors apparently are mainly German, Scotch-Irish. I grew up in a middle-class family. The environment that I was in was a very homogenous group of people. I had a pretty happy childhood, as I recall. Lots of playing. It was a good environment.
JW: What brought your attention to the women’s movement?
SF: When I was growing up I got clues that there was a difference between how the boys and girls were treated. But it really came out strongly when we hit 13 or seventh grade. The boys were divided apart from the girls, and they got to learn and play football and basketball and baseball and track and eventually golf. They got all this coaching and fun. The girls just went to gym class and there we got to play basketball. The rules at the time were you could dribble two times and you could only play half court.
We were pretty disgusted with that and we petitioned the school board to get a girls basketball team. Many towns in Iowa did already have them and even small towns, but it went nowhere. It was my first wakeup call because we had just been playing basketball with these same boys over the summers and we could keep up with, if not beat, them playing basketball. All of a sudden now we didn’t get to do that. That was kind of my big realization that life is going to be different.
When I went away to college, there was an SDS sit-in when the Playboy magazine came to interview and recruit college students for their magazine. A couple of men and one or two women from the group did a nude-in. They sat at the speech the playboy agent was making, naked, and I believe they were arrested. This was at Grinnell College in Iowa. They were arrested and they were making the point that women could be objectified and dehumanized in Playboy magazine but here in real life, their bodies were considered obscene. So that sunk in.
Then I transferred to the University of Iowa and I was staying in the dormitory where I met some really great women. I met Chris Wemmer, then Debi Law, Lynne McMahon, who is a poet. We talked a lot about things including politics and women’s situation, the war. After finishing my year there, Chris told me about a daycare center in town where you could take care of the kids and it would pay for your room. That’s summer of 1971. I worked at this collective daycare center and I was continually exposed to lots of new ideas about women’s situations, about the need for daycare.
The (Vietnam) war was still going on at that time. The Civil Rights Movement was making a big impact. That fall some women came to our area who were teaching other women about their bodies. Francie Hornstein is someone who I met at the daycare center. She was one of its founders, and she attended that presentation. Two women had been traveling across the country on a bus from town to town to various NOW groups to teach women how to do vaginal and cervical self-examination with the speculum, a special instrument, a mirror and a light. This allowed you to see your own insides, just kind of like looking down your throat. Men get to see all of their body parts, but we needed this special equipment.
Carole Downer and Lorraine Rothman had worked in an illegal abortion clinic in Los Angeles. That’s where they saw women’s cervixes. They were doing abortion counseling and they were the first to have this idea – surely our friends in the NOW group will be interested. So, they shared with them how they could look at their own cervix and figure this out. NOW groups got the word out about this idea, it was very eye-opening. Growing up, we’d see diagrams, if you were lucky, which made no sense. With self-examination you could see if you’re going to have a baby where the baby came out, you could tell when you were ovulating. For many women that’s very important if they wanted to get pregnant or avoid getting pregnant.
There was a lot of buzz around women getting together and talking about themselves and their health care and their experiences. As I came to help conduct these self-help clinics, we’d hear stories about women’s interactions with the medical profession. At that time, it was primarily men and it was very hierarchical. Women had a lot of complaints about how they were treated by the medical profession in general. So, this idea of self-help was very exciting.
Francie, back to Iowa City, contacted the women. We were able to get our own speculums and start our own self-help group there. Self-Help was kind of a big thing in those days. There was Alcoholics Anonymous, and other types of self-help groups. Our Self-Help “Clinic”; was a participatory, educational program. The other thing that Francie Hornstein reported hearing about was menstrual extraction, which was a form of early abortion. If women thought they might be late on their period in a group with others, you could with a very simple device suction out a woman’s menstrual period. If there happened to be a fertilized egg in there, it would generally come out along with everything else.
This was a device that Lorraine Rothman from Orange County, California had built called the Del-Em. Having a biology background, she got a canning jar and a stopper from a lab and some plastic, aquarium tubing and put that together with a specialized part, a two-way valve, which made it safe so you couldn’t inject air into the uterus. The only other specialized piece of equipment was the cannula, which was a soft, flexible tubing that could go in through the opening to the uterus, that someone could insert in there and extract. It would be a nice, gentle way of creating suction and extracting menstrual period.
JW: Question. Do you recall how many weeks someone could be late?
SF: Yeah, it could be pretty effective just with the suction created by pumping. A syringe in a two-way valve created suction in the canning jar. It was slow, but you could go up to pretty easily six or eight weeks early term abortion if you needed to. There were self-help groups around the country and some women were doing this but it was private, really just for themselves if they needed it.
JW: One interesting thing is the majority of abortions now are six to eight weeks. It’s still a successful method.
SF: Abortion has been widely available now, it just really was not so available and as we know in certain states, it’s still not. As Pat McGinnis, whose an old time National Abortion Rights Action League founder, used to say, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be called a sacrament.
So, this was in the Iowa City area and then Francie shared with us and then other people in the community came and we started a self-help group. The menstrual extraction demonstration didn’t happen at that particular presentation. Another friend of ours who was pregnant – abortion was illegal in Iowa at the time – bravely volunteered to be the “guinea pig” for menstrual extraction. We all got together in the Iowa City community when we heard about this. There must have been eight or 10 of us there to watch Lorraine explain to us in this group how this menstrual extraction could work. Unfortunately, it did not do the job, so this woman had to go to New York City to get her abortion.
My physical body is really important to me. By that time, I had come out as lesbian, I had no plans to be getting pregnant or to have relationships with men. But it was very important to me to know that I could ultimately control whether or not I had children because it’s so impactful on your life and their lives if you have kids. Birth control wasn’t much talked about, neither was sex education nor abortion. It’s just that real information was very limited.
A lot of my friends and I didn’t have health insurance, so women didn’t go to the doctor unless they were pregnant or had an infection or something. That was the educational piece. Francie and myself and Debi Law moved to L.A. and increased the growth of who was doing self-help. Over the year we were invited cross country to Florida, Tennessee, all over the country, and Europe. We were invited back to share this idea of self-help and how you could see your cervix and share these group discussions.
JW: Why did you pick L.A.?
SF: That’s where Carol Downer and Lorraine Rothman were and that’s where this all started. And secondly, in California, things were freer around abortion care. So, we were able to start an abortion clinic for counseling. By the time we got there, abortion was legalized in California. Carol worked in an illegal clinic because it was run by a non-physician. We moved to Los Angeles because we just felt like we’d get more done. It was a critical mass of people there who were interested in all this. That was the nexus. Lorraine lived in Orange County and Carol lived in the L.A. area. Between them they had about nine children, so they’d have a lot of experiences with gynecological. They were middle aged, and they had a lot of great ideas.
I remember Lorraine Rothman giggling all the time. She got this Navy manual that taught boys who are straight out of high school and had joined the Navy how to take and read pap smears. She would get this grin on her face and be so outraged in this happy way: “Eighteen-year-old kids are learning how to do something that we aren’t supposed to be able to do!” They’re not even doctors yet! When we got out there we decided to incorporate and became the Feminist Women’s Health Center (FWHC). A woman attorney, Joyce Nordquist helped us get that and get our non-profit tax exemption.
The IRS held up our tax exemption application because we’re talking about abortion counseling and even mentioned menstrual extraction, which nobody really knew what that was. Our congresswoman, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, helped us. She interceded because they were just giving us a lot of runaround to get our tax exemption. At the time we existed for educational purposes. We got incorporated and became a more formal organization. And then at the same time we developed a relationship with the local outpatient hospital, and we were doing abortion counseling.
Women would come to our center and we showed them how to do a pregnancy test and counsel them about abortion. They knew they could get an abortion through us and then we would accompany them to the hospital and be with them throughout their abortion procedure. We’d be answering questions, helping them keep calm and breathe during the procedure and intercede just to make sure they got what they wanted. We were advocates and we did that for about a year and continued throughout the existence of the center. But then the Supreme Court decision January 25th, 1973 came out ruling Roe v. Wade. It’s continually being challenged. It was still illegal in Iowa.
In California, you had to have a rubber stamp from a psychiatrist to get an abortion. After that decision came out, Carol Downer said we should establish our own clinic. And so, 55 days after the Supreme Court decision, we had a licensed clinic ready to go. We leased what used to be the Women’s Center on Crenshaw Blvd., we cleaned it and painted it, polished all the floors and got it all put together. We got a clinic license, a licensed lab, and a physician to work with us. He donated some equipment. So there he did abortions on an outpatient basis. Our clinic was the first outside of Vermont, the first place not run by a hospital or a physician, to do abortions – all run by women.
So that was different. Even though abortion had been legal in California, you had to be at a doctor’s office or a clinic or an outpatient hospital. Those were the two venues. We were very excited to be running our own show and hiring the doctors ourselves and being able to have women treated the way we wanted to be treated. So, we have the self-help clinic going, which is the educational program, they are still conducting these educational programs. And then we have this outpatient abortion clinic where we did early termination abortions. But we also still had a service where if women were more advanced in their pregnancy, saying much over 12, 14 weeks, we would meet them, take them to the hospital and counsel them there and they get their abortion in the hospital.
The reason we wanted to stay outside of the hospital was things just get much more bureaucratic. Hospitals would want to use general anesthesia, which wasn’t necessary for early termination abortion, and women were treated like being on an assembly line. We got to run the show pretty much the way we wanted to. Of course, we had to negotiate with the doctors.
Eventually we had quite a number of African-American physicians who would work for us and they were just excellent. One was Dr. Chris Dotson; he was probably the best abortionist in the whole Southern California area. He was very gentle. He could perform the abortion quickly, women didn’t really have a lot of pain, and he was just excellent and really knew his stuff.
Word got around that we were good to work with and eventually we had a number of doctors come to us who were African-American and we would train them in this way of not using curettage, which is a scraping instrument for early abortion that’s not so necessary; or under local anesthesia, where women didn’t have so many negative reactions as there were with general anesthesia – as well as when treated gently. It’s just a lot less traumatic.
JW: You were training the doctors?
SF: Yes, they had already been to medical school and learned. But in a sense, we were training them in the ways that were best for the women patients. The first person who worked for us helped break the ice and get it going, but he had some arrogance there. But I will have to say, we just did not experience that with the African-American physicians and many other physicians, too. I’m thinking generally, but I have fond memories of the doctors that work for us in the clinic. They were very respectful of women, of the patients.
We had our clinic, we had birth control options for women, we had this self-help clinic which was an educational program. A lot of women would write us from around the country and want to know how do we start an abortion clinic. So, we started what we call the Feminist Women’s Health Center Institute. And a number of women came from Tallahassee, Florida, Gainesville, Florida, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Atlanta, Georgia.
They’d work in our clinic and we would show them how to do medical testing, run the show, how to get a lab, how to negotiate with a doctor. They’d learn these skills. There was no tuition and they stayed with us as staff. We just had a great time meeting all these wonderful feminists from around the country. And then they’d go back to their communities and start clinics. Many of them had a harder time in some of the rural areas like Tallahassee, Florida. We had an easier time in Los Angeles getting doctors and having back-up arrangements with hospitals.
JW: How long did they stay with you? Do you recall how long it would take?
SF: It would be about two to three weeks. You pick it up pretty quickly, maybe four weeks. They’d learn all the ins and outs of everything. Ultimately they’d go back, start their clinic and there would be medical personnel like we had. We would have a nurse overseeing our protocols and the doctors knew what they’re doing.
JW: I assume they just stayed with one of you.
SF: Yeah, we lived together. Those of us who came out from Iowa lived together for many years. Institute participants would stay with us or others who had apartments. The daughter of Carol Downer, Laura Brown, moved to Oakland, California, and along with Debi Law from Iowa started the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center. Incidentally Pat Parker (interviewed on VFA website) worked at the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center for a number of years. The Oakland FWHC spun off and helped the feminists in Chico, California found a clinic – in a rural area, where they were opposed by the medical establishment for providing abortion in Northern California.
Then if I could backtrack a little [to] before we started the clinic. This is about 1972. There was an arrest and trial of a woman, Carol Downer, in our group for practicing medicine without a license. At that time, we didn’t have a clinic, we had an abortion counseling program and just the Self-Help Clinic, the educational program, and we had rented this nice house on Crenshaw Boulevard. Detectives came in and raided the place and took the speculums and they took the yogurt out of the refrigerator, and thought they were gathering evidence.
They filled a number of cars with this stuff and they charged Carol Downer and another woman with practicing medicine without a license. The other woman, was not able to fight the charges. She had a child and didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. But Carol was raring for that kind of a fight. The California Board of Medical Examiners have this law about practicing medicine without a license. It was seen that what we were doing was doing that.
JW: She was arrested for the self-help education clinic?
SF: Yes. In the public space, our Women’s Health Center, we had conducted these programs. We were showing women how to run the pregnancy tests, it’s probably more difficult to read a recipe than to perform a pregnancy test. But the main charge was that Carol Downer had diagnosed and treated a woman’s yeast infection. Yeast infections are pretty common. We didn’t do it in the clinic, but we did talk about it. And chances are someone might come in during this period of time and during the time that they might have a yeast infection. So, she would share this home remedy, so you don’t have to go to the doctor, which for many women was not a pleasant experience. So, a home remedy for a very common condition.
The trial ensued, we hired two women lawyers, Jeannette Christy, and Diane Sherman (if I remember correctly) to defend us. What we were doing got through to the jury and Carol was acquitted, it was just a misdemeanor, but we were so happy. We saw it as an endorsement that what we’re doing was OK. We weren’t practicing medicine without a license. The head juror wrote Carol a note saying, “You’re not a downer. You’re a real upper and you’re doing a beautiful thing.” That was a real morale booster.
JW: So, did you do other activities, in the movement? Stuff must have been going on in L.A. at that time.
SF: The clinic was more than a full-time job. We started the institute. We wrote a book called A New View of a Woman’s Body. Lorraine and Carol worked very long and hard on that. Suzanne Gage made the drawings, and Francie Hornstein along with others wrote that book collectively. We were pointing out that the general medical profession focused for women on what was abnormal. What was missing was what we were doing in self-help and these other venues where we were talking about what’s normal. That’s what this book was about, to portray what is normal for women, the range of normal, which is a very wide range.
Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English did such a good job of talking about midwives and nurses on that pamphlet they wrote. And how much what was normal for women became medicalized and we all needed to be going to the doctor for everything. We were continuing that observation and that tradition. We also did attempt to start a birth center. Ginny Cassidy-Brinn, who’s a nurse, attempted to start an outpatient birth center, but it didn’t really take off.
Midwives were just getting off the ground in California with licensing. No hospitals wanted to sign up any agreements for us should there be an emergency that necessitated transferring a patient to them. So, for that reason, we couldn’t really pursue an outpatient birth center. We engaged in other initiatives when Jerry Brown was in the California Governor’s seat. We did a fair amount of lobbying trying to get people to come around to the idea that there could be a subgroup of people who didn’t need to be a doctor or nurse to assist women.
There came to be the category of women’s health specialists where there’s a lot of things that you could do well in the clinic setting for consumers, that wouldn’t necessarily require the high caliber, highly paid folks. Those are some of the major things we did. Abortion was a handful, because it was coming under constant attack. We got very involved in the National Abortion Federation, which is a federation of providers – a very strong group.
Over the year we found that some of the reproductive rights groups were a little skittish about abortion. We felt it was a necessary service that was needed in addition to birth control. Birth control in the ’70s: some of it had been approved by the FDA but it was still not all that 100 percent effective. And there were lots of [side] effects that women would complain about.
JW: So, when did you leave the clinic and what did you do?
SF: 1984. I was there about twelve years and I moved up to Seattle and then I pursued a career in accounting. We’d all worked in the clinic, but doing administration came to be something that I gravitated towards. I pursued that, got my CPA and then continued to work in a couple of different corporate government and non-profit housing environments. I also worked for a time in a state program that gave out federal grants for what’s called urban forestry, to help cities and towns plan for their urban environments.
JW: What has the women’s movement meant to your life?
SF: It’s given me a sense of myself and that I can have respect for myself and that I have a place in the world. When I see what’s happened, what’s helped younger women get a leg up today, I’m just very excited about what’s happening for the younger generation. Title IX, for example. My cousin’s daughter became a Navy pilot. Another cousin’s daughter makes a living as a computer whiz. More women have gone into law, for example. I see women going into all sorts of fields that didn’t seem available to us in my youth. It’s very exciting. And I have a woman doctor. So that’s all great.
JW: That’s wonderful. Any final thoughts you would like to add?
SF: I think for me, also, the women’s movement and what we did at the Feminist Women’s Health Center as a collective, we were our own entrepreneurs having started and run our own business. We didn’t have any jobs at that time. There weren’t really a lot to be had. And so, we were exposed to a lot of different aspects of running a business from public relations to licensing to just keeping the programs going.
The biggest thing I have, upon reflection, is how much we accomplished as a group. It was Carol Downer, Lorraine Rothman, and scores of women like Colleen Wilson, Joyce Nordquist, and Flo Ehring. I could go on with many names. How much we accomplished as a group and that we made vast improvements on abortion care for women in the United States.
JW: Thank you so much. This is really fabulous.
SF: And thanks for what you’re doing. This is a fun project.