Pat Maginnis television interview c. 1963 from "Motherhood by Choice, Not Chance"

This site, a narrative history, archive and gallery, shares the story of Pat Maginnis, the first abortion rights activist in history.

From 1959 to 1973, Pat, with her compatriots Rowena Gurner and Lana Clarke Phelan Kahn, formed “The Army of Three” in a comprehensive assault on abortion rights limitations, starting on the street corner, leading up to the Supreme Court and over the border to the back roads of Mexico.

Born in 1928, this Dust Bowl refugee from a harsh Catholic childhood went west to the Bay Area for college after a brief military detour. Deployed to Panama as punishment for fraternizing with a black soldier, the horrors she saw pregnant women endure in the Army hospital there inspired her to devote her life to destroying all barriers to women’s reproductive freedom. By 1959, she was on the street corners of San Francisco, handing out mimeographed leaflets for her  fledgling “Society for Humane Abortion,” which eventually morphed into ARAL, Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, the precursor of the largest U.S. pro-choice organization, today’s NARAL, National Abortion Rights Action League.

At a time when sending even birth control information through the U.S. mail was a crime, Pat, Rowena and Lana’s comprehensive approach reached from the boardroom to the jail cell to the street: early symposia that attracted medical and legal professionals gave way to a systematic civil disobedience campaign designed to overturn restrictive legislation. The Army also conducted underground self-abortion and contraception classes throughout the United States and created an “Underground Railroad” network with several Mexican abortion clinics to help more than 12,000 women obtain services over the border.

In 1973, when Roe v. Wade passed into law, the Army’s decades of subversive work had borne fruit. Although the Army disbanded, Pat, the surviving member at 83, has remained a fervent feminist/progressive activist and political cartoonist, volunteers in animal rescue, and is associated with the National Organization for Women and Women’s Health Specialists as well as Occupy Oakland.

Pat and I met in July 2004, at the sad occasion of the memorial gathering for Dido Hasper, founder of the Feminist Women’s Health Centers and pioneer in the women’s self-help movement.

The next weekend, I interviewed both Pat and Lana at their homes in the Bay Area. Being with these two remarkable women as they shared the thrills and victories of their long association was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Lana’s gift for storytelling and Pat’s remarkable recall, along with their mutual affection and good humor, made those dangerous, exciting early days come alive, and I felt that this history should be known to all.

Pat will drop in here from time to time, so please post your questions and comments.

—Laurie O’Connell
January 22, 2012, the 39th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

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