The adage “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has ominous relevance for women today. To preserve our hard-earned reproductive rights and prevent a return to back-alley butchery, we must understand how the struggle was fought and ultimately won—starting more than half a century ago, when three young women joined together to eradicate abortion laws in the United States.
Mustering an Army—From the Personal to the Political
In 1959, when the word abortion was too taboo to mention in public, Pat Maginnis, a 26-year-old college student, became the first abortion rights activist in history when she printed and handed out petitions, surveys, leaflets and cartoons on street corners and in classrooms in San Jose and the Bay Area. Three years later, in 1964 Pat enlisted Rowena Gurner and Lana Phelan in the nascent cause, forming the historic trio that became known as “The Army of Three.”
Pat, the motive force, grew up with six siblings in a poor, abusive Catholic family in Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl era. As a teenager, she found solace in a convent school, though she grew to despise Catholicism for its role in oppressing women. A natural iconoclast, Pat bounced between jobs, including a stint as a nude artist’s model, until she joined the U.S. Army in defiance of her parents’ expectations of higher education and eventual marriage and motherhood. Stationed in Panama as punishment for fraternizing with a black soldier, she worked in a military hospital as a maternity ward assistant. There, her experiences shocked and radicalized her for life. In particular, the torment of one pregnant woman who was locked in a cage and tied to her hospital bed to prevent a self-abortion attempt reinforced Pat’s determination to “never procreate” and fueled her commitment to help women with unwanted pregnancies.
In her early twenties, she traveled to Mexico for an abortion, outraged that she had to “go into exile,” and vowed never to repeat the experience. A few years later, following a subsequent, self-induced abortion, she was interrogated and threatened by police as she lay, dangerously ill, in the maternity ward of San Francisco General Hospital.
At that moment, Pat pledged that she would do all she could to ensure that no other woman would ever experience that trauma. She had recently left the military to attend San Jose State University, where she now began her lifelong person-to-person crusade, handing out mimeographed pro-abortion petitions and surveys, in recent years turning to cartoons.
But though she kept her feet on the streets, in contact with real women, Pat had her eye on the ultimate goal: changing the law of the land. She founded an organization, the Society for Humane Abortion, and established contact with Bay Area medical professionals and the progressive legal community to begin building the architecture of a historic movement, driven almost entirely on the West Coast by just three women. In 1964, Pat, the mother -to-be of the movement, met the woman who would become its mouthpiece.
Lana Phelan, a soft-spoken young woman from Florida, left school in eighth grade to work in a drugstore because of her family’s extreme poverty. She married at 13, had a baby at 14, and was warned by her doctor that further pregnancies might well be fatal. Ignorant of birth control, Lana soon became pregnant again, and it took months to save the $50 fee for an abortion by a Cuban woman who lived in a shack outside of Tampa, with ensuing infection and trauma (see “Lana’s Story”).
The horror of this experience festered in her spirit until, one rainy night in San Francisco in 1964, Lana happened upon a bedraggled figure on a street corner—Pat Maginnis, handing out soggy newsletters for her Society for Humane Abortion. Reading the material later in her hotel room, Lana called the phone number and was welcomed into the nascent group.
Developing into a powerful orator, she became the movement spokesperson, based in Southern California and traveling across the country as the Society’s work expanded. Soon, the two were to meet Rowena Gurner, the formidable woman who would complete the Army and lend a military precision to their mission.
In 1962, this 31-year-old free spirit rode from New York to California on a bicycle, a feat that garnered a mention in Sports Illustrated. The tough, tiny woman had to fly to Puerto Rico for an abortion during a weekend off work, and, like Pat, had become enraged at the brutality of U.S. abortion laws.
In San Francisco, she first heard of SHS at a naturist meeting. When she finally stopped by the Society’s ramshackle storefront office, she was appalled at its apparent chaos and decided to take Pat in hand.
While Pat had little regard for convention, Rowena possessed the shrewd marketing abilities of a born businesswoman. She harnessed Pat’s prodigious energies and spruced up her makeshift image, tossing her thrift-store dresses in the trash and grooming her into a “respectable lady.”
Rowena (on the right in the image here; IDs were mistakenly switched in the newspaper article caption) also organized the office, scheduled media appearances and generally ran the Army like an army. “She was so bossy,” Pat recalls fondly, “and she understood the value of image.”
As Pat and Lana both told me, “You couldn’t find three more different women.” But their differences were insignificant in the face of their shared determination to eradicate U.S. abortion laws by any means necessary.
In an era when police routinely arrested women as they lay bleeding from botched abortions, and even sending birth control information through the mail was illegal, the Army of Three marshaled the almost inconceivable courage to transform the personal into the political, unveiling the country’s most taboo topic in the streets, the public halls, the media, and the courtroom. With their indomitable activism leavened with sardonic humor, the three women would spend the next decade in relentless organizing, courtroom battles, public education, protest, and political theatre.
From the Street to the Courtroom
Although Pat’s original organization, the Society for Humane Abortion, focused on education and exposure, she was convinced that more radical activism was required for comprehensive results, so the Army of Three created ARAL (the Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, the precursor of today’s NARAL) specifically to support their new direction: illegal actions that would provoke examination of archaic laws in court.
Enduring multiple arrests, threats, and emotional and physical exhaustion from their round-the-clock commitment, the trio expanded their crusade to offer direct assistance to women in need and to demand the repeal of all abortion laws. Flying from coast to coast on a shoestring budget funded by their own income from day jobs and a trickle of donations, they hosted groundbreaking conventions for medical and legal professionals, as well as speaking engagements and provocative TV and radio appearances.
And, mindful of more immediate needs, they gathered with women in private homes, granges and union halls across the heartland, where they offered support, contraceptive information, and referrals to Mexican abortion providers for more than 12,000 women, as well as the practice for which they became infamous: a controversial class in self-abortion techniques.
In 1968, the Army turned to a literary approach with their “The Abortion Handbook,” penned by the three as a satirical, though practical how-to manual.
As the years passed, the Army of Three’s visionary blend of person-to-person activism, humor and passion for women’s well-being heightened abortion awareness throughout the country. Due largely to their efforts and those of their counterparts on the East Coast, the movement caught fire and spread until finally, Roe v. Wade was passed, creating a new world for American women in 1973.
The Army of Three’s comprehensive groundwork had finally borne fruit—but ironically, as Pat recently pointed out to me, almost half a century after she, Lana, and Rowena first took to the streets, U.S. women’s reproductive rights are now in greater danger than ever before. Pat’s prescient goal of the elimination of all laws on abortion, so it would hold the same legal standing as any other medical procedure, was watered down by less radical factions in the movement that considered that goal unreachable—and though Roe v. Wade bought women in the United States a measure of reproductive freedom, the right to choose has remained on tenuous ground ever since.
The Pioneer Persists
Rowena Gurner and Lana Phelan Kahn have passed away, but Pat Maginnis is still going strong. At 83, the “mother of the movement” retains an uncanny memory, sharp wit, and hard-core dedication. Living in East Oakland, she continues her activism with the trenchant jibes in her political cartoons, and spends most of her time working on women’s issues, animal rescue, and, more recently, Occupy Oakland.
Among the many tributes from women’s groups around the country, in 2004, her East Oakland N.O.W. chapter funded her trip to the historic March for Women’s Rights in Washington D.C., which she experienced as a culmination of her life’s work.