From the National Women’s Health Network “30 for 30″ Award Campaign, July/August 2005
Honoring 30 Activists for Our 30th Anniversary
NWHN is proud to present to you 30 activists whom we are honoring for their essential work on women’s health. Individually, these 29 women and one man have created and inspired work to improve women’s health over the last 30-plus years. Their work transformed our experience of women’s health, and continues to do so today. The activists range in age from over 75 years to those in their early 20s. They include individuals who worked alone — before the women’s health movement came into being — as well as those who formed groups, collectives, and partnerships — including some of the earliest organizations which, along with the Network, were the linchpins of the movement.
Together, they reflect values the Network holds dear – they trust women’s descriptions of their own experience; they believe that evidence should underpin services and information; they consider systems of power and oppression as they work; they resist the unnecessary medicalization of women’s health; and they believe that all women deserve access to excellent health care.
In 1959, when the word “abortion” was too taboo to mention in public, Pat Maginnis, then a young college student, kickstarted the abortion rights movement in California by distributing petitions, surveys, and leaflets on street corners and in classrooms. Four years later, Pat enlisted Rowena Gurner and Lana Phelan to form a group that became known as “The Army of Three.”
In an era when police routinely arrested women who lay bleeding from botched back-alley and self-induced abortions, and when even sending birth control information through the mail was illegal, the “Army of Three” conducted a round-the-clock campaign and endured threats, exhaustion, and multiple arrests to strike down antiquated laws by winning vital challenges in court. They rented a small office and worked late into the night after their day jobs.
Mindful of women’s urgent needs as evidenced by the hundreds of letters they received begging for abortion services and information, the Army of Three members traveled widely to meet women in private homes, granges and union halls across the county, where they offered support, contraceptive and do-it-yourself abortion education, and finally referrals to a network they’d established among abortion providers across the Mexican border.
The movement Pat started caught fire and grew, with the Army’s work mirrored by East Coast activists and progressive clergy, physicians and politicians, until Roe v. Wade created a new world for American women in 1973. Pat’s group, originally called The Society for Humane Abortion, was renamed ARAL, the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws, and was the precursor of today’s NARAL.
Pat is a tireless pioneer who continues to work for women’s rights at age 83.
From the San Francisco Women’s Building / East Bay Oakland N.O.W. Humanitarian Award, August 2009
Hers is a remarkable story of how a woman with neither money nor organizing ability set afire a campaign to start people looking at abortion as a human right necessary for women when pregnancy, accidental or deliberate, threatened their lives or their futures.
Her birth in Ithaca, New York, the fifth child into a dysfunctional Catholic family and childhood as a struggling student in Dust Bowl Oklahoma hardly augured these later achievements. Essentially a free spirit, she entered a convent to pursue a life of service, but found no solace there and, later, in the army, lured by the promise of education and travel, she experienced racism and sexism rampant.
When she violated Southern race laws by fraternizing with a black soldier, she was sent in disgrace to the Panama base as a surgical assistant. There she witnessed how harshly women were treated in the maternity ward, and later saw the practice repeated at San Francisco’s French Hospital working as a medical technician.
“They were seen merely as reproductive vessels, “ she related, “and those being treated for botched abortions were considered unworthy of care.” Pat vowed, “I didn’t know how, but someday, somehow, I will put an end to this abominable treatment.”
She joined with Rowena Gurner and Lana Phelan, known as “The Army of Three,” to provide women with abortions, even though she lived under felony indictment for doing so. In 1961, they started the Citizen’s Committee for Humane Abortion Laws in California, a time when the word “abortion” was so taboo.
In 1966, she set up the Association to Repeal Abortion Law in California, and in 1967 she was arrested for publishing methods of inducing abortion. Her book, The Abortion Handbook, was published in 1968. By 1969, Pat reported that she and her co-workers had sent 12,000 women outside the country for abortions.
In later years Pat has focused on creating political and anti-war cartoons, hearkening back to the cartooning and limerick writing she had taken up in the early days of the movement to relieve the stress when the passion and the rage threatened to consume her. She continues today handing out copies on the street, as in the old days. [See Pat in action @ Occupy Oakland’s General Strike, November 2, 2011.]
Now 83, she rarely misses her group’s Sunday peace march around Lake Merritt while remaining adamant about legalizing abortion and active in abortion rights activism throughout California.
She is also an inveterate recycler who can’t pass a dumpster without checking for usable items. Living in an old Victorian, she now shelters abandoned cats and dogs, as well as a beehive. “From Danger to Dignity,” a film made in 1995 by Dorothy Fadiman in association with KTEH TV, includes Pat’s story.