Back then: Connecting with the women who lived before Roe v. Wade

Kate Henley Long (b. 1982)

"You just have no idea what it was like back then," she remarked. The "back then" she was referring to was the days prior to the legalization of abortion, and "she" was a baby boomer.

I've been thinking about this remark this week because I've had reproductive rights on the brain. Not only was yesterday the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but this week we inaugurated a new president, one who is arguably the most pro-choice leader our country has ever had. In his first few days in office, he's already stated his commitment to a woman's right to choose and for taking steps to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies in our country, and is set to repeal the global gag rule that prohibits funding to international healthcare providers that offer abortion services.

My third- (or is it fourth?) wave feminist heart leaps for joy at this news. But to be honest, I fear that feminists of my generation are getting a little lazy around reproductive rights issues. We've lived our whole lives in a time and place where abortion was legal, safe, and sometimes even affordable, and the fight loses a little bit of the fire behind it when the "time before" is history, and a fuzzy history at that. Because, really, she's right - we don't know what it was like back then. We haven't lived it, and to date I've yet to come across a single person who had a "women's oral histories from the pre-Roe era" unit in their high school U.S. History class. And, in my experience, at least, the chances that we have to network and organize with activists a generation or two older than us are few and far between.

I have a feeling that one of the primary reasons for this lack of intergenerational organizing is technological. Like it or not, Millennials live on the internet. We do much of our socializing, networking, communicating, and even organizing via Facebook - just think, for example, of Join the Impact's November 15, 2008 nationwide Proposition 8 protest, which drew over 1 million protestors in all fifty states and was organized online in only a week, primarily via facebook. While these modes of organizing and interacting are certainly powerful, are they causing grassroots movements to sacrifice a depth of experience for the payoff of a breadth of exposure?

Kate Henley Long holds an MDiv from Harvard University and is a regular poster for the blog, "From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism."


  1. I'm interested in what you have to say. My Master's Thesis addressed the issue, complexities, and interconnectedness of the the waves of environmentalism and feminism. With a birthday in 1982, I assure you, you are considered the 3rd wave and my research focused on a small group of high school girls in leadership roles in a environmental club; 4th wave. One of the factors I examined was the lack of contact with voices from the other waves. In the case of my research, all previous waves. Personally, I have found it helpful to keep connections alive across the spectrum. It enlivens and deepens my feminism and I think that would translate to other women as well. Having said that, we all must make attempts to contact the voices throughout history made and history in the making. You will find a great many 2nd wave voices on the internet as well as in other settings. Women become stronger when we explore what came before and what is happening. What is amazing to me is reading words already written and spoken by other waves and being revisited as new. I think we would all move forward if we did not have to constantly reinvent the wheel of our movement. That is a finding of my research and explored in your posting a lack of exposure to "voices".

  2. teacherconfidential,

    Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you brought up the issue of "reinventing the wheel" as another problem with the lack of connection. Maybe this is the flip side of the issue that I raised - without connection to those who came before us, either we lose the original ideas and motivations and passions of the movement, or we share them but think that they are new, when in fact they have been explored, often in great depth. Either way, we miss out on a lot when we don't have a sense of history.