What We Left Behind: Girdles, Silence and Illegal Abortion

When I went to work at Ms. in 1972, I wore a matching pink skirt and blouse—and a girdle. I had just gotten married and was, therefore, not able to get a bank loan without my husband’s approval. I had given up playing basketball (half-court for girls) in college because no coach or court could be found. And I had had an illegal abortion.

Actually it was having had that abortion that was my first tie to Ms. and the women’s movement. The Preview Issue of the magazine, which was excerpted in New York magazine, included among such classics as “Click! The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” by Jane O’Reilly and “I Want a Wife” by Judy Syfers, a list of celebrity names under the headline “We Have Had Abortions.” It took a lot of courage back then to admit to what was a crime. In the corner was a coupon which readers could fill out to add their name to the list. I filled it out with pride and relief (I hadn’t admitted to my crime before), and by the time those coupons were being counted and processed several months later, I was managing editor of Ms.

Many of the social, economic, and political restrictions that held women back were overthrown during the 17 years I was there, and Ms. was a prime mover in that wave of change. Every day at work I was learning a lot about women and about myself. I know for sure that I would not be the person I am today had I not been part of the Ms. experience, and I certainly would not have had the expertise to draw on when I started writing about Second Adulthood (Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, Fifty Is the New Fifty, and out this month How We Love Now). Without the women’s movement, I wouldn’t have had the courage or the confidence to even draw on that expertise and go public with my ideas.

This year Ms. celebrates its fortieth anniversary. It’s hard to believe that it has been so long, and when I look at photographs I am amazed at how young we were! My daughter is 25, the age of most of the staff back then. She wears whatever she pleases—but never a girdle (do they still exist?); she has several credit cards in her name; she has maintained a commitment to volleyball throughout her school years and now plays on a (co-ed) New York City team; and if she needed an abortion, she could get one (though women, especially rural women, in other states, would have a much harder time).

The battles we fought are won, but not over. Women still earn less for the same job than men; the fashion and beauty industry still makes us feel we should look a certain way and if we don’t—especially if we are over forty—we should be ashamed. Title IX, which made women’s sports viable, is under siege from those institutions that think their athletic budgets are better spent on football. And as every election and legislative session reminds us, the right to choose abortion is under siege. Her generation will undoubtedly be called upon to hold onto these gains.

As she moves through her life, my daughter will also come up against still unresolved inequities. If she marries and has children, she will quickly learn that no matter how much of the work and family responsibilities her partner shares, the workplace is inhospitable to the needs of working parents. Sure, we now have family leave policies, but since frequently they are unpaid, time off is a luxury most can’t afford. And although work hours have eased up somewhat, there is a price for that flexibility too—a gentle shove off the fast track. That will have to change.

Caregiving in general, she will learn, is still women’s work. Studies show that when a family is called upon to take care of an aging or ailing relative, it is almost always a female (an unmarried female is usually the first choice—as if she didn’t have pressures and responsibilities of her own, including being her own sole financial support) who gets nominated. I see care-getting as a new frontier that I hope my daughter’s generation will cross; it is time for our society to step in where individual (unpaid) caregivers are toiling, and it is essential for all those caregivers to be encouraged to give the same degree of care that they are expending on others to their own well-being.

Her generation will also have issues of their own. But thanks to the strength and confidence they have absorbed from the changing world Ms. has been celebrating—and chastising—for 40 years, I have no doubt that they will prevail.

Stanford University will mark the 40th anniversary of Ms. magazine with a winter quarter of more than 25 events titled: “Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism.” The symposium, which will run from January through March, will feature lectures, panel discussions. performances, exhibits and an international, multigenerational essay contest.

This post originally appeared at Huff/Post 50. Reprinted with permission.


  1. Ellen Hassen says:

    “And although work hours have eased up somewhat, there is a price for that flexibility too—a gentle shove off the fast track. That will have to change.”

    Sorry, but why should someone–male or female–who takes time off work for months, or cuts back hours, to care for a small child have exactly the same seniority/chance at promotion/salary as the employee (including women) who were there in the office everyday doing the work, learning the new software, analyzing the data, treating the patients, whatever, while the first employee was away from work. Darn right I’d give preference at promotion time to someone who put in a full year of work over someone who put in 6 months and was out on maternity leave the other 6. That is not a “sexist” issue in any way; it’s called rewarding a job well done. It’s also called choosing priorities. You can be a great parent to your new baby or young child, or a 70-hour-a-week kick-butt employee whom everyone know will be CEO someday, but it’s very hard to do both simultaneously, and there’s a reason for that. In fact, one of the biggest components of sexism has always been the assumption that a woman will leave the workplace to be a stay-home mom, thus “wasting” the training invested in her. Those women who do precisely that, and then cry that they shouldn’t be considered “behind” when they come back 6 years later, are the ones who hold all of us down. we can’t have it both ways.

    • Ellen, if a “job well done” is only measured in yearly increments and heavy workloads, then that leaves out accumulated experience, judgement, leadership abilities and much more. A loyal employee who can stay on board with some scheduling flexibility is likely to continue to be an asset. Someone else may put in more hours, but that doesn’t necessarily make them more effective.

  2. In response to Sarah on Facebook who wrote sarcastically that “killing boys and girls” was some right for women to have I posted the following THAT WOULD NOT BE ACCEPTED AS A POST ON FACEBOOK:
    “An embryo/fetus is not yet a child”. 4times then: “A pregnant woman has rights over her own body”…or something similar. FB said “unable to post comment try again” I tried again to write a similar message but in different grammatical style. The second attempt was not posted either. Despite the censorship by Facebook – an embryo or a fetus is not a living breathing child. It is still part of the mother’s body. Biology is true. Religious beliefs are just untested beliefs.

    • Only when the embryo/fetus can be sustained to term other than in the womb of an unwilling mother should it be granted personhood.

      • Abortion has nothing to do with religion and once it’s a fetus it’s alive it doesn’t have to be at a certain stage to be a “child”. Why was it than when my aunt was pregnant for three days than murdered they charged the person with murder of two yet we can kill (abort) babies everyday and it’s not wrong .. My mom almost had an abortion with me and than she realized even as a fetus I was alive. And to this day im thankful she didn’t abort me I’ve reached so many goals in my life and am hoping to make a difference in this world in different ways . So u never know what potential that so called “not alive fetus” can have in life if you would just give them a chance. I’m sorry but I just don’t find abortion right coming from a child who almost was aborted and thankful I wasn’t . It has nothing to do with religion once again it has to do with a right mind. And the child will always be a part of the mothers body until the 9 months are up . Biology is just humans making an excuse for themselvesin certain areas. People say the fetus isn’t alive so that their conscience is seared but in reality it is a breathing child in progress. And if you haven’t realized it takes a full nine months for a baby to develop Unless its pre mature so once that fetus is in the progress begins and the baby is developing and very much alive. Your pregnancy test wouldn’t tell you after a day that your pregnant if the baby weren’t alive .

  3. When I went on reading your column, I happened to see that you are very proud of your one child that managed to live.

  4. As you can see from the comments, having an abortion is still controversial. Maybe Ms. should publish another list of women who have had abortions along with some of their stories.

  5. I was denied admission to the college of my choice because their admission quotas meant tougher standards for women. I saw male classmates admitted who were good students, but maybe not as highly ranked as me. It was perfectly legal at the time, and maddeningly frustrating. Those of us of a certain age can cite many such examples that now seem outrageous. Some of the young women that I talk with have trouble understanding or even believing how it was back then. My generation has a responsibility to educate and to make all women aware that we must ever be vigilant to protect our rights.

    • ZY — I’m sure you are less of a mnlsieds drone than the fellow I called an idiot, but you are not free in any sense of the word to make your own decisions about reproduction.

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