What We Left Behind: Girdles, Silence and Illegal Abortion

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

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).

illegal abortion

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.

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Suzanne Braun Levine is a writer, editor and nationally recognized authority on women, families and media. She was the first editor of Ms. magazine (1972-1988), and the first woman editor of the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review. She reports on the ongoing changes in women's lives in her books, on her web site SuzanneBraunLevine.com, on television, radio, as a frequent guest blogger and lecturer. Her new book How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood (Viking/January 2, 2012) is the "third chapter" in her ongoing conversation with women in second adulthood, the stage she celebrated in two popular books: 50 Is the New Fifty: 10 Life Lessons for Women in Second Adulthood, and Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood.