Roe v. Wade got its start on a payphone at the University Y in Austin, Texas.
In 1960s Texas, abortion was a felony—and birth control, fairly new on the market, was only available to married or soon-to-be married women. Few doctors were sympathetic to those who fell outside the law, so a group of female students at The University of Texas at Austin began an underground birth control counseling center to connect those doctors with women who needed their help, which sometimes meant crossing the border to Mexico.
Their humble headquarters was stationed in a small room—“a really small room”—within the Y. Just outside, a payphone hung on the wall, ringing when someone had nowhere else to turn.
“They were young,” Barbara Hines says of the women who called. “They were desperate.” Hines, a former women’s liberation activist and UT Austin law professor, worked in the center and remembers how their operation lead to the 1972 landmark Supreme Court case. “We were worried about our liability under conspiracy laws as aiders and abettors, so we met with one of the only lawyers we knew.”
Sarah Weddington, who would later represent “Jane Roe” in the historic trial, had been helping the group organize a garage sale to raise funds for the center when the discussion came up. “It was like, ‘wow, it’d be really interesting to challenge the abortion laws,’” Hines explains.
Weddington mentions this interaction in her book—but unless you’ve read it, you probably haven’t heard this story before. “It’s amazing to me how important this history is here that’s not told,” says UT Austin history professor Laurie Green. “If people took this history seriously, there would need to be revisions of this national history.”
Green, who worked to preserve the recorded interviews for future generations to study at the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, charged her students with connecting with a local women’s liberation activist, interviewing her and sharing her story. “Fight Like a Girl,” a mini-documentary produced by the UT Austin College of Liberal Arts, details some of the lessons and stories students learned from their conversations.
Oftentimes, women’s activity of the past is painted with a very broad brush—i.e. the notions of “first” and “second” waves—but such generalizations have left stories untold, relationships misunderstood and lessons from which to learn too few and far between.
From planting the seed that would legalize abortion to creating local organizations to protect women, from pushing for education reform to establishing gender and ethnic studies programs, the Austin activists featured in “Fight Like a Girl” prove that change is possible—with a strong community and a little bit of rabble-rousing.
“I wanted this history to be real for them and understand that this is their history—this is our history,” Green told Ms.
Rachel Griess is a public affairs representative at the University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts and a writer for Life & Letters magazine.