In 1969, the members of radical feminist group Redstockings were furious that legislative hearings about abortion featured male speakers discussing such a crucial women's issue. They therefore staged their own hearing, the Redstockings abortion speak-out, in New York City on March 21, 1969.
The Fight to Make Abortion Legal
The abortion speak-out took place during the pre-Roe v. Wade era, when abortion was illegal in the United States. Each state had its own laws about reproductive matters. It was rare if not unheard of to hear any woman speak publicly about her experience with illegal abortion.
Prior to the radical feminists' fight, the movement to change U.S. abortion laws was more focused on reforming existing laws than repealing them. Legislative hearings on the issue featured medical experts and others who wanted to finesse the exceptions to abortion prohibitions. These "experts" talked about cases of rape and incest, or a threat to the life or health of a mother. Feminists shifted the debate to a discussion of a woman's right to choose what to do with her own body.
In February of 1969, Redstockings members disrupted a New York legistlative hearing about abortion. They roundly condemned the hearing because the speakers were a dozen men and a Catholic nun. Of all women to speak, they thought a nun would be the least likely to have contended with the abortion issue, other than from her possible religious bias. The Redstockings members shouted and called for the legislators to hear from women instead. Eventually that hearing had to be moved to another room behind closed doors.
Who Gets to Speak Out?
The members of Redstockings had previously participated in consciousness-raising discussions. They had also drawn attention to women's issues with protests and demonstrations. Several hundred people attended their abortion speak-out in the West Village on March 21, 1969. Some women spoke about what they suffered during illegal “back-alley abortions.” Other women spoke about being unable to get an abortion and having to carry a baby to term, then have the child taken away when it was adopted.
More abortion speak-outs followed in other U.S. cities, as well as speak-outs on other issues in the subsequent decade. Four years after the 1969 abortion speak-out, the Roe v. Wade decision altered the landscape by repealing most abortion laws then in effect and striking down restrictions on abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy.