Jenny Brown is an organizer with the feminist group National Women’s Liberation. She was a leader in the grassroots campaign to make morning-after pill contraception available over the counter in the U.S. and was a plaintiff in the winning lawsuit. She is author of Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work (PM Press) and Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now (Verso).
Jenny’s writings have been especially helpful as Hard Crackers developed the questions that have guided our series on reproductive freedom. She also assisted us in making use of materials collected in the Redstockings Archive. We’re grateful to her for all her help.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself or your organization?
National Women’s Liberation traces its roots to two 1960s women’s liberation groups: Gainesville (Florida) Women’s Liberation, which was the first women’s liberation group in the South, founded in 1968 by Judith Brown and Carol Giardina, and Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which is a germinal offshoot of New York Radical Women that emerged in early 1969. Redstockings members were responsible for developing much of the theory and program of the movement. For example, Kathie Sarachild, who now leads the group, coined the term Sisterhood is Powerful, to express the labor union point “in union there is strength.” They developed consciousness-raising as their immediate program and from that developed the pro-woman line. They’re perhaps most famous for disrupting abortion reform hearings, and they held their own hearing where for the first time in history, women spoke out about their illegal abortions. “The Personal is Political,” meaning that what appear to be personal struggles in our lives have political roots, was coined by another two Redstockings, Carol Hanisch and Shulamith Firestone. Redstockings also wrote an excellent history of the first years of the movement, Feminist Revolution, which is available on their archives website.
We founded National Women’s Liberation in 2009 during our campaign to get morning after pill (MAP) contraception available over the counter in the U.S. We were mostly based in Gainesville and New York, so we founded NWL so women around the country who were participating in that struggle could join us, and learn the history of radical women’s liberation organizing, which has lessons we found so useful. We’re dues-funded, and therefore independent of the corporate foundations that determine the priorities and strategies of so much of what passes for “the movement” in the U.S. today. We teach history and theory classes, and conduct campaigns. Right now we’re collecting signatures on our pledge to aid and abet abortion (aidandabetabortion.org).
How did you get involved in the abortion rights struggle?
I was recruited by Gainesville Women’s Liberation members in the late 1980s, and through them I was able to attend a New York event Redstockings organized to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their 1969 speak out. I learned about the history of the radical demand for repealing all abortion laws and saw how the movement had become apologetic and defensive by comparison.
That was March 1989, and in April the U.S. Supreme Court decided Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, a mealy-mouthed decision which opened the door to new state restrictions on abortion. In response, Florida’s governor called a special legislative session to enact more restrictions. I had just restarted a NOW chapter at the University of Florida. We had an internal fight within the National Organization for Women over calling a rally at the state Capitol Building during the session (our opposition wanted to have a rally in a stadium in South Florida, far from the action). Knowing the history of how we had made progress on abortion allowed us to make convincing arguments to change the strategy in Florida. I organized students from the University of Florida, the largest in the state, to go to the session in Tallahassee and protest. About 10,000 people showed up from all over the state and we invaded the Capitol Rotunda and, along with feminist legislators working on the inside, we stopped any legislation. The governor, Bob Martinez, was defeated in the next election.
As part of that organizing, we held speak outs on abortion and birth control on campus and continued to do this through the 1990s. As a result, we learned that women students were having trouble getting prescriptions for the morning-after pill because a doctor at our infirmary refused to provide it for ideological reasons. So we started organizing around that direct need, demanding a work-around from the university. And when that didn’t work, we demanded they fire the doctor. It didn’t occur to us that the prescription was medically unnecessary until a nurse practitioner at our local abortion clinic pointed this out to us.
This exciting discovery led us to start campaigning for over-the-counter access to the morning after pill. When we started, various nonprofits counseled us not to try for this, but to set our sights lower and try to get the pill available in hospital emergency rooms for rape victims.
We did consciousness raising—another technique we learned from 1960s women’s liberation—about when we had needed the pill and discovered that the demand the nonprofits suggested would not help any of us. For most of us who had needed the pill, it hadn’t been as a result of rape. And those of us who had been raped had not gone to a hospital ER. We were interested in our own liberation, which distinguished us from the nonprofit charity-like approach of helpingsome other more oppressed women.
Nine of us joined a lawsuit initiated by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) to get the FDA to put MAP over the counter. When the FDA empaneled experts to consider this, we organized two vanloads of testifiers to attend, though we were told personal testimony instead of expert testimony would be “too subjective.” We testified about why we needed the pill—normal, everyday reasons, like we didn’t use birth control or a condom failed. This was a deliberate strategy based on our understanding of how abortion had been won—not by emphasizing worst case scenarios, but with expansive demands that encompassed the largest number of people who could benefit. We also unrolled an aisle-long scroll listing the 38 countries that already had over-the-counter status. The FDA’s panel of experts voted 28-0 that the pill was safe and 23-4 that it should be put over the counter.
We also violated the prescription requirement publicly, passing out the pills at demonstrations, and making them door-prizes at benefits. We organized a campaign to violate the prescription requirement we called, “Give a friend the morning-after pill.” Women from nearly every state faxed the FDA their signed pledges to violate the law. For several years on February 15, the morning after romance’s official day, we held press events and provided the pill to anyone who needed it. And one cold January day in 2005 we sat down to block the FDA’s headquarters in Maryland, the way they were blocking our access to the pill. Nine of us were arrested.
As part of the suit, we took depositions of various FDA officials, revealing that there had been improper political pressure on them to deny us the pill. All our activity encouraged those in the agency who were opposed to its policies. Susan Wood, the FDA’s assistant commissioner for women’s health, resigned a few months later.
Throughout our ten-year campaign (2003-2013) we were told to settle for half-measures. We think the pressure came from nonprofits so oriented to “winnables” to justify their fundraising that they lost the thread. But to us, this was a fight for our own freedom, not a bullet point in a grant. There were a lot of opportunities to capitulate. At one point the FDA agreed to allow those over 17 to get the Morning After Pill over-the-counter. We demanded no age limits and added young women who would be directly affected to the lawsuit.
The strategy was driven by our experience and what we learned from the 1960s abortion struggle. Not only would young people be excluded, everyone would have to prove their age—we would be carded for birth control. What if you had no ID? Or your ID had the wrong gender? What if the pharmacist knew your parents? Or you were a guy and wanted to buy it for a friend? Age limits meant pharmacists would still be in control. Surveys, and our experience, showed that pharmacists misunderstood the regulations and denied pills wrongly, even when they weren’t outright hostile. We overruled even some of our CRR lawyers as we pushed on for full over-the-counter status.
When the Obama administration came in, we expected the FDA to be better, but still they fought us. Obama said he didn’t want his young daughters to be able to buy the pill. This alerted us that opposition to birth control had become bipartisan, and sent us looking at the reality of opposition to reproductive control in the needs of capital, but that’s another story, detailed in my book Birth Strike.
We won in 2013 when a New York judge ordered the pill to be put over the counter. Anyone can buy it, like aspirin or condoms.
This and the cover photo were taken by Pete Self at the National Women’s Liberation protest in a Gainesville, Florida drug store in 2013 where the protesters physically put the MAP on the shelf. This was just before our victory on the age limits.
What do you think of the potential of a focus on defending Roe as a strategy for today’s circumstances?
I think it’s a weak strategy. Working class life has gone all to hell, to the extent that half of us don’t have $500 for an emergency. Well, that happens to be what an abortion costs in the U.S. right now, in states where it’s legal (it averages $530).
We need abortion and contraception through a national health care system that covers everyone for everything—like Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, which covers abortion and contraception. To win that we are going up against rich insurance companies, big capital, the biggest, because they are also tied in with the banks. It’s one fifth of the economy that we’re talking about restructuring and that will get rid of a lot of opportunities for private profit-taking.
So we need a large, united movement. Yet without that, we can’t truly have reproductive freedom.
What, for you, are the lessons taught by the last 75 years of reproductive justice struggles in the US and abroad?
Demand what you really want, not narrow exceptions to existing laws in a misguided attempt to woo the middle. Demands should be those that benefit the largest number of people. Repealing abortion laws in the 1960s was such a demand. “Free Safe Legal” was the successful demand in Ireland. Argentina’s campaign was the ‘Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito’. And in Argentina, the law they won says that the medical system has to give you an abortion within ten days of your request, which shows just how much we never won in the United States.
Without universal health care, birth control and abortion are just another thing we can’t afford, along with children. In Argentina the victory was much more substantial— the national health system made it instantly more accessible than it has ever been in the U.S.
The other lesson is that providing abortions secretly didn’t change the law. We had a century of underground abortions—millions of them—and it didn’t make a difference. What changed the law was public demand for the law to be changed, including publicly breaking the law. We encourage readers to join us by pledging to “Aid and abet abortion.”