Solving a WWII-era Mystery

My mother kept her abortions secret 

The most personal most shocking secret my mother never told me I had to find out from my cousin Sandy.

In 1974 Sandy had just returned from a decade working for the U.S. Army in Germany. She came home and she came out, returning with a female lover and a seven-year-old stepson. Sandy is ten years older than I, and so represents a generation of lesbians different from mine, women forced to live in the closet before the gay liberation and feminist movements burst upon our scene. Running away to Europe had been a good way to keep her secret.

Flo in her Red Cross uniform. She wasn’t a nurse. She ran a “clubmobile.”

Sandy and I hung out together in Seattle and one night after a bit too much whiskey (she’s been sober now for many years) she asked me if I’d ever heard the story about my mother’s trip to Paris during the war. My mother, Flo, had told me many stories about working for the American Red Cross as a “donut girl” during World War II in Europe, but I’d never heard that one.

“What was so special about a trip to Paris?”

“Did you know Flo had an abortion?”

“Wow! No kidding! She never told me. How do you know?

“Mom told me. I guess she was sworn to secrecy, but she couldn’t keep the secret. She had to tell someone.”

Sandy’s mother, Ruth, had told her that my mother had traveled from the front lines to Paris, where their sister Eve was working as an Army nurse, to get an abortion. This would have been in the fall of 1944. I had many questions, but Sandy couldn’t answer most of them. We speculated about who the father was and whether Eve had been involved in the abortion. 

I was shocked. Flo and I were close and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t told me, her only daughter, about this significant part of her own history. 

When Sandy told me the story of the abortion, my mother was still living and she still had three living sisters. I had time and abundant resources. I resolved to find out the answers.

There were times during my childhood when Flo talked about her experiences in Europe. She showed us kids the big scrapbook she had made after the war and I remember looking through it often. Our favorite part was a series of colored pencil drawings made by Liz, one of the Red Cross gals she traveled with in the Army’s Third Division. They showed the “girls” washing their hair in helmets, peeing by the side of the road, driving big trucks, and roughing it in tents. It wasn’t until I opened the album again as an adult that I looked more carefully. 

Flo did a pretty good job of documenting her time in Europe, taking photographs with a tiny Minox camera. She had traveled on a hospital ship to Italy in 1943. Her Red Cross unit followed General Mark Clark into Rome as it was liberated by the Allies. She was in France, Germany and Austria as well. She was the only person to photograph the field ceremony honoring war hero Audie Murphy and the photo from her album was later used in the making of a movie about him. She got lots of street cred from that, and several post-war newspaper stories about it are included in her album. 

1944 Flo was captain of this crew. The clubmobile was a two-ton truck outfitted with a kitchen to make coffee and donuts for soldiers returning from the front. L-R Isabella Hughes (Jingles), Elizabeth Elliott (Liz), Dorothy Shands (Dottie), Florence Wick (Flo) in Italy

She hated Nazis and that translated into a hatred of Germans, whom she called Krauts. She distrusted Germans as a people, and believed they were all culpable for war crimes, even and maybe especially, those who claimed ignorance. She had witnessed the liberation of Dachau and took pictures, which were “lost” by a German photo shop. But she didn’t really talk about that part of the war until the 70s, sparked by a TV show, QBVII, based on a novel by Leon Uris. That discussion of concentration camp life allowed her to start thinking and writing about her experiences again. But until then she didn’t talk about the Holocaust and of course her album contained no pictures that might have induced questions from us kids. 

She did tell us about her fiancé who was killed by a mortar shell, but she didn’t say much. Most of what I know I learned from the album, which includes photos of her and her fiancé, Gene, and letters from his mother in Oregon. There are also letters from other paramours, but she was clearly heartbroken by Gene’s death and not interested in settling down with any other, at least then.

Was she pregnant when he was killed? Did she have an abortion in Europe? Why wouldn’t she ever tell me about it? Why couldn’t I ever bring myself to ask her point blank?

In 1979, Flo and I traveled to Sweden and Norway together to visit our relatives and visit the town in Norway where her father was born. We felt particularly familial. This seemed like a good time to ask and I put some thought into how to approach the question. I didn’t think she would give me a straight answer if I asked her directly. I would have to work up to it.

Me: It must have been difficult to avoid getting pregnant while you were with the Red Cross. Did they issue you birth control?

Her: What!!

Ok, poor opening line, I know. I guess I was implying that she had sex with lots of men. Which would have been understandable. That’s what I was doing.

I felt her withdraw and knew, I think, that she would not have told me the truth even if I’d asked point blank. I didn’t have a Plan B. 

In 1983, my mother died without ever giving up the story. But there were still two living sisters, Eve, the nurse, and Ruth, to whom she had told the story. Ruth wrote me a note after a story of mine was published in an anthology about the deaths of our mothers. The story was about Flo’s funeral. Ruth took issue with some of the “facts” of my story. I wrote back to say, essentially, this is my story and I get to tell it my way. If you want your story told, write it. Ruth responded with a wonderfully detailed descriptive story about her childhood. This made me hopeful she might “remember” other details about the family. Might she tell me something more about Flo’s trip to Paris? 

After I got Aunt Ruth’s letter, I considered how to respond. Should I start with trivia and slowly up the ante before she caught on? Should I just blurt out what I wanted to know and hope for the best? I decided on a compromise strategy. I did come right out and ask the Paris question, mixed in with a few other family history questions. I don’t believe I ever heard from Ruth again, except she did send me Xmas cards every year, filled with trivia. Then she died.

Aunt Eve must know something, I reasoned. After all, she had been in Paris when Flo visited right after her fiancé was killed. Eve, the nurse, was terribly practical. She also had a knack for talking non-stop over anyone about her boys and her cats. I didn’t think she would lie to me. She asked me to edit a personal history she had written about her time as a nurse in WWII and I used that opening to question her. 

When I finally asked the question Eve seemed genuinely perplexed. She knew Flo had been pregnant. Was she pregnant by the fiancé who died? No, Eve didn’t think so. Well, who was the father then? She thought it might have been another guy Flo was dating. Really? I’m thinking: your fiancé dies, you are disconsolate, and then you get pregnant by another guy? I didn’t think so. But Eve remembered that Flo had told her she had miscarried while carrying heavy packages when moving to a new camp. She didn’t think Flo had had an abortion at all. My assumption that Ruth had gotten the information from Eve did a back flip. Flo hadn’t told Eve! She had only told Ruth, her closest sister, and sworn her to secrecy.

Flo and I got feminism together. As every new book came out about the movement, we rushed to the bookstore to buy it. I still have my copy of Sisterhood is Powerful, which she inscribed to me. She got angry about how she was treated at work. She was paid too little for what she did. When I went through her things after she died, in her jewelry box was a little pad of notes that could be pulled off, licked and stuck on something. They read “This Insults Women.” So many things then insulted women. We were sticking stickers on the world. 

In 1972 the first Issue of Ms. Magazine was published. Flo had kept it and I found it in her collections. In the very first issue was a section about abortion. Famous women, so many of them, admitted publicly to having had an abortion. It was liberating! Until then abortion was not talked about. I didn’t imagine at that time that my mother had had abortions. I myself had been very careful not to get pregnant. But by the time I became sexually active, birth control pills had become available and I made sure I was on them before I chose to have sex with men. It seemed to me that getting pregnant would be the end of my world. In high school (before I ever had sex) I once asked my parents what they would do if I got pregnant. They said they would find an abortionist. Later, when I became a feminist activist in college, I realized this was not so easy.

I wondered if my dad knew about Flo’s trip to Paris and the abortion. After Flo died, he came to visit me in San Francisco with one of his many girlfriends. 

“Hey, tell me something. Did you know Flo had an abortion when she was in Europe?”

He said he hadn’t known, but, he said, “I bet I know something that you don’t.” 

“What?” 

“She had an abortion before you were born. We had just gotten married and we didn’t see how we could afford kids. I drove her to Portland for the abortion.”

I was flabbergasted. Here was another secret she had kept from me! Now I wonder if my parents were even married then. In 1947 you didn’t go around telling folks you were pregnant and unmarried. Also, we could never believe anything Dad said; he was full of blarney. 

Later I learned of Ruth Barnett, the abortionist who ran her business in Portland from 1918 to 1968. After she became pregnant at in 1911 at 16 and had an abortion, she was convinced that all women should have the opportunity to receive an abortion if they wanted one. Barnett was the target of frequent raids, and was in and out of jail, but she kept it going for 50 years, retiring only after being convicted and sent to prison.*

Flo had kept the story of both her abortions secret from me, and she’d kept the Paris abortion secret from her husband all her life. Was she afraid of having to talk about Gene, the love of her life, to her husband? Maybe, like the concentration camps, she just didn’t want to go there again. Or maybe the shame was too deep.

World War II was a global conflict on an unprecedented scale. Women all over the world were recruited to serve the armed forces in many different roles. Approximately 400,000 American women served in the armed forces. What did the Army do when they got pregnant? While I have no proof, I believe it offered abortions to those who didn’t want to bear children. I hope so. I hope my mother didn’t have to seek an underground abortion in Paris. 

Did the U.S. government offer reproductive care to war workers in WWII? Cursory research gets me nowhere. It seems like this information has been suppressed. The government knows how to keep its secrets too.

Dear feminist researchers, 

If you have information about this historical period and the U.S. Army’s treatment of pregnant workers, please contact me at tradeswomn@gmail.com.

*Ruth Barnett memoir: They Weep on My Doorstep. Also The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law by Rickie Solinger

How to Avoid Reproduction

I had a hysterectomy in 1975 when I was 25 years old. I didn’t have cancer or uterine cysts. What I had was dysmenorrhea, or menstrual cramps.

This was an operation I had actively pursued and I felt lucky to get it, taking advantage of the remnants of the US Public Health system before it was abolished by the Reagan administration.

Buckets of Blood

Like 80 percent of women, I suffered from menstrual pain. Like 10 percent of women, the pain was severe enough to disrupt my life. Menstruation, since the age of 13, had been a trial for me that only worsened by the time I got to high school. Huge gobs of clotted blood would gush from my body every three weeks for a week at a time. The pain was debilitating. By the time I got to college I was unable to work for two days a month when my period was at its worst, a terrible embarrassment for a young militant feminist who passionately believed that women were equal to men.

Self portrait 1973

In high school I had friends who got pregnant and had to drop out of school, young women who gave up babies for adoption or had to get married. The lesson was clear to me: don’t get pregnant or you won’t get an education. Pregnancy, and marriage too, seemed like a kind of death. I was determined not to ruin my life. In high school I never had sex, but there wasn’t any boy I wanted to have sex with.

I asked my parents what they would do if I got pregnant. My mother said they would help me get an abortion. Much later, after she died, I learned that my mother had had at least two abortions. She never told me, even during the feminist campaign led by Ms. Magazine in which famous women publicly admitted to their abortions. 

How I Got The Pill

By the time I got to college, I was embarrassed to be a virgin, so I set out to remedy that state of affairs. I was hanging out with a boy I met in bacteriology lab who seemed interested in me. I asked him if he wanted to have sex and he was happy to oblige. We shook on the deal. First, though, I wanted to be sure I was protected from getting pregnant and I didn’t want to leave that up to him. The Pill was newly available and I convinced a doctor at the student health clinic to give me a prescription. This was about 1968.

The Pill wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The Pill makes your body think it’s pregnant, which meant for me morning sickness, bloating and sore breasts. And the periods were still bad. Only many years later did I learn that it’s not necessary to have a period when you’re on the Pill. That was the Catholic Church’s doing, part of a deal between the church and pill makers. The church agreed not to oppose the marketing of the Pill for birth control if certain requirements were met, one being that periods stayed. Even though I was never a Catholic, the church had an unseen hand in my reproductive life. Was I suffering for the sins of Eve? I was pissed when I learned that I could have controlled my painful periods by taking the Pill throughout the month if not for the Catholic Church. But at least by the late 60s the Pill was available to me and other unmarried women (for a time it was only prescribed to married women—another church requirement).

Im Going to Throw Up

My menstrual periods continued to worsen, causing vomiting and diarrhea as well as pain. I developed a long-term relationship with the student health center, but they began to tell me and other female students that painful periods were not a health issue and that we would not be treated there. If I told them the reason, they would refuse to take me in, so I worked out a strategy where I would run into the clinic and say to the receptionist, “I’m going to throw up.” That got me into a room with a pan, and I was able to see a doctor. Not that they could do much for me. They gave me painkillers, usually a shot of something, and sent me home, where I would lie in bed for the rest of the day, still in pain, just duller pain. I was still useless.

This was no way to live. I resolved to do something about this devitalizing state of affairs. I began reading everything I could get on the subject of menstruation and birth control, frequenting the medical library at Washington State University. I learned about the effects of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone and how they control the menstrual cycle. I only understood about half of the medical terms, but could make out the general ideas. It seemed from my reading that I might have something called endometriosis, where the lining of the uterus gets into the body cavity and responds to hormones by bleeding into your insides.

At that time in the 1960s, research was still going on to refine the Pill. I read about different types of pills I could try and I convinced the one female doctor in the student health center to let me experiment on myself. She prescribed a kind of progesterone pill, but, as with previous experiments, the side effects cancelled out the positive. One day when I lay with my feet up suffering intense cramping and pain, I popped a progesterone pill. The pain stopped within minutes! Progesterone, my savior! Why didn’t women know about this? Why don’t women still know about this? Did the medical establishment want women to suffer just as the Catholic Church did? Reading the book, The Pill, I later discovered that developers of the Pill claimed to be developing a treatment for dysmenorrhea because it sounded better than birth control to the church and the powers that be. Too bad they didn’t tell the women like me who actually suffered from dysmenorrhea.

Taking Control of Our Bodies

My relationship with the medical establishment at WSU was not just based on my own complaints. Along with my Women’s Liberation group I had been working to help women get reproductive care. We set up a counseling center in the student union and I became a volunteer counselor. The typical “client” was a student who’d had sex once and gotten pregnant. She might be a rape victim. She’d had little or no sex education in school; she had never talked to anyone  about sex or reproduction. She was confused and embarrassed. One young woman was so mortified that she ran out of the room soon after she’d walked in.

We set up underground networks to help women procure abortions and we worked with doctors in the community to provide reproductive care in the town and at the university. A book written by activists in Boston, Our Bodies Ourselves, reflected feminist organizing all over the country, even in small towns in the West. We were inspired to learn about our bodies and take control of our own health care.

During this time, women in Washington State organized to overturn the law criminalizing abortion and my Women’s Liberation group worked on that ballot campaign. Abortion became legal in Washington in 1970, three years before the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized abortion nationwide. Washington was the first state in the country to make abortion legal by referendum.

If Men Could Get Pregnant Abortion Would Be a Sacrament

My search for the perfect method of birth control continued. I never liked condoms and felt that getting men to use them was not worth the effort, although I always carried one in my wallet. Still, I thought that men should be required to take responsibility for birth control. A popular feminist poster showed a picture of a big-bellied man and the slogan “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Feminists wanted control of our own reproductive lives. We wanted the freedom to have sex without guilt and without consequences, just like men had. But we certainly didn’t want to depend on abortion as a primary method of birth control. We wanted contraception that didn’t hurt and wasn’t a big hassle.

I Got IUDd

IUDs (intrauterine devices) were becoming a popular form of birth control. It seemed like a great alternative to the Pill. You had to have it inserted by a doctor, but then presumably you never had to think about it again. Not so with me. 

The Dalkon Shield was about the size of a dime

There were many types of IUDs, but the most popular at that time was the Dalkon Shield. I went to a health clinic in the community to have it inserted. The doctor there was an older man whom I’d worked with to help provide women with reproductive care. He was inserting the Dalkon Shield into many women’s uteruses. That part went smoothly, but soon I was in pain, which continued to worsen. The pain was constant. The pain radiated from the core of my body out to my limbs. No part of my body was free of the pain. I thought to myself at the time that I could not imagine any pain worse than that cramping, and I have never experienced anything close to it in my life. My uterus was trying to expel the IUD and so I was in constant labor. (Needless to say, sex was the last thing on my mind). But the Dalkon Shield was made to resist. You had to have it removed by a doctor, and after a couple of weeks of agony I did. When I visited the mild mannered old doctor again, he told me of anecdotal evidence that women were having some problems with the Dalkon Shield. He emphasized anecdotal. He was a science-based guy after all, and there were no studies. Still, I could see the worried look on his face and I celebrated being IUD free.

Recall the Dalkon Shield

Later, of course, we learned of the terrible problems caused by the Dalkon Shield. Women suffered from pelvic inflammatory disease. Women were made infertile. Women died. We had been experimental subjects. I joined a class action lawsuit against the manufacturer and eventually received $750, a big sum of money for me then. The manufacturer, A.H. Robins Co., went bankrupt.

Birth control never failed me. I never got pregnant. But I was pissed that it was so difficult. Later, when I sat down to chronicle my torturous, painful attempts to keep from getting pregnant I got angry all over again. Even for a relatively privileged white, college-educated woman, birth control had been arduous.

The Peoples Health Care System

In 1973 I left the little college burg of Pullman for the big city of Seattle. But I had carefully laid the foundation for continuing reproductive care in my new home. 

The People’s Health Care System, a grassroots response to inadequate health care, acted like a safety net, doctoring the poor and insurance-free. Led by the Black Panther Party, activists in Seattle had created the system, which later included the Women’s Clinic at the YWCA where I volunteered and community-built clinics in the city’s poorer underserved neighborhoods. Country Doctor, one of the first community clinics, is still operating.

Seattle still maintained a merchant seamen’s hospital, part of the U.S. Public Health Service, where medical care was free. Over the years, military dependents, Coast Guard personnel, American Indians and medically indigent citizens were added to the patient load. The USP hospital in Seattle by the 1970s was a center of people’s health care activism. 

I arrived in Seattle at an auspicious time for public health care. I had documented well my battle with endometriosis (or whatever it was—I never got a diagnosis except the general term dysmenorrhea). My doctor at the WSU health center had given a written recommendation for a hysterectomy. And I made connections with the network of activist health care providers by volunteering at the Women’s Clinic. They put me in touch with a doctor who agreed to oversee the operation.

The US Public Health Service

The Seattle Public Health Hospital building, an imposing Art Deco edifice built in the 1930s, still crowns Beacon Hill in the south part of the city. I was admitted to a ward reserved for women undergoing reproductive surgery. The huge open room housed perhaps 15 or 20 beds. You could pull a curtain to separate yourself from the others, but I wanted to be part of the action. I made an effort to meet and talk to the other patients, and the atmosphere was friendly. Most of the women were wives of Navy men in for hysterectomies or removal of ovarian cysts. But one young woman told me she was a fisher and was in for a (free) abortion.

The Seattle Public Health Hospital

This was a teaching hospital. Young interns performed many of the surgeries and probably also did mine. I engaged one of the female interns, asking about endometriosis and hormone studies. Her answer chilled me. Few studies existed regarding the female reproductive system, she said. “We just don’t know very much.” At that time women were seldom the subjects of medical studies, which were almost all about men.

As I was being wheeled into surgery and before the drugs took effect, I thought to myself that I should have told my parents about the hysterectomy. I had been told there was a small chance that I wouldn’t wake up from the general anesthesia. What if I were to die? My poor mother! I was her only daughter, a very selfish daughter. But I’d been afraid my mother would try to dissuade me and I hadn’t wanted to have the argument with her. I felt strongly that this was my personal decision.

Early promotion of the public hospital

At that time there was unbelievable pressure on women to have children. Everyone told you you’d change your mind when the maternal instinct kicked in.“Every woman wants children! It’s in your genes. You are a freak if you don’t want children,” we were told repeatedly. Young women were not allowed to have hysterectomies because doctors thought we didn’t know our own minds. At the public health hospital they believed me when I told them I really didn’t want children. I never changed my mind.

Only my uterus was coming out, not ovaries. The interns had explained to me that they would try to do a vaginal hysterectomy. They wouldn’t cut my abdominal muscles unless they had to. But they wouldn’t know until they got in there, so I wouldn’t know until I came out of surgery and the anesthesia wore off. Some of the women in the ward had pretty ugly incisions and of course I had to see them all. As it turned out, the hysterectomy was vaginal, so I was left with no scar. 

Because I got an infection (a common thing for younger people, they said), I had to live in the ward for 12 days. In that time I got to know the staff and the patients pretty well. I wanted to know how they funded the surgeries of people like me who were not seamen, fishers or Navy. They told me money came from a fund for special or interesting cases. I thought that was funny since my case seemed pretty routine. Later I learned that :

Hospital Director Dr. Willard P. Johnson had found an obscure regulation in the Public Health Service Act that allowed a director to allocate up to five percent of the care offered at the facility for “special studies.” The provision was intended to allow the admission of patients with rare diseases for the benefit of the medical education program.  Dr. Johnson decided to interpret it differently, admitting every person referred from a community clinic as a special studies patient. This decision was the origin of the long-standing affiliation with the region’s community health centers.

The PHS hospital, because of its close relationship with the neighborhood clinics, became the center of the People’s Health Care System in Seattle. It was part of a vital community movement for control of our own health care, which had far reaching effects. Women did gain a measure of control and also won changes in the health care system. The women’s clinics in Seattle, set up to help women access abortion and reproductive care, continued to operate for many years. But our most important community partner, the PHS hospital and its federally funded public health care system, died a tortured death. 

Republicans Shut It Down

The Republican assault on health care is not a new phenomenon. When politicians grouse that we can’t afford Medicare for all, they forget that the U.S. once actually had a well-run public health care system. It was destroyed by Ronald Reagan.

The Seattle PHS hospital was part of a network of public health hospitals and federally-funded free clinics all over the country. Soon after he took office Reagan shut down all the public hospitals. In Seattle he had to fight the community as well as Washington’s powerful Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, and Seattle’s mayor, but Reagan pretty quickly won the fight.

The assault was unremitting. Between 1980 and 1991, more than 250 community health centers were closed, 309 rural hospitals and 294 urban hospitals were shuttered. Nearly one million Native Americans lost access to Indian Health Service care when eligibility was narrowed. Reagan’s budget cuts hacked at school lunches, Medicaid, the food stamp program, WIC and AFDC. He caused a two percent increase in the poverty rate, and the number of children in poverty rose nearly three percent.

Forty years later it’s clear that the Republicans’ answer to the prospect of socialized medicine is, for a growing number of Americans, no healthcare at all. And the attacks on women’s reproductive care continue with the recent Supreme Court decision allowing religious exemptions for birth control. Soon Roe v. Wade may be overturned and we’ll be back where we started. For a brief window in time  American women enjoyed the right to control our bodies and reproduction. Now it looks like that window is closing.

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