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