Before #MeToo – The Price of Silence

Meredith Keller

Now in retirement, I am anticipating a quiet afternoon in my art studio when I check mail in my rural box. Roosters are crowing. I hear clanking sounds of tractors discing and smell the musty soil being turned. I sort through the junk mail when my eye lands on a hand addressed letter. I tear it open to find the shocking words:

I think you might be my grandmother.

My body goes rigid as the thought of reliving a shattering period of my past sends waves of shock reverberating through my body. All those feelings of shame long buried were about to boil up again. If I answered the letter, all would be revealed.

Would I dare? Did I want to go down that path and relive the scenes of a rape and resulting pregnancy, opening the scars of a long buried episode that began on a college campus in 1962? Would this young writer, my granddaughter, be able to comprehend how the moral arbiters of society held us in their grip?

Sexual harassment, rape and intimidation have shadowed and haunted women through the ages. Where were their stories? Buried, like mine, in shame, layered under decades of angst. In my day single women with unintended pregnancies were forced into hiding. From the end of WWII until the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, unmarried pregnant women and their families faced shame and insufferable choices.

The alternatives were dismal. One solution was to visit abortionists, in many cases unqualified, who, to protect their own identities, blindfolded women during the procedure.  In 1962, sixteen hundred women, forced into illegal terminations, were admitted to Harlem Hospital Center in New York City due to botched or incomplete abortions. Society had women, especially poor women, in a vice.

Others had no choice but to carry a child to term. They quietly disappeared, spirited away while the stigma of “illegitimacy” hung over them. Shrouded in secrecy, with their identities erased, they were groomed to hand over their babies for adoption and return to society as though nothing had happened. It was known as the Baby Scoop Era when the dominant view was that unmarried women were unfit mothers and needed to acknowledge their guilt and shame and give up their babies for adoption. From 1945 to 1973 it is estimated that four million parents in the United States had children placed for adoption. Four million sad stories like mine went undocumented.

The Unraveling – The Price of Silence, my memoir, puts a spotlight on what it was like to have to weather the paralyzing trauma of rape and then go through the devastating severance of handing a child over to adoption. No one can imagine the gravity and deep sadness of that moment you give away your own child. It caused a quake deep in my soul. Is this what our legislators wish to return to when they not only write restrictive abortion laws, but also deny women health coverage for contraception under the guise of “freedom of religion”?

Feel what it was like to struggle through those times before Roe as I dredge up shattering memories that haunted me for 52 years. I fiercely fought for the dignity that was swiftly erased one night on a college campus. I had to jump hurdles to re-define myself, bury the past and muster the grit to have a successful career beginning as Food Editor of a leading restaurant magazine at age 23.  

The scars from my early life remained and memories lingered until that letter arrived in my mailbox. What would I respond? How could I adequately explain an era long forgotten? That granddaughter had not lived through those restrictive times of shame and humiliation. I unraveled my story for her and all young women so they can feel what it was like when women’s reproductive rights were emphatically denied. It is a struggle we are facing yet again. And yet, there was one champion in our corner, a little known lawyer at the time, and she had this to say:

The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. When the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Keller’s memoir, The Unraveling, is available in paperback, hardback, and electronically from popular outlets such as Amazon and Powell’s. The book’s cover art, reproduced above, is her original work.

2 thoughts on “Before #MeToo – The Price of Silence

  1. I know era all too well, recalling the back room abortions and secretive, middle of the night rendezvous’ with men you never saw but needed to trust you would survive. It was only men doing abortions at that time except for the women’s collective that began to train themselves to perform them. That was an empowering moment for women!

    One of the most important aspects of the Feminist Movement was claiming the right to our lived experiences without shame and judgement. We fought, struggled and wrote about this demanding a public voice. Today, it horrifies me to see this history not held up for our younger generations and, instead, still hearing judgements from women about those who had or will have an abortion as is their right. Controlling our own body is about as critical to our freedom as one can get.

    The idea that male controlled institutions are still fighting to maintain that control is horrifying to me. The bigger problem is that political and economic tendency is reflected in many areas of our lives today. These drug mandates and the shaming of people around personal choices is the ongoing reflection of this exact thinking and entitlement with the complete lack of regard to personal and societal consequences. We must keep the big picture in mind wile fighting to maintain our personal and collective freedoms of speech and choice. Thank you for posting. I hope it was cathartic and empowering for you.

    • Fascinating insight, Tamarque, a d a little known fact about women’s collectives training themselves to perform abortions. Maybe you could write an article on the empowering tasks women had to take on themselves back then. It is sad indeed that the personal choices you fought hard for are being sidelined today as women have fewer opportunities to control their own body and destiny.

      There are others out there addressing past injustices, working on documentaries, like Karen Wilson-Butterbaugh who is now focusing on The Baby Scoop Era. Gabrielle Glaser is expanding on her recent book, American Baby about coercive adoption practices and Ann Fessler wrote about The Girls Who Went Away and followed it with her documentary, A Girl Like Her, about the million and a half women who became pregnant in the 50’s and 60’s. These stories need to be told for the younger women

      Yes, it was cathartic for me, too, to write about these buried experiences of pain and shame. Story telling can be a powerful tool and I encourage women now more than ever to tell their stories. Each unique tale adds depth with their personal experiences. We need to continue telling our primary accounts to give ethical dimensions to this period and correct the historical perspective.

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