From Sherry: A Personal Memoir

In 1975 and 1976, the years I worked at the LA FWHC, we studied Mao Tse Tung's little red book in which he said (as well as I can remember) that creating political change was similar to cleaning house --no matter how well you cleaned house, you could never rest; you must always keep sweeping and cleaning because dust and cobwebs would always encroach on your work. Thank you and all my sisters assisting women to have abortions--you are the unsung laborers liberating women's lives, carrying on the endless struggle to gain that measure of control, that defining moment.

I would like all the women reading this who've had an abortion in the supportive environment of a women's clinic where they have been respected as exercising a choice to control their own bodies, to control their lives, to take a moment and reflect on what their life would have been like if there had been no women's clinic or legal abortion as their choice, and to thank the women who made it possible from the bottom of their hearts.

I first arrived at the Los Angeles FWHC after working as a legislative assistant in Michigan, my home state. I was angry and disillusioned with traditional politics by the Watergate scandal and my disgust with the Democrats and Republicans, who didn't look too much different from each other then. While working at the capitol, I'd been taking college classes at night, but more and more I wanted to foment a feminist revolution -- it seemed more important than finishing college and the feminists seemed most active in Los Angeles. I wanted to be where the action was.

I found it at the LA FWHC. It was the only place I could find where I could make my living as a feminist. The pay was a pittance, but I took it as a challenge to see how I could live on very little money. And I found a tiny one-room apartment in the Wilshire District behind the Ambassador Hotel among neighbors who spoke Spanish and Chinese. It rented for $85 a month.

My training began immediately with work in the well-woman clinic and abortion clinics as a community health worker. Most of the training was on the job and it was demanding physical work. Between clinics we trained on how to take blood by practicing on each other. I also went along on self-help presentations to college campuses and community centers where I learned to remove my pants in front of a group of strange women, hop up on a table and demonstrate how to insert a plastic speculum by doing it myself, legs spread wide.

After a bit, I lost all self-consciousness because it was so great to see the astonishment and wonder as women learned basics about their own bodies which had been concealed before. I remember one group well at a Jewish Women's Center where they were so pleased with our demonstration that they sent me a certificate honoring me for my contribution. I wasn't even a college student, but at age 23 I was teaching women in colleges, sharing precious knowledge they could never find in textbooks. I must have done self-help presentations at every college campus in the Los Angeles area, driving that ugly brown Toyota on all the freeways.

I never liked working in the abortion clinic, but I knew my work mattered in the lives of the women I touched. I preferred the self-help presentations in the well women clinic, showing women how to look at their cervixes with plastic speculums that they could buy for a couple of dollars and take home with them and how to do breast self-exam and use plain yogurt (with acidophilus, no less!) for yeast infections, telling them to wear panties with cotton bottom panels to prevent yeast infections. We spent a lot of time on yeast infections.

The Los Angeles Feminist Women's Health Center is where the women's health movement started. At one point we had a Federation of FWHC's in several countries and across the United States. Most women's clinics in the United States were modeled after ours. We were the first women's health clinic run by women for women.

After a while, I became a director and took an active part in the decision making. When we formed a book team, I wrote material for several chapters in the book, but I also took on the task of writing a training manual for clinic workers. I understand the training manual is still used at the FWHC with no financial reward to the authors, but that was largely how we worked back then. We were working for a cause, not personal glory. I was pleased to learn that the book we wrote has continued to sell and bring a little income to the FWHC.

We worked long hours, usually around 80 hours a week. Unfortunately, my health wasn't strong and I often reported in sick. It didn't go over well with the other women who did work the long hours week in, week out, and added to my stress level.

The women at the LA FWHC who were directors were a formidable, dedicated group and I admired them greatly. Carol Downer and Lorraine Rothman co-founded the Feminist Women's Health Center. Lorraine ran the Orange County FWHC while Carol ran the LA FWHC, but during the time we wrote the book, Lorraine spent a lot of time with us in LA away from her family. I shared an apartment with her then.

I was intimidated by Carol and her quick, incisive mind, that energetic charisma demanding so much from all of us. Carol was a significant person in my life, though. She saw my potential and gave me opportunities to fulfill it in a manner few people have done since. I liked Lorraine, her hearty presence, good humor and solid scientific mind. She intimidated me as well by her dedication and knowledge. The truth was that I was somewhat in awe of every one of the directors because of their hard work and vision in creating the Feminist Women's Health Center.

Francie and Ellen were a lively couple, both short and well suited to each other, Francie with her lively, dancing eyes and snappy Ellen. Shelley and Marilyn, were also both extremely sharp, stalwart feminists. I felt young and inexperienced next to them. Every woman who worked at the FWHC wielded a sharp tongues and gave me a hard time, but I also remember moments of kindness from each of them. Roberta was always quick to laugh but dreadful to behold when those thick eyebrows came together in displeasure. Still, I loved her like a sister. I loved everyone. I don't know if they ever knew it, though. I don't even know if I knew it at the time.

I especially remember with great fondness Margo, the soft-spoken single mother raising her son Jason among so many women, always so thin and looking so tired, but such a hard worker and staunch supporter, always there where she was needed. Then there was Kathy, slow, stately Kathy, with her quirky sense of humor and keen intelligence. And Sarah, feisty Sarah, commonsensical, no nonsensical Sarah, the only one younger than I was, but who'd been around longer than I had and used to boss me, usually with great kindness, though. Sylvia, our photographer for the book and a glamorous beauty in my eyes, also sang songs in Spanish and English at a nightclub in East LA and produced feminist movies which were groundbreaking and very exciting.

And Lynn, the gentle Southern beauty from the Gainesville, Florida FWHC, who came to help write the book, who disliked Los Angeles intensely and never felt appreciated by the women at the Los Angeles FWHC, which was true. We didn't appreciate her, but I don't think we appreciated each other all that much either, not like we might have if we weren't so often expressing our anger so freely and so often. There was so much to be angry about, but mostly it came out at each other. I am writing this piece for Lynn, who even then was concerned that we would be forgotten for our efforts.

We protested against smut films made with starlets in Latin American countries who were dismembered and killed in making the film for circles of rich men who were into pornography and paid well for the privilege of seeing women's pain as they were killed for their viewing pleasure. We picketed in front of the UCLA hospital where Spanish-speaking immigrant women were given hysterectomies without their knowing consent when they gave birth. We were spread so thin. There was so much injustice and exploitation and subjugation of women. We gave office space to a woman who started Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) who organized Take Back the Night marches. We took part in NOW conventions where we were seen as the radical left fringe of the women's movement.

We were proud of our anger. We used our anger to fight for ourselves, for all women. Our adversaries had better beware of us! Let no one get away with sexism, racism, ageism or any form of discrimination around us! We were not to be taken lightly. Anger's a powerful emotion to remain centered in, though, and eventually led to my downfall.

Even then, with the 1973 Supreme Court decision so recently declaring a women' s right to an abortion, the right-to-lifers tried to obstruct us. We usually counseled women to get an abortion between 6-8 weeks into the pregnancy, but also assisted at a nearby hospital with advanced procedures. Usually it was some very young teenager unfamiliar with her menstrual cycles, afraid and in denial that she might be pregnant until she was four or five months pregnant. As part of our counseling, it was our duty to inform these 13 and 14 year old women that it was possible to die from the anesthesia. I always found it distressing to sit with them as they came out of anesthesia, which was so often a nightmarish struggle to regain consciousness back then.

Right-to-lifers chained themselves in front of the hospital bearing grotesque blown-up photos of fetuses. They matched our anger, to be sure, with a righteousness of their own. I quickly learned not to engage in any kind of conversation with them because those were the most unproductive interchanges I've ever had in my life. They were so convinced that we were evil women for assisting other women in getting abortions and that we were carrying out the work of the devil. However, I felt just as strongly that women's bodies were our battlefields, the territory that we had the right to control.

We didn't just run clinics, though that was our livelihood. We also worked on our own political education and even our own physical health by getting health club membership as a benefit to our staff. At age 23, I successfully negotiated the health club membership for our center. It was a wonderful opportunity. I even worked out with weights at that health club and got stronger.

As for political education, we met with Marxist-Leninists (too sexist!), studied Mao and Simone de Beauvoir. The apex of my political training was at a weekend political training retreat in the mountains with Claudine Serre, a reporter from Le Monde, a newspaper in Paris. She informed us of what feminists were doing in France and Spain and other parts of Europe as part of the left. She was so chic and showed us how to jog with our forearms extended, wrists limp and hands waving loosely as you run the way they did in France.

The biggest impression Claudine made on me was that we weren't alone in this struggle here in the United States -- it was going on other places, too. And that weekend I knew that I could never see my struggles as a woman ever again solely in the context of my personal weaknesses, but always as part of a political landscape where patriarchal oppression and sexism determined most of my experiences. The personal became political and it always will be, for me. After you've gained that perspective, you never lose it.

Carol Downer decided to write a book for women about our bodies and health care and got everyone excited about focusing our resources to writing the book. A team was formed to write the book. About that time I had decided to leave the FWHC because I felt a misfit, I just couldn't seem to get the "feminist" line down, but always thought for myself. It was true that my feminist consciousness wasn't very developed at that stage. And I was upset with everyone.

Still Carol Downer had asked me to call her from the airport before my plane left and when I did, she asked me to be a part of the book team. Since I wanted to be a writer more than anything, I agreed to return to write the book, and I felt honored to be included in writing the book. We would follow in the footsteps of the Boston Women's Collective who wrote "Our Bodies, Our Selves". In fact, we met with some of those authors, who advised us as we wrote the book which eventually became two books, "How to Stay Out of the Gynecologist's Office" and "A New View of A Woman's Body."

Suzanne Gage, a tall thin woman from Tallahassee, Florida, was the artist on our book team and my partner in the self help group that met monthly for almost a year. Lorraine Rothman, Orange County founder of the Feminist Women's Health Center, invented the Del-Em device using simple accessible components and we used it to create a vacuum to remove a woman's period. If it so happened she was pregnant, then it could serve as an early abortion, but the procedure was done before any pregnancy test could show results.

I was young when I spent that year extracting my periods and I enjoyed the freedom it gave me to reduce the period to a matter of a 5-10 minute flow into a jar. I felt like a true pioneer, so few women had ever done menstrual extraction. And it was women-controlled research. There was an incident, though, that could have ended a lot worse than it did and I felt an uneasy responsibility that was more than I knew how to process.

Working the abortion clinics was taking its toll on me and I jumped at the chance to train to become a midwife and train with Ginny at the Women's Clinic in Pacific Beach near San Diego. I assisted in a home birth, rejoicing in the new life and fascinated with the tiny infant and tree of life etched on the afterbirth. I stopped at Black's Beach on my way back to LA to climb the cliffs down to the ocean there and felt exalted. But I didn't want to pursue traditional medical training to become a nurse or doctor and midwives without medical degrees were considered extralegal then in California - there wasn't a law yet permitting or forbidding it, but I wasn't ready to become a test case. I didn't like the paranoia of feeling like I might be under surveillance, which I may very well have been true, but I felt afraid and didn't like the feeling.

A rage was building in me, though, that destroyed the balance of my mind and which I flung at Carol Downer as though she were my enemy when I experienced a breakdown. It took me years to recover and it's just part of my personal saga now. I don't hold anyone responsible so much as myself and I've forgiven everyone, including myself. I have gone on with my life, but not as a member of the Feminist Women's Health Center.

So as I write this, there's a healing taking place as I truly recognize the groundbreaking nature of our work and the deep reaching change in consciousness that has occurred in many, many lives as a result of it. And I honor and bless all you women who carry on this mighty, mighty effort.

Thank you for recognizing me and wanting to hear my story and the story of the Los Angeles Feminist Women's Health Center. When you are out in front breaking the path in snow while climbing a mountain, you get wet, you get heavy, you get discouraged and flounder at times and even fall down because it's rough going when you break the trail. But eventually you also get to be the first to see the glorious view at the peak.

Today I serve the goddess and I bless every awkward step it took for me to get to this place in my consciousness. So often I am filled with bliss and joy and hope for the future as the female energy is rising and I am channeling the power of the Great Mother in my life. I know now, challenging and painful as it was at the time, the LA FWHC was a valuable learning time for me. I only hope that greater change can take place through happiness, laughter and healing -- by appreciating each other and feeling our connectedness as we move into the next century. My blessings to all of you, wherever you are in your journey! Blessed be!

Like Margo, I have been a single mother and raised my son myself from the moment he was born. My family and friends pressured me to have an abortion since my lover didn't want to get married when I became pregnant. But I was never pro-abortion. I was pro-choice and the choice was mine whether I wanted to have the baby or not have the baby. It was not a decision that anyone else could or should make for me. It has not been easy. I don't want to mislead anyone about that. But it has been good and I hope it is for my son, too. My simple dream is to raise him to become a whole, healthy man and in the process to become ever more the whole, healthy, wise and wonderful woman that I am.

In Sisterhood,
Sherry Schiffer
Colorado Springs, CO
November 4, 1999

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