Wisconsin feminists could not have chosen a more appropriate date on which to pay tribute to Anne Gaylor, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, for her more than 30 years of abortion rights activism.
The Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women and 140 friends and colleagues honored Anne at a banquet in Madison, Wisconsin, on Jan. 22, 1994, the 21st anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The event was marked by a front-page story in The Capital Times.
"Anne has a long history of helping women in crisis," commented Margaret McMurray, president of Wisconsin NOW.
Anne has been volunteer administrator of the Women's Medical Fund, helping more than 5,500 needy women in the midwest pay for abortions since 1972. The Women's Medical Fund, a tax-exempt charity, is believed to be the oldest continuously operating charity of its kind.
As editor of an award-winning suburban newspaper in the sixties, Anne wrote the first editorial in Wisconsin advocating abortion law reform, catapulting her into abortion rights activism.
As Hania W. Ris, M.D. recalled in her tribute that night, "In her referral work, Ms. Gaylor's phone rang day and night. Her compassion and patience never faltered, even with post-midnight calls which were not a rarity."
Anne served as Vice President Central of the National Abortion Rights Action League from 1972-1978, and founded the Zero Population Growth Abortion Referral Service, with her home phone number publicized nationally. With Prof. Robert and Peg West, she then founded the Women's Medical Fund charity, predicated on the conviction that any woman, rich or poor, should be able to exercise her constitutional right to safe and legal abortion. In 1989, under the auspices of the Women's Medical Fund, Anne successfully sued Wisconsin Attorney General Donald Hanaway, forcing him to remove Wisconsin's name from an improper friend of the court brief seeking to overturn legal abortion. She has written a book, Abortion Is A Blessing, about the fight to overturn criminal abortion laws in Wisconsin, as well as a booklet published last year, Why Abortion? The Myth of Choice for Women Who Are Poor. She has received national awards from Zero Population Growth and the Feminist Caucus of the American Humanist Association.
As Anne told The Capital Times, her work to co-found the Freedom From Religion Foundation and to help needy women pay for abortions are entirely compatible.
"The Catholic church was a major impediment of women's right to vote and the right to have and practice birth control. All of these things that benefit women and concern women directly were fought by religion," she told The Capital Times.
Her freethought views were amply acknowledged at the awards dinner, with State Senator Fred Risser recalling how he was named in a suit by the Foundation against paid prayers to open the Senate. After praising her activities, Risser quipped: "There is not enough time to tell you about the time she sued me!"
He presented her with a plaque, a Citation by the Wisconsin Senate, which was adopted by a motion by Risser and State Rep. Rebecca Young. Among the activities she was cited by the Senate for was co-founding "in 1976 the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization working for compliance with the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state statutes, and has been its President since it became a national group in 1978."
Rep. Rebecca Young toasted Anne for "bravely taking on the shibboleths of our time," including her work to ensure that motherhood is voluntary, and that freedom is respected through separation of church and state. Young noted Anne's "quiet devotion to the cause of these unhappy women" who contact the Women's Medical Fund, "whom our government turns away."
"It is the Anne Gaylors of the world who move us on the road to women's equality," Young said.
Noting that Anne was born in Tomah, Wisconsin, "just a stone throw from Elroy, Wisconsin" (birthplace of Wisconsin's arch-conservative Gov. Tommy Thompson), Young provoked the loudest laughter of the evening when she asked: "How is it possible in this small corner to have spawned two individuals who are so completely opposite?" Young ended by thanking Anne for her "courage, heroism, integrity, humanity and vision."
Remarks were also made by Foundation members Profs. Michael Hakeem (see page 4) and Robert West, who called Anne "the person in Madison that I admire the most."
Liz Karlin, M.D., a previous "Feminist of the Year" recipient in recognition of her work to keep abortion accessible as owner and medical doctor of an abortion clinic, saluted Anne as "right up there with the most wonderful people," noting the "hardest part is listening to stories of despair."
Dr. Hania Ris, a longtime friend, colleague and agnostic, told Anne: "Although one of your gifts is to fire up people, you are a truly gentle woman."
Connie Threinen, a well-known Wisconsin feminist and member of the Foundation, sent a letter to be read in absentia.
Wisconsin NOW president Margaret McMurray quipped: "The village board members from Waunakee sent their regrets. They were busy taking down their Christmas--oops, I mean their 'liberty' display," a reference to the suit funded by the Foundation, challenging a creche in a public park.
Barbara Pennington of the Reproductive Rights Taskforce presented Anne with a plaque, a commemorative mug and a feminist T-shirt, asking the audience "to honor Anne and her Freedom From Religion roots," and "to honor Anne by being an activist every day."
Dan Barker provided musical entertainment, singing the feminist anthem "Bread and Roses," and Kristin Lems' "Days of the Theocracy." Many Foundation members and supporters were in attendance.
The Feminist of the Year event is an annual fundraiser for Wisconsin NOW. Fourteen "benefactors" signed on to endorse the award, along with 49 sponsors. An encouraging sign of the times was the prominence of politicians not afraid to salute a nationally known freethought spokeswoman, an uncommon phenomenon since the days of Robert Ingersoll. Among them were U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, State Senators Chuck Chvala and Fred Risser, and State Reps. Becky Young and Tammy Baldwin. Several local politicians, including the county executive, were also sponsors. Additionally, six Wisconsin legislators placed salutary ads in the NOW programme.
Anne thanks Wisconsin NOW and "all the many kind participants," including longtime Foundation member Charlotte Siverling, from rural Wisconsin, "who sent the lovely roses."