Anne Gaylor–Mentor and Friend: Anne Treseder

This was read at the tribute for Freedom From Religion Foundation president emerita and founder Anne Nicol Gaylor, held on Oct. 29, 2004, at the 27th annual Foundation convention in Madison, Wis.

By Anne Treseder

Most of you probably know Anne Gaylor as a leader in the fight to separate church and state. You may not know that before she took up this cause, she was a pioneer in the efforts to get both church and state out of women’s reproductive lives.

Before 1973, most abortions in the United States were illegal. These were lonely times for the women who wished to terminate unwanted pregnancies. I remember watching helplessly as a college friend, doubled over in pain, bled uncontrollably as a result of a botched illegal abortion. She was terrified, but afraid to go to the emergency room for fear she would be arrested. I think that Anne was most affected by the plight of a young Wisconsin honor student, raped and impregnated by her drunken father, who was forced to withdraw from high school and carry the pregnancy to term. In 1967, as the editor of a Madison-area newspaper, she wrote the first editorial published in Wisconsin urging reform of the antiabortion laws.

In 1969, in San Francisco, I began making referrals to safe illegal” abortion providers, as well as to doctors who would perform the procedure under California’s newly-enacted “mental health” exception to the state abortion ban, and campaigning against antiabortion laws.

Anne Gaylor was doing the same things in Madison, Wis. She established the Madison chapter of the Wisconsin Committee to Legalize Abortion. Through Zero Population Growth, she established a referral service that sought to find women safe “illegal” abortion care. And with the help of Gail Winkler and Bob and Peggy West, she founded the Women’s Medical Fund, which at that time loaned money to needy women to pay for the procedure and arranged for housing (sometimes in her own home) for women who needed to travel a long way to get a safe abortion.

Most of this work was done out of Anne’s house. Her phone number became a lifeline for thousands of women, and Anne was the sweet, calming voice at the other end of the line.

In these early days, those of us in the United States who were campaigning for safe, legal abortion knew, or knew of, each other–there weren’t that many of us! No one had yet coined the term “pro-choice,” but Anne and I were both “pro-choice” and “pro-family.” I was also campaigning for more humane obstetrical practices in San Francisco; and Anne and Paul Gaylor were lovingly raising their four cherished children in Madison. Both of us often got phone calls from relatives of pregnant women, asking for our advice as to the best way to persuade or force these women to get abortions. We replied, “It’s her choice. Support her in that choice. If she wants an abortion, let her phone us.”

In 1972, I decided that I could do more to improve women’s and men’s health care if I had a graduate degree, and I enrolled in the graduate program in medical sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I arrived in Madison that summer, and Anne and Paul Gaylor took me into their home. Annie Laurie, who was in her teens and had her own room, kindly shared that room with me.

Anne then devoted the next weeks to helping me find an apartment, spending hours driving me around Madison in the hot Wisconsin summer. By afternoon each day, I had wilted, but Anne was as fresh as she had been in the morning. I came to know her as a woman who did not wilt.

Once I was settled in my new apartment, I got involved in the reproductive rights movement in Wisconsin, helping out with the phone calls when Anne and Paul took a much-needed vacation, and functioning as Anne’s “sidekick” as we lobbied at the State Legislature against Wisconsin’s law banning the sale of contraceptives to unmarried people.

Then, in January 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade, essentially “legalizing” early abortion. It was a wonderful surprise! But almost immediately, anti-abortion forces in Congress proposed Constitutional amendments that would either ban abortion outright, or leave the issue to the states to decide. The chair of the House Judiciary subcommittee with jurisdiction over proposed Constitutional amendments, Rep. Don Edwards (D-CA), declined to hold hearings on these proposed anti-choice amendments. This was long before the Democratic Party had a pro-choice platform, and it was a courageous stand.

Antiabortion House members then began circulating a “discharge petition,” which, with enough signatures by members of Congress, would bypass Rep. Edwards’ subcommittee and bring the antichoice amendments to the floor of the House. Every day, the number of signatures increased.

Things began to look bleak again. One day, Anne said to me, “We’ve got to go to Washington!”

Anne and I flew to Washington, D.C., where Bob Kastenmeier, Madison’s former Congress member, allowed us to use his office as our home base. Representing Wisconsin National Organization for Women and Wisconsin Zero Population Growth, we visited the offices of both Wisconsin Senators and all of Wisconsin’s House members, talking to them and to their staffs about the perils of recriminalizing abortion.

Washington, D.C., was in the midst of a heat wave at that time, and I was often exhausted by mid-afternoon. Anne would remind me that we needed to make one more visit before we could call it a day, and her example gave me the energy I needed. This was the first of several trips to Washington to lobby for reproductive choice. And that discharge petition did not get the required signatures from House members.

Back in Madison, we continued to lobby for reproductive rights at the state legislature, and to debate the issue on radio and television every chance we could. Anne was a genius at requesting “equal time” and getting us “gigs.” She even convinced a local radio station to give us a weekly radio stint so that we could talk about the methods of contraception in order to educate women and couples about the ways to avoid unwanted pregnancy. We also served together on the NARAL Board of Directors, and were helpful in changing that organization’s emphasis from litigation to lobbying and public education.

By June 1975, I had obtained my degree. Homesick for foggy summers, I returned to San Francisco and began law school. Abortion remained legal, but Congress and the state Legislatures were constantly considering and passing measures that would cut back on the benefits of the Roe v. Wade decision. Our struggle was not over.

Soon after I arrived back in San Francisco, I received a letter from Anne. She told me that after much soul-searching, she had concluded that a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, and to basic civil rights, would never be realized as long as religious dogma played such a huge role in government policy. She said that she had decided to devote the next portion of her life to addressing this underlying problem.

I will admit that initially I was somewhat skeptical. But the events of the interceding years, and of the past four years in particular, have proved Anne right.

In each issue of Freethought Today, and in the media worldwide, we learn of the many ways in which majority religious dogma, combined with the “We’re saved; you’re not” mentality, can negatively affect the lives of people who are peacefully and lawfully attempting to live according to their own value systems. Anne Gaylor–a strong and gentle woman who never wilts–stands up for these people again and again. Not because she believes that her efforts will get her to heaven, but because she is fearless, empathetic, and kind.

Whenever I hear people suggest that if there were no “religion,” and no fear of God’s wrath, there would be no morality, I wish that they could meet Anne Gaylor, her family, her many colleagues in this organization, and the countless other “nonbelievers” who are working every day to repair the world.

Anne Treseder has been a Foundation member for more than 20 years and works as an attorney in California.

Freedom From Religion Foundation