Two Toasts to Anne Gaylor: Connie Threinen

This was delivered at the 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 Connie Threinen


Connie Threinen
Photo by Brent Nicastro

I have two toasts to Anne Gaylor. The first is for her activities when she was editor of The Middleton Times-Tribune. The second is related to the Wisconsin statutes.

The Middleton story first.

I came to Wisconsin in 1945 from Lexington, Mass., and a Unitarian church where in Sunday School we were told how the bible stories that report miracles given by God could, in the light of later science, be explained simply as natural happenings stretched by memory, as oral histories so often are. The hymns we sang were odes to the natural environment–“For the beauty of the earth, for the splendor of the skies. . .”–no problem for my own atheism.

When my husband and I moved to Middleton in 1951, a major topic of conversation there was the division of the community into two camps–Catholic and Lutheran–a matter that only reinforced my awareness that I was an “outsider.”

It was the late 1960s when I found in the weekly Middleton Times-Tribune a letter to the editor that questioned the existence of God. I don’t remember the details. But of course I wanted to meet its author. It was signed by a Nicole something, but there was no such name in the telephone book so I phoned the editor to ask for an address or telephone number so that I could contact this “liberated woman.”

The editor, Anne Gaylor, whom I hardly knew, explained that such letters are printed anonymously and it would be unethical to reveal the identity of the author. She resisted my efforts until I replied that I agreed with the author and only wanted to congratulate her. Actually, by then I was becoming suspicious and was not completely surprised to learn that the writer was the editor herself and the name was fictitious. We talked, and Anne and I have been friends ever since.

Some time later, still in the late 1960s, Anne, as editor, actually wrote the first editorial in the state proposing the legalization of abortion. Whether that brave action meant the end of her stint in Middleton I do not know, but I do know that with Anne as editor and Paul as publisher, quite apart from their pro-choice position, the Middleton Times-Tribune received an award for bringing that paper from a small town rag into an interesting and up-to-date community asset.

A toast to the editor of the Middleton Times-Tribune!

Toast #2 takes us to a time when I sat in the balcony of the Wisconsin State Capitol to hear testimony regarding the bill that was at last to remove from the Wisconsin state statutes the prohibition against the sale of or use of “indecent articles”–the statutes’ polite word for contraceptives.

Imprinted on my memory is an image of the small woman who walked down the aisle to make her statement in support of the bill. There, in her soft but determined voice, Anne stated the case against this senseless, archaic, discriminatory denial of what should be a private matter.

Her closing point put a spotlight on the real problem–the fact that a majority of the legislators were Catholic. Anne held her list in her hand and ticked off their names and pointed out that no other religion expected their own particular beliefs to be imposed on everyone else. She gave the example of the Jewish prohibition against eating pork–a tradition accepted by no other church or group. The parallel was at once obvious and the bill that made contraception legal passed–not without objection, but it must have influenced many that day as the bill did pass.

That effort by Anne was to be followed by many more in the quest for reproductive rights in Wisconsin and certainly deserves a toast.

Constance Threinen, who calls herself “an unabashed atheist,” is the great-grandniece of Margaret Fuller. A well-known Wisconsin feminist, she chaired the Wisconsin Women’s Network for many years and today is chair of the Madison Institute. Connie has been a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 1978.

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