Anne Nicol Gaylor

On this date in 1926, Freedom From Religion Foundation founder Anne Gaylor, nee Nicol, was born on a farm near Tomah, Wisconsin. Her mother, Lucie Sowle Nicol, who died when Anne was 2, was descended from George Sowle, a passenger on the Mayflower (an apprentice, not a Pilgrim). On her father's side of the family she was a second-generation freethinker. Reading by 4, and soon out-reading her one-room schoolhouse's small library, Anne was grateful to freethinker Andrew Carnegie (who shares her birthday, see next entry) for endowing the Tomah Public Library. She graduated from high school at 16, worked for room and board and as a waitress to pay for college, and graduated with an English degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1949. She married Paul Gaylor in 1949, and continued to work through four pregnancies. She sold her successful business in 1966, the first private employment agency in Madison, Wis., and became editor of the Middleton Times Tribune, turning it into an award-winning weekly. After writing the first editorial in the state calling for legalized abortion in 1967, she began receiving calls from desperate women, and turned to volunteer activism. Among her feminist activities, Anne founded the ZPG Abortion Referral Service in 1970 and over the next 5 years, made more than 20,000 referrals for birth control, abortion and sterilization. In 1972, she co-founded the Women's Medical Fund charity to help low-income women pay for abortions. She ran that charity as a volunteer for 32 years and helped more than 14,000 women. (Who says atheists don't run charities?) She dedicatedly ran that charity as a hands-on volunteer for more than 40 years, speaking individually with and helping coordinate financial care for more than 20,000 women, until retiring as administrator in March 2015, at age 88, after suffering several mini-strokes.

Her book Abortion is a Blessing was published in 1975. "There were many groups working for women's rights," she realized, "but none of them dealt with the root cause of women's oppression--religion." In 1976, she founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation, with her daughter Annie Laurie and a Milwaukee gentleman, to promote freethought and the separation of state and church. After a string of successful legal and media actions, she was asked to go national with the Foundation in 1978, and served as its elected president for 28 years. She took the Foundation from a 3-member, dining-room cause operation to a group with more than 23,000 members, a national office, newspaper, other publications, and many successful state/church lawsuits. She worked as a consultant for the Foundation from 2005 on. One of her mostly widely-quoted aphorisms: "Nothing fails like prayer."

Under Anne’s tutelage, FFRF won many court victories, including turning an initial failed 1980s challenge of a Ten Commandments in a city park in La Crosse, Wis., into a firm victory in 2004, and winning a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a Dayton Co., Tenn. (“Scopes II”) case affirming there can be no religious instruction in public schools. Highlights of her freethought career include Gaylor v. Reagan, FFRF’s highly-publicized suit against declaring 1983 to be “The Year of the Bible,” a litigation victory in 1996 declaring Wisconsin’s Good Friday holiday to be unconstitutional, and making sparks fly in interviews and national media appearances, including “The Phil Donahue Show.” She authored “Lead Us Not Into Penn Station,” a short book of provocative essays. FFRF, with a shoe-string budget in the early days, served as a successful national watchdog stopping a multitude of church/state entanglements without going to court, published freethought books, and raised consciousness about the role of religion in oppressing women. Anne’s other notable accomplishments include being the first to call for the recall of Dane County Judge Archie Simonson when he termed rape a “normal reaction” in 1977. Anne wrote the official petition that resulted in a successful recall election removing him from office. In 1994, Anne and her daughter helped spearhead the rescue of Forward, a Jean Miner sculpture embodying the state motto first displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, when then-Gov. Tommy Thompson proposed removing it from the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds. In 1989, Anne and the Women’s Medical Fund successfully sued Wisconsin Attorney General Donald Hanaway, forcing him to remove Wisconsin’s name from a friend of the court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn Roe. v. Wade. Her awards include 1994 Feminist of the Year from the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women, the 1985 Humanist Heroine Award of 1985 from the American Humanist Association and the Zero Population Growth Recognition Award in 1983. Paul Gaylor, her husband, FFRF’s chief volunteer, died in 2011. Their children are Andrew, twins Ian and Annie Laurie, and Jamie, and there are two granddaughters, Lily and Sabrina Gaylor. Anne died on June 14, 2015, two weeks after a serious fall in her independent living apartment fractured her skull. She directed that her tombstone, in the Nicol family plot in Sparta, Wis., read: “Feminist — Activist — Freethinker.” The dining room table on which FFRF (and several other organizations) were founded by Anne is kept in use in FFRF's newly expanded office, Freethought Hall, in downtown Madison, Wis. View a commemorative slideshow about Anne and FFRF. Read the press release announcing her death, which rated national coverage including an obituary in The New York Times, and an outpouring of tributes. D. 2015.

“There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

—Anne Nicol Gaylor, wording proposed to counter religious displays. Appears on annual Winter Solstice sign displayed at the Wisconsin State Capitol every December.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; Photo by FFRF

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