Anne Nicol Gaylor

On this date in 1926, Freedom From Religion Foundation founder Anne Gaylor, née Nicol, was born on a farm near Tomah, Wis. Her mother, Lucie Sowle Nicol, who died when Gaylor was 2, was descended from George Sowle, a passenger on the Mayflower (an apprentice, not a pilgrim). On her father’s side she was a second-generation freethinker. Reading by age 4 and soon reading everything in her one-room school’s small library, she was grateful to freethinker Andrew Carnegie (who shares her birthday) 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, 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.

Gaylor founded the ZPG Abortion Referral Service in 1970. Over the next five years it made more than 20,000 referrals for birth control, abortion and sterilization. In 1972 she co-founded the Women’s Medical Fund  to help low-income women pay for abortions. She 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. “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.” Her book Abortion Is a Blessing was published in 1975.

 In 1976 she founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation with her daughter Annie Laurie and Jon Sontarck of Milwaukee 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 three-member, dining-room operation to a group with just over 30,000 members (in 2019), a national office, newspaper, other publications and many successful state/church lawsuits. She worked as a consultant from 2005 until her death. One of her most widely quoted aphorisms is “Nothing fails like prayer.”

Under her tutelage, FFRF won many court victories, including turning an initially failed 1980s challenge of a Ten Commandments monument in a city park in La Crosse, Wis., into a firm victory in 2004, and winning a Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in a Dayton County, Tenn., case (“Scopes II”) affirming there should be no religious instruction in public schools. Legal highlights include Gaylor v. Reagan, a highly publicized suit against declaring 1983 to be “The Year of the Bible,” a litigation victory in 1996 declaring Wisconsin’s Good Friday holiday 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.

Other notable accomplishments include being the first to call for the recall of Dane County Circuit Judge Archie Simonson when he termed rape a “normal reaction” in 1977. She wrote the official petition that resulted in a successful election removing him from office. In 1994 she 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 State Capitol grounds. In 1989 the Women’s Medical Fund successfully sued state Attorney General Donald Hanaway, forcing him to remove Wisconsin from an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

Her awards included 1994 Feminist of the Year from the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women, the 1985 Humanist Heroine Award in 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.

Gaylor 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 read: “Feminist — Activist — Freethinker.” 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)

Freedom From Religion Foundation