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Why I’m proud of my family’s history of feminist activism

My grandmother, Vivienne, was born and raised in Paris. As a true Parisienne, she loved food, friends and fashion and took pride in her appearance and her social status. Luckily, her family placed a high value on her intelligence, making sure she was educated and spent her time in intellectual pursuits, which she did. Her larger social circle included writer, philosopher and activist Simone de Beauvoir, famous for writing The Second Sex.

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I wouldn’t say they were friends necessarily, but they did travel in similar circles and I know the book had quite an impact on Vivienne’s life. It also had a major impact on second-wave feminists in both Europe and America since it was a literary declaration of war between the sexes. Chronicling the history of the treatment of women, The Second Sex influenced my grandmother’s generation immensely.

By the early 1960s, Vivienne had moved to New York City, where she met my grandfather. Feeling empowered by her Parisian feminist roots, she was active in the rights of women in America and in the fight to change abortion laws in New York. At that time, abortion was illegal, except to save the life of the woman. My grandmother and her friends saw this as merely a way to control women, period.

The matter was even more personal to Vivienne, because her parents were extremely progressive Parisians. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a doctor who performed safe, but illegal, abortions in his exam room because he, like many other progressive Frenchmen, disagreed with the laws. He always told Vivienne that it was OK to disobey unfair laws.

Vivienne took those words to heart and felt inspired by them. After she died, I found many photos of her at rallies and gatherings and with notable figures in the women’s right’s movement in New York in the late 1960s. My grandparents lived in the Lower East Side, and my grandfather remembers Vivienne taking the crosstown bus to the West Village to what they called, “abortion speak-outs.” These were well-attended gatherings where women would get up and tell their stories. Vivienne recalled that each time she went, the numbers in the room grew larger and larger.

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She knew of women, and had heard stories by women at the speak-outs, who used knitting needles or inserted dangerous chemicals into their bodies since they didn’t have access to safe, affordable, medical care. She knew this was true in Paris too. Many of the women who wanted abortions (similar to today) were married and already had children. Most of them were not young, unwed teenagers, but instead, women with families who simply could not afford another child. Some had health issues that precluded them from being able to care for more children.

One of Vivienne’s friends had given birth to a child with special needs to whom she gave 100 percent of her time, so a second child was not an option for her. Vivienne’s father encouraged her to fight for female reproductive rights and legal, safe abortions. He told her that the number of women who died from “at home abortions” was probably larger than she realized since many women’s deaths were likely not attributed to botched, unsafe, home abortions. Families, at that time, were more likely to cover up such information.

As a Parisienne, and as a woman who had been influenced by great thinkers such as her father and her friends, she felt both anger and compassion coupled with a need to act, which she did — in 1970, New York and Hawaii became the first states to legalize abortion.

It was that vote that made Vivienne more passionate about her activism. Vivienne knew that her first home, Paris, needed to join the collective thinking of her other home, New York.

It was 1971 when she took her strongest stand. A group of women in Paris were about to publish a signed document admitting that they had had illegal abortions, thereby exposing themselves to criminal prosecution — a drastic step made in an effort to take a stand for safe and legal abortion in France. The published text was known as the Manifesto of the 343 or the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts,” and was lead by none other than Simone de Beauvoir. It said:

“One million women in France have an abortion every year.

Condemned to secrecy, they have them in dangerous conditions when this procedure, performed under medical supervision, is one of the simplest.

These women are veiled in silence.

I declare that I am one of them. I have had an abortion.

Just as we demand free access to birth control, we demand the freedom to have an abortion.”

Vivienne flew to Paris to be with her sisters. She hadn’t signed, but only because she hadn’t had an abortion. She just wanted to be there to support the women who had. France didn’t legalize abortion until 1975. Despite the change in the law, the government still maintained that paternalistic, condescending, “cool off week,” where they forced you to think about having an abortion before you actually went through with it. Still, somehow France was the first country to have the progesterone blocking pill RU-486.

I like to think that my grandmother’s cross-continental activism helped pave the way for legal and safe abortions all over the world.

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