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Interview Movement Chronicles

Remembering the Texas Abortion Coalition | Interview with Activist and Co-Founder, Evelyn Sell

The year began with some relief for abortion rights in Texas, when the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated any legal basis for Gov. Greg Abbott’s opportunistic ban on abortion during the first months of the pandemic as a “non-urgent medical procedure.” It was the latest and far from last maneuver in a decades long project of the Texas GOP to turn back time before Roe vs. Wade and any right to abortion in the state. Nearly 1000 patients had to go outside Texas to get abortion access as a result of the recent ban, and available statistics indicate 1800 fewer abortions within the state overall. Today, there are less than 30 abortion clinics in Texas, leading the nation with cities more than 100 miles from one. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood in Texas is currently struggling to retain its link to Medicaid to carry out the most basic services, within the wider background, of course, of the Hyde Amendment which blocks federal funding for abortion provision. The Texas GOP plans to go further with an even more outrageous legislative agenda for 2021, which includes banning abortion back from twenty weeks, with one bill pushing it to twelve and another to six.

That said, what wind the party had in its sails after defeating Democratic challengers in November has certainly been frustrated by the criminal catastrophe of the winter storm.  And, the Texas GOP always has a tendency to overreach in a state more contradictory than their ideology projects.  The obscene and ultimately failed attempt by the governor to legalize discrimination against queer and trans people among social workers in October, being only a recent example.  The state’s enormous Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018 and the mass protest movement against the War on Women in 2013 being others. That these moments amidst the pandemic and the aftermath of the ice storm seem like distant memories is bad enough, but even worse that in popular memory they seem to have erupted out of nowhere. In truth, these dramatic defensive struggles have antecedents in more offensive battles of the 60s and 70s, whose radical ambitions ultimately produced Roe vs. Wade (involving Texas plaintiffs and Texas lawyers) and its aftermath.  

One participant in such battles was the Texas Abortion Coalition (TAC), a statewide alliance of liberal and leftwing feminists, whose participants helped build the groundswell of women’s liberation activism in this radical period, while directly initiating and undertaking the legal battles that would go under the name Roe vs. Wade.  Crucial was the initiative of the local New Left based at the University of Texas at Austin, where women’s liberation activists involved in the publication of the radical student newspaper, The Rag, organized the Birth Control Information Center (BCIC) in 1968 next to the paper’s offices. Operating until 1973, the BCIC facilitated transportation and abortion access across the border in Mexico and formed the radical context of the TAC’s formation as well as the recruiting ground of Norma “Jane Roe” McCorvey’s lawyer and TAC chair, Sarah Weddington. S.U. spoke with Evelyn Sell, co-founder and state secretary of the Texas Abortion Coalition, to get the story about the women’s liberation movement in Texas, the TAC and its significance today.

Before discussing the coalition directly, can you set the scene in terms of the political moment of the late 60s and early 70s, both nationally and in Texas, specifically? How did you come to get involved politically during this period?

My political activities began when I was living in Detroit, Michigan. That’s where I was originally involved in socialist, union, civil rights, civil liberties, peace, anti-nuclear war and anti-Vietnam war activities. That’s where I joined the SWP’s [Socialist Workers Party’s] Youth Group and then the SWP in 1948. My involvement in late 60s/early 70s was simply a continuation of activities during the previous 20 years. 

I moved to Austin in the summer of 1969. Every social and political movement of the 1960s was present in the area – fueled by the young students attending the University of Texas at Austin. The local leader of the Black Panthers was often on campus. There were activists against the war in Vietnam. There was a women’s liberation group. A large gay liberation conference took place in Austin. Lesbians were meeting to discuss and organize around their issues. There was a nascent Chicano movement. The university was a center of and for activism. 

As soon as I got settled in Austin, I became part of the vibrant political life of the area. Of course, I was immediately part of the local Socialist Workers branch which was full of young members recruited from UT.

Women’s liberation was just beginning to flower in Michigan as I was getting ready to move from Detroit to Texas. Women’s liberation was in full bloom in Austin. 

Very soon after I arrived in Austin, I went to meetings of the Austin Women’s Liberation Front. I was invited to speak about women’s liberation in Houston, El Paso, San Antonio and Dallas. My talks helped spur the formation of local chapters of the National Organization for Women which was 3 years old at the time.

In the summer of 1970 I was invited to speak at a program organized by the Oleo Strut GI coffeehouse in Killeen. All the GI coffeehouses were presenting this 7-days program; each day was devoted to a different issue. I spoke on the day devoted to women’s liberation. 

I include this event because it was such a good example of the interactions, the overlapping, the inter-connections between the various social movements of the 60s/70s. Each movement learned from the actions of the others. Each movement inspired the others. Sometimes, the same people were involved in 2 or 3 movements.

I was co-organizer of the Women’s Liberation Conference which took place on September 26-27, 1970 in the University of Texas-Austin. This was the first conference in Texas devoted to women’s issues. It was not confined to women students but was open to all interested women. There were workshops on a wide array of women’s issues – including one on “The Rights of Women to Control Their Own Bodies.”

Some male students were incensed that women were holding a women’s liberation gathering. They posted a handwritten sign “No Men Allowed” on the door to the large meeting room. Their plan was to photograph the sign and publish it to shame feminists. Fortunately, I saw the sign and removed it before their plot could succeed. Just an example of the hostility felt and expressed by men during the early years of the women’s movement.

Another example of male hostility. A young feminist activist and I were speakers at an event (can’t remember details) and during the question period, a young man asked, “Why are women’s libbers all so ugly?” 

This was patently absurd because the young woman activist was movie-star-beautiful. However, we answered politely. Women’s liberation was still a new phenomenon and feminists needed to educate the public about facts and issues.

What kind of formation was the Texas Abortion Coalition? How did it form and figure within the movement nationally? 

There was a kind of “abortion underground” in Austin in 1969. Because abortion was illegal in Texas, women went to Mexico to have the procedure. I remember being given a very confidential phone number which I could pass on to any woman who called me for a contact to arrange a Mexican abortion. This early activity began to take more organized and more public form soon after I became active in Austin.

In 1970, I was a founder of the Austin Abortion Committee, the predecessor to the Texas Abortion Coalition. The impetus came from the state legislature’s review of Texas abortion laws. The Committee carried out the usual activities: meetings, public events, reaching out to individuals and organizations. We also applied direct pressure to state legislators, for example, by sitting in the gallery of their chamber with pro-choice signs and occasionally shouting out a slogan or comment on their proceedings.

On occasion, we carried out a guerilla action. Here is one I remember vividly. A group of legislators had Sunday breakfast in an Austin restaurant and invited their constituents to join them and voice their concerns. About 5-6 of us decided to take them up on their open invitation.

We prepared very carefully. We wore very, very nice dresses and high heeled shoes and put on makeup. We understood that if we dressed in our usual fashion – jeans/slacks, sandals, no lipstick/rouge – the legislators would dismiss us out of hand.

We walked into the restaurant and went up to the legislators’ table. They hailed us, invited us to sit with them; they were smiling broadly, treating us with old south chivalrous behavior. We sat down, smiled.

“Well, little ladies and what do you want to tell us?”

“We want to talk to you about abortion,“ I answered in a sweet, ladylike voice.

Great consternation! One legislator looked like he was about to throw up. Others turned pale – as if even their blood didn’t want to be in the same space with these crazy ladies. We got in a few sentences before we were ushered out of the restaurant. We couldn’t stop laughing. 

Abortion/pro-choice groups were being born all over the country. In 1970, I and other women’s liberation activists from Austin attended the first conference of the National Abortion Action Coalition (NAAC) held at Columbia University in New York City. The NAAC was a precursor of what is now NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Our local abortion committee was not alone in trying to change the state’s abortion laws. Similar groups existed in Texas. In 1970, I was a founder of the Texas Abortion Coalition (TAC), the logical next step in efforts to legalize abortion. Individuals and organizations joined forces to “gather broad-based support for the passage of a humane abortion law for the state of Texas.” (leaflet)  The TAC position statement was:

            “Abortion is a personal decision. We believe that every woman has the right to control her own body and decide when to terminate a pregnancy. Present Texas abortion laws deny a woman this right.

            “We want the Texas legislature to pass a humane abortion law. The law must make legal, low cost abortions available to all women. This law must protect every woman from an unwanted pregnancy or a forced abortion. Her consent, and only her consent, must be required.”

The Texas Abortion Coalition called for a day of public hearings ending in a march and rally. As State Secretary, I organized this event along with Laura Maggi. Sarah Weddington (attorney for Jane Roe) was Honorary State Chairperson. The Citizens Hearings on Abortion was packed and when I called for women to follow me for the march, 300 responded. We marched on Guadalupe Street to the capitol where I spoke to a rally. 

I am not aware of a distinct national role or influence by the Texas Abortion Coalition. As part of an American groundswell, TAC added to the voices calling for legal abortions. 

(I lost touch with the Texas women’s movement when I moved to Houston in 1972 to organize petition campaigns and election campaigns for the SWP in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. In August 1972, an auto accident resulted in my becoming a paraplegic and I spent a year in hospitals and a rehabilitation facility. I moved to Los Angeles in 1973.)

What were your expectations about the coalition at the time and what’s your assessment of it looking back today?

As I remember, my expectations for the Texas Abortion Coalition were met. TAC brought the issue of abortion rights to the public’s attention, it created connections between activists across the state and it strengthened women’s resolve to fight until they succeeded in gaining control over their own bodies. It served its purpose.

Not too long after the 1971 hearings, Sarah argued Roe v. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court. With the court victory in 1973, the intense struggle for legal abortions was diminished. Now and then there was a flare up of pro-choice activism after 1973.  

As you know, those who opposed abortions carried out efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is obvious that this issue remains very much alive today and continues to be crucial. The anti-life/anti-abortion effort reared its ugly head during the Trump years when he gave very strong support to the “pro”- life movement. For example, the only president to speak to the annual march/rally in Washington, DC. (I hate to call this movement “pro” life because it is truly anti-life – anti the lives of women, anti the rights of women to have full lives. . .)

Texas has a reputation for being a rightwing state, crucially, without contradictions. But why do you think Roe vs. Wade happened in Texas – i.e. why did Texas become such a pivot point in the battle for abortion rights? Does that say anything about how politics in Texas was changing or could have changed in your view at the time? 

I believe that Roe vs. Wade happened in Texas due to chance. Norma McCorvey grew up in Texas by chance (she was born in Louisiana). It was chance that, when she became pregnant for the 3rd time, the authorities had closed down the clinic where she sought to obtain an illegal abortion. It was chance that she ended up with feminist attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington. It was chance that it was just at that time the two lawyers were looking for a client to challenge laws making abortion illegal.

So, why did McCorvey choose to have an abortion when she became pregnant for the third time in 1969? Why not the first time (1965) or the second (1966)?  It may be that a third pregnancy was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” It may be because “abortion was in the air” in 1967-1969 not only in Texas but around the country. It may be just chance that she chose abortion. 

There was a vital, active pro-choice movement in Texas and perhaps this encouraged McCorvey to seek an abortion – but she could have been similarly encouraged in many other American states. I don’t think there was anything unique about Texas that caused McCorvey to seek an abortion and end up in Roe vs. Wade. If “politics in Texas was changing” in a significant way in 1969, then why is Texas still so conservative today? (I think Texas is changing today, along with other states in the south. Look at Georgia. It’s the demographics.)

In Mumia Abu Jamal’s memoir, We Want Freedom, he mentions the heavy surveillance and repression you faced from the FBI. Can you speak a bit for a new generation of activists coming up in a very different era about your wider activism during this time and the challenging terrain you had to navigate?

After the SWP filed its lawsuit against the government, I learned what the FBI  – along with the Detroit police Red Squad and the Michigan State Police – did to surveille and harm me. I received FBI files through the SWP lawsuit and I requested Detroit police files through the Freedom of Information Act. I have several boxes stuffed with files.

Agents, police officers and informers watched me enter meetings, forums and events; they wrote down my car’s license plate and my home address. They listened to the talks I gave  – including completely legal election campaign speeches when I was a candidate with my name on the ballot – and wrote down almost every word I uttered.

FBI agents went to my employers and told them of my socialist activities and election campaigns. FBI agents went to my landlords and told them of my socialist activities and election campaigns. The results were very harmful to me: the board of the Austin Independent School District fired me and my landlord in Austin told me I had to move. 

When I travelled abroad in the summer of 1970, I was put on a “watch list” and was paid special attention. My worst experience was in Israel where I was taken out of line at the airport and put in a room; my suitcase and purse were taken away and searched for many hours. The officials seemed particularly interested in a typed speech on women’s liberation which I gave to a meeting in London. 

I was kept in the room until the plane could no longer wait for me and left for Paris. The airline company put me up at a hotel where I was kept incommunicado – it was frightening to be completely blocked from phoning or contacting anybody, to think, “If anything happens to me, nobody will know!” I went through the same search procedure when I went to the airport the next day. This time I was able to board the plane and leave for Paris.

Perhaps the most pernicious thing was planting informers inside groups/organizations I was active in – which I learned about by reading the files about my socialist, anti-war, feminist activities. 

It took great will power to shut out the knowledge of being watched. Creepy! It took mental energy to nip in the bud any wondering if someone was an agent/informer. When I read my files and saw what an agent/informer reported about what I said in a speech, I thought (a million times!), “That’s not what I said! Not true!” It was exasperating to know there was no way to make corrections or lodge a complaint.

I sometimes heard a person joke that there were more FBI agents in the Communist Party than actual members. It was no joke. We activists not only marched together in a demonstration, we went out for coffee, sat together, talked, laughed – we had social relationships, we developed friendships. When it was discovered that a “friend” was actually a spy, I felt a nasty feeling of betrayal.

How have I weathered the “the challenging terrain” for 70+ years? I feel very deeply about the causes I support. My activism has been and is based on an intense commitment. My life as an activist has been a liberating experience. As a teenager, I was very shy, very quiet, inhibited, unsure of myself, timid. When I became an activist, I came out of my shell. Partly because of the needs of the “struggle” and partly because of the encouragement of others, I became a public speaker, an organizer, a leader, a candidate for public office, an internationally recognized journalist.   

To the “new generation of activists,” I say: being part of something bigger than you, will emancipate you, will bring you great fulfillment, will stretch the boundaries of your life beyond anything you ever imagined.

How has your experience across the US – including in Detroit and LA – shaped your assessment of this period of organizing in Texas?

When I became politically active in Detroit in 1948, dynamic union radicalism and organizing was winding down taking everything and everyone along with it. The 1950s were dispirited and marked by poisonous anti-union/anti-communist/anti-socialist attacks.    

A revival began to take place in the 1960s. There was Black nationalism, DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movementand the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Freedom Now Party. There was the youth movement. There was opposition to the war in Vietnam. I was involved in all of these movements – especially in the anti-war movement.

Compared to the relatively dull political life of the 1950s, the 60s were politically exhilarating in Detroit and in Austin. The most significant difference between Detroit and Austin was the absence of Black activism in Austin. The presence of young people was true in both places – and especially in Austin because of UT.

As I already noted, women’s liberation organizing was just beginning in Michigan when I left in 1969. Feminist organizing was already rich, exciting and notable in Austin. It was a great time to be alive in Texas!

To conclude, why is abortion, free and available on-demand, a socialist-feminist demand? What do you think are the prospects for a renewed fightback to turn back an era of assaults on bodily autonomy and expand reproductive freedom today?

A woman’s reproductive life impacts all aspects of her existence: choices about education (when, where, how long); choices about job(s) (what kind, hours of work, child care); choices about marriage/partner (at what age, which person). Access to easily available, safe and affordable abortions are the proverbial tip of the iceberg for women. The demand for abortion rights is shorthand for women’s total control over their bodies and their lives. 

We have to launch a massive, united, serious fightback against the forces which have been working steadily for almost 50 years to overturn Roe v. Wade. They never stopped, they will not stop. A 1/23/21 article in the Los Angeles Times reported on current legislation to curb or ban abortions in Arkansas, Texas, Montana, South Carolina – with many more states pursuing legislation already in the pipeline to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the Biden-Harris administration supports a woman’s right to choose, women cannot depend on friendly politicians. Women must depend on their own efforts to secure legal, available, affordable and safe abortions.

The prospects are good for women to organize to secure control over their own bodies. The massive demonstrations organized by women for the day after Trump’s 2017 inauguration, the existence of and support for Planned Parenthood and NARAL, the increasing number of women winning public offices – these real organizations and activities demonstrate the continuing viability of feminism and the continuing interest in calling for legal, accessible, affordable and safe abortions.

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