Veteran Feminists of America
MERLE HOFFMAN – WOMEN’S HEALTH CARE PIONEER, ABORTION FOREMOTHER,
I was born on March 6 1946, in a two-room apartment in Philadelphia, the only child of Ruth Dubow , a frustrated actor/dancer and a descendant of Russian musicians, rabbis, and revolutionaries , and Jack Rheins Hoffman, the grandson of a strong Lithuanian grandmother who had left her abusive husband and gone to England to start a new life.The grandson, my grandfather, had emigrated to the U.S. from England and made a fortune in industry before the great Depression.
I was named Meryl Holly because my mother thought it a good stage name as she had transmitted all her thwarted ambitions to me and intended to mold me into a star performer. When I was old enough to understand the significance of all this I changed my name to Merle thinking far stronger then Meryl.
I’d always been ambitious, and seeing my first cousin gain international recognition as a violinist, I focused on becoming a great concert artist myself. After months of begging I convinced my mother to allow me to study. She bought me an accordion and then, impressed by my dedication, a piano. My musical talent was immediately recognized, and I soon committed myslef to becoming a great concert artist. I now had something that enabled me to stand apart.
We’d moved to Queens, N.Y., and after taking piano lessons for two years, I was accepted into the Chatham Square Music School, where concert artists trained. Though very serious about my music, I was also entering my teen years and soon became aware that male teachers were looking at other places besides my fingers.
When I was sixteen I went to Indian Hill Music Camp where I studied with a famous pianist.who I instantly fell in love with. He spoke to me about his love and desire to be with me while I played Chopin. My body had developed and I was no longer a little girl, but a naïve teenager--and the strength of my emotions frightened me. I told my father about this mutual attraction and, furious, he reported the teacher to the administrator, and the scandal resulted in me being asked to leave to program. which I did, but not before I performed at the final concert of the season..
With the orchestra swelling behind me, I played Mozart’s Concerto in D Minor brilliantly, but afterward I entered the first of many depressions I’d have all my life. I convinced my parents to take me to a therapist, who I would visit on and off for years. This doctor, unlike everyone else, did not pathologize my passionate and artistic nature, but enabled me see it as a challenge and a gift.
Afterward I attended the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan. I was attracted to a young teacher there, and soon we were meeting in his apartment. I was learning how powerful my sexuality could be, but I didn’t lose my virginity to him. My first sexual experience was with a Chilian concert pianist whom I met sneaking into the Vladimir Horowitz return concert.
I had begun to equate sex with power, but fear of pregnancy as well as feeling I was vulnerable to rumors made me feel diminished after having sex, as it made me feel that someone had “had “ me. It seemed that “giving yourself” to a man meant losing yourself.
I wanted lovers, but I wanted more than love, I wanted an ally. I felt myself to be just as talented and ambitious as men were, but they had egos that had to be nourished.
In the 1960’s, students began protesting, demanding gender and racial desegregation, unrestricted free speech, and withdrawal from the war in Vietnam. They protested materialism and consumerism, challenged conventional lifestyles and institutions and traditions surrounding sex and marriage and urged everyone to explore alternative patterns of relationships, of work and domesticity.
The women’s liberation movement was making news, but I didn’t see myself as a part of that band of angry young women who called themselves feminists. I was somewhat removed from the collective reality, spending my time practicing and reading.
In 1965, after graduating from Music & Art, my parents gave me a trip to Europe. I went to Britain, then to Scotland, where I visited all the sites associated with Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth 1. I made pilgrimages to sacred music relics: Chopin’s piano in Mallorca, Beethoven’s piano in Vienna, Liszt’s in Budapest.
I met a young woman in a local pub in Cornwall who ran a stable and riding academy. We became instant friends. She invited me to her home and I lived in her cottage for eight months. She taught me to ride and I learned to share her passion for fox hunting. We quoted Shakespeare, recited Elizabethan poetry and walked on the bluff where Walter Raleigh had played bowls while the Spanish Armada gathered force. In the years to come, when our lives were so different, that wonderful sense of connection would return whenever we talked. It was the first time I’d felt that with another woman.
I returned to Europe many times. I studied music in Paris, lived in one room and survived on bread and cheese; attended bullfights in Madrid; lived in Cologne for five months with a male German research scientist I’d met in a hotel lobby; learned to play backgammon on Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Alexis Obolensky. All these adventures made me see I could make things happen, create realities from the visions in my head.
I returned to the States when my money ran out. It was now clear to me that I would not be a great concert artist, nor did I want to be, as entering that world would be like entering a nunnery, practicing hours daily and giving up everything else. Also, playing music no longer filled me up emotionally. But where would I find the greatness I sought? None of the traditional female roles interested me. I felt I was drowning in everyday life.
Thinking of a career in the theater, I took courses at the Herbert Bergdorf Studio of Acting, but that didn’t satisfy my creative instinct. I took classes at the Art Students League, but soon realized an art career wasn’t for me either. I experimented with religion, trying Judaism, Catholicism, Christian Science--all helped foster my search for transcendence, but none satisfied my quest for meaning
Meanwhile the battles for abortion rights was raging. Abortion was illegal in the U.S. and women were fighting for reproductive freedom and paving the way for my entrance into the conflict with courageous, creative and purposeful women. In my early twenties I knew I had the power to attract what I wanted, and was unafraid to engage it. I had been preparing for battle my whole life. A movement, a history, a war was waiting for me. And I was ready.
Now I spent most of my time at home, reading. My mother insisted I look for a part-time job. I found one working with a lapsed Jesuit priest who had a Human Relations Consulting Firm. One day the priest asked me to unbutton my blouse so he could just look. It excited me to play with the power he’d handed me, so I did. I worked there until the office closed a few months later, and again I was thrown into a holding pattern . Once more my mother began searching for jobs for me. In a local paper she found an ad for a part-time medical assistant. It was close to home and only two nights a week, so I’d have time to pursue other dreams. And thus began my entry into the medical world and my long relationship with a doctor who practiced as an internist.
A NEW CHAPTER
I began to work with Dr. Martin Gold and would work with him for years. I was impressed by his great ability and the way he treated his patients, many of whom were Holocaust survivors.
At the end of each day we’d discuss everything from politics to philosophy. He spoke of the time he was a Navy medical officer in WWII, about his impoverished childhood-–and about his experience as a Resident at Bellevue Hospital, where victims of self-abortion were so common that the night shift was called the Midnight Express. Women would start the process at home by inserting foreign devices(wire coat hangers) into their cervixes; when they began to bleed they’d go to the emergency room where physicians would perform a procedure called dilation and curettage, scraping tissue from the uterus–essentially an abortion.
Marty convinced me to apply to college. I ascribed to the Socratic view that an unexamined life was not worth living, and I thought psychology would help me to continue examining mine. My therapist helped me register at NYU for three non-matriculating classes. I got all A’s and was accepted as a full-time student.In the next years my relationship with Marty deepened and we became lovers. Years later he divorced his wife and we married and lived together until his death in 1999.
At age 24, in 1970 I‘d finally moved out of my parents’ home, and two weeks later my father died of a heart attack. Now there was no money for NYU, so I transferred to Queens College and took two more part-time jobs in addition to my work with Dr. Gold.
At Queens College I was first exposed to “real activism” in the late 60’s and early 70’s after attending a reading by writer Anaïs Nin and a lecture by beloved black feminist Florynce Kennedy. Flo spoke about lesbianism and abortion and delivered the now-famous adage, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” I had first heard about abortion when I was ten, when I overheard my parents discussing a Philadelphia physician whose patient had died during an illegal procedure and, to cover for himself, he’d cut her up in pieces and put her remains down the drain.
The New York Times reported in 1970 that “a dramatic liberalization of public attitudes and practices regarding abortions appears to be sweeping the country.” The Title X Family Planning program designed to provide women with access to contraceptive services was enacted as part of the Public Health Service Act. In the two-and-a- half years between July 1970, when New York’s new abortion law took effect, and January 1973, when the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision legalized the procedure everywhere, 350,000 women came to New York for an abortion.
Like others, Dr Gold and his colleague Dr Leo Orris saw the change in the NY abortion law as a historic opportunity. They were founding physicians of the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York, the first not-for-profit HMO founded to provide low-cost comprehensive health groups throughout the city. They approached the HIP board of directors with a proposal for adding abortion services, but some members of the board were morally and religiously uncomfortable with the radical changes wrought by abortion becoming legal.
HIP’s solution was to create a separate medical office to deliver abortion services to HIP subscribers. Marty and Leo invested $!2,000 each and formed a partnership. In 1971 they opened Flushing Women’s Medical Center, one of the first legal abortion facilities in New York. Marty asked me to help run the Center. I didn’t have to think twice. I was 25 years old, abortion had been legal in NY State for almost a year; I’d be with Marty on the front lines of an exciting, pioneering new era in medicine. I was ready to throw myself into creating new worlds.
FORTY YEARS OF AROUND-THE-CLOCK ACTIVISM
After helping found the Flushing Women’s Medical center--since renamed Choices--one of America's first ambulatory abortion centers, in 1972 I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from Queens College and from 1972 to1975 attended the Social Psychology Doctoral Program at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
In 1974, I initiated and moderated New York City’s first Women's Health Forum with speakers Barbara Ehrenreich and Congresswoman Bella Abzug; in 1975 I founded the first outpatient program that allowed women with breast cancer to determine their treatment options with a trained counselor (previously, doctors simply removed the breast of any woman whose biopsy came back positive, while she was still anesthetized and before she had the opportunity to learn about her options or make decisions).
I named this center STOP (Second Treatment Option Program).
In 1976 I co-founded the National Abortion Federation and in 1977 helped convince Congress to pass legislation requiring the accurate labeling of over-the-counter birth control.
Despite President Reagan’s war on abortion, feminists were able to influence the media. After years of writing articles I felt the best way to communicate my ideas would be through a publication, so I started writing the Choices newsletter and mailed out thirty thousand free copies. Letters and donations poured in. It was suggested that I take advantage of the groundswell and publish a real magazine. Not knowing anything about publishing I jumped in headfirst and learned as I went. In 1983 I started “On The Issues, The Progressive Womens Quarterly” a radical intellectual feminist magazine of critical thinking--which has published every leading feminist thinker and activist in the last 25 years and garnered an international reputation. I then wrote, co-produced and directed the film “Abortion: A Different Light,” which aired on several cable channels and reached eleven million homes.
in 1985 I founded the New York Pro-Choice Coalition and continue to serve as CEO of Choices, today one of the nation's largest women’s medical facilities.Meanwhile the pro-life Operation Rescue had been formed in 1986 and, dedicated to ending legal access to abortion by blockading clinics, was waging a war against us, which kept us busy and in danger of being destroyed for several years. Two doctors and three clinic workers lost their lives to this fundamentalist violence.
When, in 1988 Operation Rescue announced it would shut down abortion services in New York City for a week, the New York Pro-Choice Coalition which I founded responded by rebranding those days as “Reproductive Freedom Week,” and organizing a counter protest that drew 1,300 supporters who were sent out to ensure that every clinic or doctor's offices Operation Rescue targeted remained open.
In 1989 I organized the first pro-choice civil disobedience action at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City because of Cardinal John O'Connor's support of Operation Rescue. Nine pro-choice protestors among 200 were arrested.
Russian women had been frequenting our facilities (some had had as many as 36 abortions). The Russian system didn’t help women to prevent impregnation, but actually preached the safety of multiple abortions and promoted the idea that the pill prevented cancer. Many doctors subsidized their three-dollar-a-month salaries by doing abortions in women’s homes, so when I got an invitation to lead a team of physicians and counselors from Choices to Moscow for an educational exchange, I enthusiastically accepted.
In 1994 I worked with Russian hospitals and doctors to develop Choices East, the first feminist outpatient medical center in Russia, and organized Russian feminists to deliver an open letter to Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin on the state of women's health care. Accomplishing this was fraught with difficulties, not the least of which was the antagonism many Russian women received from their spouses. Two of our volunteers at the clinic were murdered by their husbands.
All these years of around-the-clock activism had paid off in many ways, not only protecting and expanding abortion possibilities, but financially as well. My clinic became one of the few refuges in the country for women seeking abortions. Yes, I made money from the clinic, but women who could not afford much or anything were always taken care of free of charge. Money made it possible to run my clinic the way I wanted it run, to create new programs, hire talented staff and donate to worthy causes. In the 90’s I spent half a million dollars yearly publishing “On The Issues” and started the 501-C-3 Diana Foundation, so I could donate to groups and individuals (usually feminist radicals) who had no access to institutional funds.
During these years my marriage had changed. As Marty had predicted, our age difference would eventually separate us and we now were living apart. On his 80thbirthday I gave him a huge party and later had dinner with him at our favorite Italian restaurant, where we reflected on how much we had given one another. A few months later he had a heart attack and died.
LIFE GOES ON
It is impossible to write here of all the experiences of the past 40 or so years, which include horrendous attacks against anything we did to make it possible for women to have safe abortions. What never was brought up, not even by the most brilliant and liberal journalists, is that abortion has existed since the beginning of time; that wealthy women always had the means through their personal physicians; that in some countries women had learned how to prevent pregnancy and to abort themselves when necessary. Though my clinic was very successful in spite of all the attacks against it, the long and arduous journey of the past few years was beginning to wear me out.
I’d missed a lot in my personal life during these years, and I would soon be 50. Something inside me was aching. I had helped define the reality that it was necessity that brought women to choose abortion, but everything else became a mediated reality. I wanted to go back to the beginning, when there was just me and my consciousness, not even informed by feminism. I stopped speaking and publishing On The Issues. I traveled to Katmandu, Mt. Everest, to South Africa to work with a rape crisis center, to Iran with a friend, where I dressed as a Muslim woman, then to the Galapagos. I thought about my life without Marty. At first I had struggled with my aloneness, what I termed my "singulairty".. Now I knew a romantic partnership could not fulfill me--I had learned to fulfill myself..
As the war against abortion continued the pro-choice movement lost ground daily, and clinics were closing. I became even more convinced that the right to abortion should have been articulated under the Thirteenth Amendment, making reproductive freedom a universal human right. Then in 2003 President George W. Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, the first legislation to criminalize an abortion procedure since Roe vs Wade. The law forbade the procedure even if a woman’s health was endangered. Outraged by this disrespect for women’s rights and well-being I attended a Veteran Feminists of America event honoring Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and spoke with her about this. Her answer…”I have criticized the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade –- not, of course, for the result… I think the notion is that it isn’t just some private act, it is a woman’s right to control her own life.”
The morality of Bush’s decision had been defined by the religious class. Even our supporters said that despite abortion being legal it would never really be objectively moral. Women who had had abortions remained victims at best, and murderers at worst. Abortion was ever a tragedy, a necessary evil, something to be kept private and about which to feel ashamed.
The Movement was too quiet. The main pro-choice advocates, NARAL, NOW, the Feminist Majority and Planned Parenthood remained in the front of the firing lines, but they continued to lose legal battles and the hearts and minds of many women.
Things were tough at Choices. The massive legal fees I had incurred to fight the political and financial attacks against me made the continued subsidy my Mental Health Center impossible.. My beloved pastime, riding and jumping horses, also had to go, as I’d endured several injuries to my hips and was forced to have hip replacement surgery. After recovery from the surgery I went with a friend to Cooperstown. This was the first summer I had embraced since my childhood and I powerfully felt the passage of time, the first time I felt I was aging.
I took a trip to Normandy and walked the beaches with their history of bloody battles. I stopped in Caen where Charlotte Corday(the assassin of Marat) had grown up, went to Rouen where Joan of Arc was tried and burned. and spent hours in a museum devoted to her life. I rested in front of tableaux vivants of stages of her career, and saw a young couple with a son of about 5 years of age, pointing to scenes, explaining the history, and thought about how I would I feel to have a little girl next to me and do the same.
I’d had an abortion years ago; but now, at age 58 I wanted a child, I wanted a little girl.After much thought and discussion with a dear friend I decided to go to Russia and begin the adoption process involving two mid-winter- flights to Siberia,a year of non-ending paperwork and social workers, thousands of dollars and a level of psychological courage I never knew I possessed.
I had known many of love’s faces but I had never loved unconditionally, the way parental love is described. Perhaps the little girl I would adopt had not experienced limitless love either.
A year later(2005) I was in Siberia and drove to Hospital 53 where my little girl, Irena, was a ward of the Russian state and saw her for the first time. She was three years old
.How would it feel to be a mother? Would I like her? Would I love her? Would she love me?
“Irenitchka go say hello to Mama,” the director told her.
She came over and put her little arms around my neck. I held her tightly as she whimpered, “Ma, Ma, Ma, Ma.”
I had to return to the States without her, as there were still a lot of legal arrangements to make, but I was in touch with her by phone. Meanwhile thoughts of becoming a mother crowded out the worry about liquidating pensions and investments to keep Choices going during what was a very difficult financial bind. In 2004 everything was finally legally right and I went to Russia to take my little daughter home.
Sasharina had to adjust to a new name, a new life, to speak a new language. But two years from the day she came to New York with me I took her out to dinner with my dear friend, Mahin .We sang Happy Anniversary to the tune of Happy Birthday, and I told her the story of her homecoming. She would want the full story one day–where she came from and why she was here. As I put her to bed that night for the first time she told me, I know who you are. You are my mother.
Yes, I said, and you are my daughter.
One day when visiting the clinic, I shared with Sister Dorothy, the nun who had demonstrated outside of Choices for the last few years,how much I loved being a mother. She smiled. “I am sure you are good mother, but you would be better one if you stopped killing all those little Sashas.”
But I am certain all the women who have had abortions over the centuries were not lost souls; and that the war to stop me and others from helping women get abortions will not end in my lifetime. So I continue my work,my special destiny, With a deep knowledge that I have been given the gift to be part of this great struggle for women’s freedom.
Contact: Merle Hoffman firstname.lastname@example.org
Comments: Jacqui Ceballos email@example.com