No One Can Fire Me
By Susan E. Davies
I got the report in Cambridge, MA, in the spring of 1972, 45 years ago. With other chaperones, I’d taken the church youth group to Bean Town to see a Red Sox game, go to the Science Museum, worship in Quaker silence, and explore. When we visited Pat’s apartment Friday afternoon, I left her a urine sample. When we returned to Pat’s Sunday morning before the Quaker meeting, she gave me the news. I was 29, in a new position with an upper-middle-class commuter congregation as Director of Christian Education, and suddenly pregnant.
The date rape had happened about two months earlier, at 4 a.m. on my sofa. He knew I was off the pill after 12 years, and I hadn’t had a period since that night. I didn’t have the language of “date rape” in the early 70s, so I blamed myself for “letting it happen”.
I was a young recently divorced woman in a time when that was not socially acceptable in white churches. I had told the search committee about my marital status (over the objections of the senior minister), but the congregation did not know I was a divorcee (secrets live in many places). I had been at the church about 10 months, and they surely would have fired me if they’d known I was pregnant, let alone planning to have an abortion. The senior minister would have led the lynch mob.
Abortions were legal in New York State then, thank God, the stars, and all the people who worked to pass that law! I strongly supported women’s rights to an abortion, and now, terrified, I was having to live what I believed. Pat’s sister lived in Syracuse and knew of a good clinic there. I took the information home with me along with the youth group, furious with the man who had impregnated me. I was afraid someone at the church would find out, or that he would tell someone in the community.
I called the man, told him the situation, and that he was responsible for getting me to Syracuse and paying for the whole process. He was a pilot for Clairol (I stopped using their products), fifteen years older than I, and knew perfectly well what he was doing on that long night. He wanted me to marry him and this was his way to make it happen.
It took me 42 years to realize why he had done it, and in the spring two years ago my guilt about “letting it happen” was suddenly released. As a childhood and teenage incest and other sexual abuse survivor, guilt and shame are constant potential and actual distortions in my psyche, and the realization was a great relief. It wasn’t my fault.
I made the appointment, based on his flight schedule. He went with me on the flight, made the hotel arrangements, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to have sex the night before the procedure because “It’s safe now”! When I checked in at the clinic they wanted to know my occupation. I hesitated because it was church-related. She said, “Oh, we’ve had nuns here. Don’t worry.” The D&C was simple, relatively painless, and I was up and out fairly quickly. We flew back, he took me home, and that was that.
I went to the office the next day, then flew to my home town to “counsel” my older brother and his wife about their marriage, flew back, turned up to assist in the Sunday service, still bleeding slightly, did the youth group meeting that evening, all without further ado. Several weeks later the date rapist came over to my home with a hand saw to cut up the painting on wood he had made of me. And I told no one, except Pat.
After the abortion was over I felt immense relief. No guilt. My position in the church was no longer threatened, my life was free to move forward, and I was ordained a year later.
But the fear of public shame has lasted all these years. Since my work continued in congregations and theological education until I retired, I have never until now spoken publicly about my experience, although I’ve spoken and acted for women’s abortion rights as well as other justice issues. I speak now because no one can fire me, this is a crucial issue, and supporting other women who face unwanted, often abusive, pregnancies is essential for all of us.
Today I am immensely grateful that a 29 year old white middle class woman, still recovering from divorce and caught in a terrifying situation, had the option of a legal abortion a year before Roe v. Wade. Without my friend in Cambridge, I don’t know what I would have done. I knew that abortion was legal in New York, but had no idea how to find out where and how to have it done (no internet!). Pat probably saved my future, and I wish I could tell her that now. My only other option would have been to tell my father (one of my abusers), who would have paid to fly me to a Caribbean island for an abortion, as he had for my brother’s girlfriend. That was not a pleasant idea nor might it have been as medically safe.
Today, as the Right closes down options for all women, particularly low-income women, women of color and Native women, Mabel Wadsworth Center’s work continues to be crucial. I am so glad I was a small part in starting what has become an essential part of our regional support for all women in Maine. Thank you, for the Voices Project. It is one more thing you/we are doing to bring justice and essential connections for women.