How Roe Shaped the World of Work for Women

When Barbara Schwartz looks back on her youth working as a Broadway conductor, she remembers its electricity: the tormented dancers putting on their costumes backstage, the stage people walking by with torches in their teeth.

She was able to embark on that high-pressure career, she said, due to a choice she made in 1976. She had an abortion at a clinic she found in the Yellow Pages. It has been three years since Roe v. The Wade ruling established the constitutional right to abortion; to Mrs. Schwartz, the world seemed filled with new career opportunities for women. She received a credit card in her name, she became one of the first women to join the local train drivers union and joined the backstage crowd at shows including “Cats” and “Miss Saigon”.

Ms Schwartz, 69, is now retired. She is spending her retirement years escorting women to the doors of an abortion clinic on the Virginia-Tennessee border. She was drawn to this volunteer work, she said, because her 20-year promise has faded, the result of laws chipping away at access to abortion, with a draft Supreme Court ruling leaked last year. week which revealed that Roe is likely to be overturned.

“This is my giant pay it forward,” said Ms. Schwartz.

This is how Ginny Jelatis, 67, thinks about it too. She was high school age the year Roe v. Wade has been decided; She began serving as an escort at the clinic after retiring from her job as a history professor in 2016.

“I feel that my life is perfectly framed by this problem,” said Ms. Jelatis. “I became an adult at 18, and here I am at 60 still fighting this fight.”

For women like Ms. Jelatis, who entered adulthood in the early 1970s, the world of work and opportunity was changing rapidly. The participation of women in the workforce has risen by about 43 percent in 1970 a 57.4 percent in 2019. Many different factors drove more women into work in those years, but scholars argue that access to abortion was important.

“There is no question that legal abortion allows women of all classes and races to have some control over their economic lives and the ability to work outside the home,” said Rosalind Petchesky, a retired political science professor at the ‘Hunter College, whose research was cited in the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, who reiterated Roe.

Those women who entered the workforce soon after Roe are now reaching retirement age. Some of them, like Carolyn McLarty, a retired veterinarian, are more committed than ever to their advocacy of abortion. Some, like Ms. Schwartz, look back and feel that their career is indebted to the 1973 Supreme Court decision and the reproductive choices it opened up to women. So they are spending their retirement years working as an escort in abortion clinics.

The experience of older clinical escorts, shared in interviews over the past few months, shows what Roe meant by a specific cohort: women who stood up for access to abortion when they were in the height of adulthood and whose working life has been shaped by the opportunities they believe Roe has offered them.

“My God, it’s all been brought back,” said Debra Knox Deiermann, 67, a clinical escort in the St. Louis area. “I just can’t believe young women won’t be able to access what we had.”

Many women who were starting their family or career when Roe was decided have also fought hard against legal abortion, their adult lives have been blocked by a decision they found then frightening and are encouraged to see it is about to be overturned. According to Gallup, in 1975, 18 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 29 believed that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances; last year, in the same cohort of women, now aged 63 to 75, the figure was 23%.

A research on the bench poll in 2021 it found that 59% of Americans said they believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 39% said it should be illegal in all or most cases. Recent Pew data indicates that women are slightly more likely than men to say abortion should be legal in all cases, and younger people, aged 18-29, are much more likely than older people to say that abortion should be legal in some or all cases.

Bound4Life, a grassroots anti-abortion group, estimates that one-fifth of its volunteers are retired. Eagle Forum, an anti-abortion group that caters to people of all ages, estimates that most of its volunteers are 55 and older.

“They are nearly the only age group who respond to our emails and take action when we send notices to call their elected officials,” said Tabitha Walter, political director of Eagle Forum, in an email to the Times.

Some are motivated by the tectonic, cultural and legal changes in abortion they have witnessed, and in some cases driven, over the course of their careers.

“I’ve seen the pendulum go from very conservative to rejecting God all of a sudden,” said Ms. McLarty, 71, who volunteers as a board secretary for Eagle Forum and has been involved with the Oklahoma Republican Party. “The younger generations are seeing how they have decided on many things.”

Ms. McLarty said she knew that changes in abortion law throughout her life coincided with increased participation of women in the workforce. But on her part, she wishes he’d spent less time on her career and more on parenting.

“Looking back, I probably would have spent more time at home,” said Ms. McLarty, who worked part-time when her children were small. “There are different moments in your life for different chapters.”

The last half century has brought about a series of cultural changes that have facilitated the entry of women into the world of work. New technologies have created new office roles, many of which have gone to women; high school graduation rates have increased; the stigma attached to married women in the workplace has decreased. But sociologists and economists argue that legal abortion is a particularly important factor, as it gives many women the ability to delay starting a family and save money in early adulthood.

Recent research has sought to understand the role that access to abortion plays in female employment. The most notable is the Breakthrough study, conducted at the University of California, San Francisco. The researchers followed two groups of women – one group who wanted and got abortions, and another who wanted to have abortions and was unable to get them – for five years and found that those who were unable to have abortions had economic results. worst. Nearly two-thirds of those who did not have an abortion had tried to live in poverty six months later, compared with 45 percent of those who had undergone the procedure.

Roe’s upset would mean that women across the country face a patchwork state access to abortion laws, with 13 states banning abortion immediately or very quickly after court ruling. There is likely a correlation between the regions of the country where abortion is most difficult and those with the fewest childcare and parental leave options, according to an analysis of research results from the financial site. WalletHub.

For older women who felt they were able to achieve financial stability thanks to the decision to abort, there is resonance in sharing their stories with the younger women they meet in clinics today.

“The older people I work with can remember that fear of ‘My God, what if it happens to me?’” Said Ms. Deiermann, who has spent most of her career working in advocacy for reproductive health.

Many volunteers at the clinic, such as Ms. Deiermann, remember when their classmates and friends had an abortion illegally. Telling those stories seems more urgent than ever.

Karen Kelley, 67, a retired nurse in labor and delivery in Idaho who volunteers at an abortion clinic there, spent her childhood aligned with her Roman Catholic family’s anti-abortion views. She then found herself pregnant in her early twenties, with no income to support a child. Realizing that her motherhood could “derail all her hopes of her,” she chose to terminate that pregnancy, some six years after Roe.

This is a memory that Ms. Kelley passes on to the women she accompanies to the steps of the clinic. “If asked, I’m always honest that I understand how they feel because I have an abortion and they have every right to make the decision,” she said.

And some older women have said the position they are in now – retired, with savings and stability – is something they trace back to Roe.

“It gave us a chance to decide to get married and have a family later,” said Eileen Ehlers, 74, a retired English teacher and mother.

What Roe gave her, she said, is something she can now pour into volunteering: “We have time.”