Freethought NOW!

Remembering two ardent secular abortion rights pioneers

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
454e5b4b 0a40 f135 e039 30c59bdda913 Remembering two ardent secular abortion rights pioneers

A “voice from the past” approached me at the most recent Freedom From Religion Foundation convention, who had a name I recognized: Margot Champagne, an early abortion rights comrade-in-arm my mother Anne Gaylor had known. Margot mentioned, to my shock, that two of Anne’s dear reproductive rights rebels had died: Anne Treseder and Pat Maginnis. Both had been FFRF members forever (well, since its founding in the late 1970s).

Pat Maginnis and Anne Treseder were early abortion rights pioneers and avid secularists who deserve to be acknowledged and lauded, however belatedly. FFRF had its very roots in my mother’s early abortion rights activism and our growing awareness that the problem of women’s subjugation was religion and its influence on our law. Pat and Anne shared this conviction.

In an era when the word “abortion” was only whispered, the ranks of the early abortion rights movement was filled with rebels, atheists, pioneers who cared about what counted, not about public approbation. While there certainly were exceptions, as usual, the freethinkers led the way on this social reform, including Lawrence Lader, author of the 1966 book, “Abortion.”

I ought to have known Pat had died because the New York Times ran a remarkable obituary on Sept. 4, 2021. But I missed it entirely because Dan Barker and I were traveling abroad. There was no public obituary for Anne Treseder. Pat’s death was recently confirmed by a niece, who contacted FFRF to tell us that Pat had, to my surprise and gratitude, remembered FFRF among nine other beneficiaries, with a modest but meaningful bequest.

The Times truly did justice to Pat, describing her as “the first abortion-rights activist in the United States” and one “who crusaded for that right on her own before the formation of an organized reproductive-rights movement.” Pat founded the Citizens Committee for Humane Abortion Laws (later Society for Humane Abortion) in San Francisco in 1962, mailing women a packet on how to obtain illegal abortions at a time when it was still illegal to mail lit about birth control and when most practitioners lived in Mexico. She was convicted, along with a colleague, of unlawfully advertising abortion in 1967.

A 2018 Slate magazine profile described Pat as “the Che Guervara of abortion reformers.” Slate wrote that Pat “may not loom as large as a Margaret Sanger or a Betty Friedan . . . And yet, a decade before Roe, with her ungainly activism, her proclivity for wearing clothes she’d found on the street and her righteous, unquenchable rage, Maginnis helped to fundamentally reshape the abortion debate into the terms we’re still using today.”

As a teenager tagging along beside my mother, who Margot described as “the standard-bearer for abortion rights in Wisconsin,” I was fortunate to meet many of the pioneering abortion rights activists, including Lawrence Lader, Anne Treseder and Pat, at national abortion conferences and events. Anne and Pat both qualified as one of a kind, but Pat especially stood out. She was thin, wiry, funny and, as Margo recalled, a “character” in the best sense — without inhibition. Listening to her tell stories was as startling as plunging into ice-cold water. (Watch a short TV interview with Pat in 1963.) I’ll never forget her gruesome description of treating babies with Guinea-worm disease when she worked in Panama, where, Slate reports, the Army shipped her as punishment for walking with a Black soldier.

Pat, born in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1928, grew up with six siblings in a Catholic household in Oklahoma, aware of her mother’s maternal suffering. She boarded at a convent school and became a lab tech. After joining the Women’s Army Corps, Pat was assigned to the pediatrics and obstetrics wards. Like Margaret Sanger, Pat, according to the Times, reached “the boiling point after a long, slow buildup of rage — after she tended to women with botched abortions at an Army hospital.” She had three herself, one self-induced, and was an early advocate of do-it-yourself abortions.

Margot Champagne had met Pat as a college student around 1967. Margot was one of three part-timers Pat hired to help answer the phone and fill orders in her apartment. When states started liberalizing abortion, Pat realized physicians needed training and organized medical seminars. “The panelists were all abortion doctors who’d been arrested. It restored their dignity,” Margot told me. Pat and two colleagues early on formed the precursor to NARAL, which came on the scene in 1969 (and which is how my mother, as an early NARAL board member, met Pat).

Once Roe v. Wade came down, Pat continued protesting the Catholic Church, but broadened her activism. The superb Times obit left out one crucial thing: Pat’s impish cartooning. She gave my mother, who was a big fan, permission to include a few of her cartoons in her book, “Abortion Is a Blessing,” including her classic depiction of a giant fetus smothering a woman.

a0739ab5 d26c 7900 a533 9c5b79b42722 Remembering two ardent secular abortion rights pioneers

Anne Treseder also met Pat working part-time in her office. I couldn’t find her birth information or age. The only remembrance appears to be in Reed Magazine (Anne attended and gloried in Reed College). I think she was born in (escaped) Utah. My best guess is she died in her late 70s.

I was in my teens when I first met this dark-haired, waiflike, chic woman, who seemed like a radical version of Mary Tyler Moore’s careerwoman of the 1970s. Anne stayed with us a few weeks one summer when apartment hunting after moving to Madison to pursue a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Wisconsin. A Mormon turned rebel, Anne had a droll, sardonic and mischievous sense of humor. She took glee in promoting a bogus group she  created to ridicule anti-abortion jargon called the “Voice for the Unconceived” (or was it “Preconceived”?) — which, to her great amusement, attracted followers. She delighted in transforming herself from hip student to “undercover” myrmidon in order to spy on anti-abortion meetings in town. Both Annes together plotted many subversive activities. She was one of my mother’s confidantes in creating the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Anne Treseder wasn’t happy in Madison, missing the cosmopolitan diversity offered by San Francisco, and returned there to get a law degree from Golden State University. She worked much of her career as counsel for the state of California Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board. She became fascinated with travel in Spain and Portugal, and during rare visits talked enthusiastically about that culture. Anne worked hard for the posthumous recognition of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat who was deemed “a righteous gentile” after saving many Jews. When my mother or I were lucky enough to visit San Francisco we’d try to meet up with Anne — and, if we were really lucky, Pat, who lived in nearby Oakland. Anne attended our last convention in San Francisco.

Reed alum Michael Cronbach, who wrote the retrospective on Anne, revealed that she had emergency surgery in December 2019, resulting in removal of her colon. Prior to that, he had helped her get to the pharmacy. He visited until the Covid lockdown. Then they talked just by phone. Sadly, she died a year later amid Covid’s isolation.

I consider it a secular blessing that this trio of ardent campaigners for reproductive freedom — Anne Gaylor, Anne Treseder and Pat Maginnis — died before the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022 (although they were never complacent about the future of abortion rights). They did their part and so much more. I hope their stories will inspire the rest of us to work even harder to keep “religious theology off our biology.”

As Margot put it in a recent conversation: “The culture war issues are the same issue: abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, death with dignity. It’s the religion thing. The lack of separation of church and state is really the root of all these problems.”

Please share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.