On a bleak winter’s day in early 1975 — just after my 32nd birthday — I made the most radical and feminist decision of my life. I arranged to have an operation that would leave me sterilized. To get my “tubes tied.” While I shared this with a few close friends at the time I soon learned to avoid discussing it because it was so defiant of social expectations. Unnatural in a world that defined giving birth and motherhood as the most natural act. After all, I was raised during an era of patriarchal culture that saw little value in women until they became mothers and ergo assumed every woman wanted babies. Even my fellow radical feminist collaborators were shocked. I never told my mother.
So, it is with great curiosity and concern that I have learned about the decisions of increasing numbers of young women and couples of child-bearing age to forego having kids. Even in southern Mexico, my young local Spanish teacher explains that his friends are discussing this question.
The driving factor today in this conversation and decision is the climate crisis.
This spring (2019) there was hardly a webzine or publication that did not publish a thoughtful article on the subject of whether to have kids given the catastrophe that looms in the very immediate future triggered by the climate and toxicity crisis. Whether it’s the species collapse, glacier meltdowns, extreme temperatures and storms, catastrophic floods and forest fires, or the prediction that modern agriculture will not be sustainable within a few decades, all of the doomsday scenarios seem to be speeding up. Added to this are concerns about the rising tide of plastic contamination of our oceans, landfills and bloodstreams along with increasing chemical poisons leaching into our food and water.
The crisis of consciousness for women of child-bearing age was ratcheted to panic level by the UN report released in November 2018 (referred to as the IPCC report — Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — made famous by Greta Thunberg) that predicted serious threats to civilization caused by ecological collapse within the next two decades unless we can reduce carbon emissions enough to restrict global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Achieving this goal will require a revolution in behavior — political, economic and personal. Otherwise, a child born in 2019 could, given climate crisis predictions, be faced with an untenable planet by the time they reach their twenties.
Although the environmentally conscious have been thinking about this issue for a few years, it was Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who catapulted the question in February, 2019, when she live-streamed on her Instagram account to her 2.5 million followers that “There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children?” (my emphasis)
Predictably, the backlash from the Christian Republican Right was immediate. Utah Senator Mike Lee spoke on the Senate floor that the solution to climate change was to “fall in love, get married and have some kids.”
But, for increasing numbers of young adults from over-developed countries, the answer to AOC’s question is torturous. Organizations have formed to pursue the ethical conversations surrounding decisions to forego giving birth to children. In the UK, BirthStrike was founded by a 31 year-old musician and environmental activist, Blythe Pepino. In a poignant portrait of Pepino in Buzz Feed (July 2019), reporter Ash Sanders learns that after Pepino volunteered with Syrian refugees in Calais France — “refugees fleeing failed harvests in Syria” — and attended meetings of a new radical climate group, Extinction Rebellion, she began to torment over her desire to have a child.
Acknowledging that this ecological disaster is “altering the way our generation is imagining the future…” BirthStrike’s manifesto reads:
“We, the undersigned, declare our decision not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face if this existential threat. “
Birthstrike emphasizes that they are not making judgements about people who decide to have children. Instead, they “stand in compassionate solidarity with all parents,” honoring the difficult choice to have children at our historical moment.
In the U.S. Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli founded Conceivable Future as a forum for women and couples to discuss the ethics of child-bearing while looking down the dark tunnel of this existential threat. The organization promotes “house parties,” where those without children as well as those who are expecting or already have kids can come together to tell their stories. Their website contains testimonials from women who have decided against giving birth. Meghan Hoskins, a 23-year-old who wants kids reveals her fears:
“I am afraid that they will eventually have to live in a world where there is no fresh water and that is increasingly full of dangerous and toxic chemicals.”
Younger kids, still in high school or college are pledging publicly to forego having children until leaders take action. Like Canadian teen, Emma Lim, who told CBS News on September 19, 2019, the day before the big worldwide high school climate crisis strike, that she made the decision not to have children because of the ecological dangers ahead. Lim and a friend created a website — No Future, No Children — where others can also take the pledge of childlessness.
As of November 9, 2019, No Future, No Children had 5337 pledges.
Despite all this organizing around the excruciating dilemma of whether to give birth, contemporary environmental organizations shy away from “population control” as a critical solution to our planetary predicament. This is a revolutionary change from their early roots.
Population Control and a Modern Movement
“Population control” was a passionate argument during the 1960s and early 70s when the modern ecology movement erupted. I know this as more than a reporter. I was a convert to this new movement by 1967 when the full impact of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, aroused the hearts and minds of a generation already agitated by the Vietnam War and expanded by psilocybin.
Carson warned of the dangers of synthetic pesticides, especially DDT, on bird life and insects. Hence her evocative image of a silent spring when all the birds and insects are gone. Humans were not spared the cancer-causing effects of these chemicals either. Her 1962 book angered the chemical companies, while igniting a grass roots environmental movement that eventually led to the forming of the Environmental Protection Agency and legislation banning DDT.
If Carson’s best seller cracked our skulls about the toxicity of our chemical universe another book arrived like a hand grenade. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb sold even more copies than Silent Spring. Ehrlich then founded Zero Population Growth, an organization which, like the book, argued that at current population growth levels there would be a world famine by the 1970s and drastic action was needed.
Many early editions of The Population Bomb began:
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now…
Like the 18th Century theorist, Thomas Malthus, Ehrlich argued that population growth would outpace agricultural growth. Since 1930 the population of the world had doubled within one generation from 2 billion to nearly 4 billion. Ehrlich warned that it was about to double again. Unlike Malthus, who didn’t propose extreme solutions, Ehrlich saw a crisis looming that required radical action. He proposed cutting off aid, especially food, to countries that refused to implement population control, or forcing sterilization on men and women who had more than three children. He was particularly focused on India.
Preservationists and conservationists, like The Sierra Club, that had been around since the late 1800s, along with Planned Parenthood, jumped onto Ehrlich’s bandwagon warning about the dangers ahead without population control.
In 1969 Stephanie Mills delivered a graduation speech at Mills College in California, entitled “The Future is a Cruel Hoax,” that brought her to national attention. Mills had absorbed the warnings of Ehrlich “I am terribly saddened by the fact that the most humane thing for me to do is to have no children at all.” Did her pronouncement seep into my consciousness? I don’t have recollections about this, although I do remember many other factors influencing my choice.
By the late sixties, however, the environmental movement was already divided into two rivers of thought. While one strong current championed “population control” as vital to creating a sustainable planet, another branch espoused a different flow of ideas labelled New Leftist. We New Lefty environmentalists critiqued population control theories as severely tainted by forced sterilization campaigns against poor Puerto Rican, Native American and African American women smacking of class and race prejudices. Beginning in the 1930s, the U.S had enthusiastically conducted “eugenical sterilizations” in most states targeting the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, criminals, but most rigorously people of color. The Nazis were inspired by the program in California in particular.
New Leftist environmentalists, more influenced by Rachel Carson’s emphasis on toxicity and ecology, insisted that the redistribution of wealth was essential while tackling problems of polluted rivers and air and toxic pesticides. In 1969, while attending university in St Louis, I worked for Environment Magazine whose Executive Editor was Barry Commoner, another pillar in the birth of the modern environmental movement. Commoner, a cellular biologist, ran the Center for the study of Biological Systems at Washington University. His image was on Time Magazine in February,1970.
Commoner argued that poverty was the main cause of the population boom, that population declines with development. Until that point poor people saw children as an economic buffer. India, Ehrlich’s obsession, was an example of where family planning failed to reduce the birth rate. Commoner reasoned that if wealthy nations helped poorer ones develop, declining birthrates would follow.
On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, when twenty million mostly young people rallied for teach-ins across the country, I was on campus handing out leaflets about the polluted Great Lakes. But my passions were divided. April and May, 1970 were some of the most explosive months in the anti-Vietnam War movement across the country in response to the news that the U.S. had been secretly bombing Cambodia. After four student protesters at Kent State were killed by National Guardsmen, on May 4, 1970, I watched as the ROTC building at Washington University was burnt down. More were torched on campuses across the country.
Ten days later two African American students were killed by police on the campus of Jackson State College in Mississippi, as part of a conflict between some local whites and this primarily black college. Campuses across the country erupted and a nationwide student strike followed. Several strains of our activist lives wove together at this historical moment.
After that first Earth Day, the New Leftist perspective failed to influence organizations then poised to dominate the environmental movement. Population control was central to their agenda. And this position reached well beyond the U.S. In 1972, the UK’s leading environmental journal, The Ecologist, published the Blueprint for Survival, supported by distinguished biologists, ecologists, and economists. With regard to population, the Blueprint stated:
“First, governments must acknowledge the problem and declare their commitment to ending population growth; this commitment should also include an end to immigration.” (my emphasis)
How did immigration become a focus? The answer lies in the dropping fertility rates in the U.S. and in other developed countries. The birth control pill along with increased availability of abortion fueled the growing women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s. More women were pursuing higher education and joining the workforce, which often meant delaying marriage and childbirth. By 1976 the fertility rate had reached an all-time low of (1.7). Zero population growth!
Yet, U.S. population was expanding rapidly. In 1965, immigration laws had changed leading to a surge of immigrants from Asia and Latin America. U.S. population soared by nearly 70 million between 1970 and 1998. Zero Population Growth launched a nationwide campaign to generate public support for “sharp curbs on both legal and illegal immigration to the U.S.”
By 1998, however, nobody in the environmental movement was talking about “population control” anymore. Why? The attack on immigration by Zero Population Growth didn’t survive accusations of racism and xenophobia.
What had been a grass roots movement, by the 1990s was now led by lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, the environmental movement — so dominated by the preservationists, conservationists and population control folks — was increasingly criticized for being largely white and elite.
While radical confrontational environmentalists co-existed, like tree-sitters in the West and Green Peace on the seas, along with counter-movements like deep ecology, social ecology and feminist ecology camped in academia, these groups were still dominated by whites.
Investigative journalist, Mark Dowie, in his 1996 book, Losing Ground, argued that the U.S. environmental movement had turned its energies to expensive litigation and legislation, links with corporations and foundations that were too focused on compromise and now dependent upon experts. In contrast, Dowie called for “environmental justice” that would embrace everyone’s landscape — in cities, in the home and on the job. The environmental movement that re-ignited in the 2000s began emphasizing health and justice. Population control has rarely been mentioned.
International gatherings on population now emphasize “women’s empowerment,” not “population control,” picking up on both theories of the feminist and New Left movements, that with development and opportunity, women would have fewer babies.
Where does this history connect with the current debate about whether to have kids midst our existential crisis? By the 2000s scientists and environmentalists turned their focus to the catastrophe mounting with global warming caused by carbon emissions and our carbon producing way of life rooted in fossil fuels. Carbon emissions had been measured since the late fifties, but not until the 2000s did the dramatic increase in those measurements trigger alarms. Lisa Hymans, in a 2010 article, linked her decision to be childless to concerns about carbon emissions for a child born in the U.S. Today, the sirens warning of destruction are deafening.
How to Act Morally in a Crisis?
The current arguments for why not to have a child, or another child, revolve around two beliefs and concerns. One is that potential parents cannot guarantee the safety or health for a child born now given the uncertainty looming. They fear for a child in a toxic world where violence, even wars, could break out over shrinking resources.
Secondly, they believe that the greatest action, the most ethical action, to help mitigate the catastrophe ahead is to not deliver another carbon producing, resource guzzling person into that world. Another child will make the climate crisis worse. They are talking about the rich over-developed world here.
Even though the fertility rates are falling, the U.S. per-capita carbon footprint is one of the highest in the world. A 2017 study found that one fewer child in a developed country can save 58.6 tonnes (metric tonne = 1,000 kilograms) of greenhouse gases a year. Compared to giving up a car for a year (2.4 tonnes) or giving up one jet transatlantic jet flight (1.6).
Niger, on the other hand, has the world’s highest birth rate, with an average of seven children born to every woman in 2016. But the country also has some of the lowest carbon emissions per person, almost at zero.
Calculations are made differently in different studies, but this focus on measuring carbon footprint will be an area of increasing scrutiny in the years ahead.
Given the imbalance in carbon footprints between rich and poor countries, is it morally wrong to have a child in a rich country?
That’s the conclusion of philosopher, Gerald K. Harrison writing in a 2019 issue of the journal, Essays in Philosophy where the issue is clustered under the question “Is Procreation Immoral?” Each philosopher links our duties and obligations regarding carbon emission reduction to limiting procreation. One article is entitled “Obligation to Abort” while another explores the ideas of co-parenting and multi-parenting.
For Sarah Conly, who edited this essay collection, the issue of the ethics of procreation is “the most pressing question of our time.”
In her 2016 book, One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? Conly argues that population control may be needed to enforce a one-child policy:
“I’m going to argue here that we don’t have a right to more than one biological child…Given the numbers we have now, it’s just not an acceptable option. We are threatened with more population than the planet can bear…”
Remember Western reactions to China’s One Child Policy? That program was initiated in 1979 as part of Deng Xiao Peng’s economic development program to lift China out of years of a stagnant economy and rationed resources. China’s population had almost doubled in two decades since the 1949 CCP victory. With the opening to the West in the late 70s, Chinese scholars now had access to Western scholarship and policy papers like the UK’s 1972 Blueprint for Survival. Population control, the Chinese Communist Party experts argued, would foster economic development and put less strain on agricultural resources. Toxicity of the environment was not a burning consideration.
China’s One Child Policy along with the economic boom of the 90s and 2000s, dependent upon fossil fuels, included an explosive rise in urban populations and rising consumer demands which led to frightening levels of pollution and toxicity. And a steadily increasing per-capita carbon footprint. But, by 2016 China reached zero population growth. Contradictions.
It is unbearably depressing to make a decision about whether to have a child based on per-capita carbon footprints.
Grief vs. Hope
It is unbearably depressing to make a decision about whether to have a child based on per-capita carbon footprints. But grief is everywhere in the contemporary environmental movement. Mother Jones recently published an article outlining the grief experienced by scientists who study the planetary meltdown while witnessing climate change denial and lethargic action by governments. There are counseling groups especially designed for climate scientists.
And how about young activists? Grief and rage were palpable in the barely controlled voice of Greta Thunberg when she confronted the U.N. and U.S. Congress this fall. One friend told me that her teenage daughter came home and spent the night sobbing over the predictions of imminent environmental collapse. One of my physicians, a 30-year-old, admitted she felt such profound despair and anxiety that she, too, was considering not having children.
According to the founders of BirthStrike and Conceivable Future even parents who decide to have kids feel desperate.
For some, however, having a child is a form of hope.
Gracy Olmstead’s opinion piece in the New York Times appeared on September 20, 2019, the day of world-wide protest by high school kids demanding action by governments on the planetary crisis. She outlines two key reasons why having kids at this time is hopeful. Both involve activism.
One reason to justify having a kid is that parents will work harder as activists to try to change the future — to protect their children. Secondly, their new born children carry the hope that they too will tackle the challenges of the climate crisis through political activism or inventing technological solutions. Those who make this claim point to the recent mass protests by high school students.
Mothers Out Front, an activist organization beamed at the climate crisis, sprung from Boston and has spread across the country. Comprised of mothers, grannies and caregivers, it touts itself as an inclusive organization that focuses on local and national actions to address the looming ecological catastrophe. They have demonstrated against gas pipeline extensions, gas fueled school buses and powerplants while promoting ideas about environmentally sustainable life-style changes.
Founders of these organizations, (BirthStrike, Conceivable Future, Mothers Out Front) acknowledge that ending our reliance on fossil fuels is the first priority. Pepino, of BirthStrike, tells Elle Hunt in The Guardian (May 2019) “Even with drastic, draconian, eugenic policies of population reduction — which are completely immoral — we wouldn’t save ourselves. We have to change the way we live.” (my emphasis)
Changing the Way We Live — the Personal vs. the Political
Framing the argument as a tension between grief vs hope, might also be posed as individual life-style changes and choices vs. public political protest aimed at government policy change. The personal vs. the political. But even this isn’t so clear.
Birth strikers have been referred to as nihilists. Yet, they seem to be driven by a powerful sense of meaning and purpose. Potential birth strikers might ask if they are making a negative choice on child-bearing for themselves or positive decision for children already among us, or for society at large. On the other hand, you can’t assume just because a couple is having a baby that they’re optimists.
Nor, I might add, can we assume that grass roots efforts will be successful in changing the economic development model based on fossil fuels, that has largely created our unsustainable world. Neither parents nor the new fierce environmental movement represented by Extinction Rebellion, 350.org and dozens of other international, community and indigenous organizations. This will be a tough battle. The resistance against change is enormous if suicidal.
Falling Birth Rates and Existential Threat
Meanwhile, birthrates in the over-developed countries keep falling. One in five women who reach the end of their fertile years is childless in the U.S. Business Insider reports that 57% of U.S. households are childless. The climate crisis is only one factor in this reality. Toxicity and stress have contributed to fertility problems among couples who desperately want to conceive. Job and relationship instability, along with lack of child care and health concerns have taken their toll on marriages and families. Women for whom educational and career aspirations have expanded since the 1960s, often direct their energies to long working hours and age out of the relationship-finding, baby-having time of their lives. Social arrangements and gender fluidity have complicated the mix.
Domestic violence and sexual abuse can also leave their mark on women’s desires and attitudes. A stack of new books reveals that some women simply do not want to have a baby.
The environmental crisis is also not the first existential threat to confront fertile women and parents with decisions about whether to bring a child into the world. Childbirth rates dropped during the Great Depression and during the two world wars. After WWII, during the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation led to young people’s anxieties about the future for a child and — as Mary Annaise Heglar argues in Medium, black people in the United States, especially in the Southern states, have struggled with the profound ethical decision of whether to deliver children into a brutal and violent society.
“I’ll grant that we’ve never seen an existential threat to all of humankind before. It’s true that the planet itself has never become hostile to our collective existence. But history is littered with targeted — but no less deadly — existential threats for specific populations.”
I am reminded of the powerful true story that inspired Toni Morrison’s Beloved. A run-away slave, when she was caught, decided to kill her baby and infant children rather than have them grow up in slavery. It is a horrifying moment of human decision-making for us to reflect upon. To remember.
Heglar, who works with the Natural Resources Defense Council, reminds us of the “crippling fear of humiliation, rape, torture and murder — in a word terrorism” that continued after slavery into the 20th century. She also emphasizes how much we have to learn in the climate crisis movement from the survivors of Jim Crow. They brilliantly and courageously built a movement to challenge this “deadly machine.” Seeking hope through activism.
Evaporating Activism, Losing Hope, My Choice
While it is difficult to reconstruct my mind and soul, reasoning and emotions leading to my decision forty-five years ago to have a “tubal ligation,” I have the benefit of letters I wrote to an ex-lover that year which have helped spark memories of my mental torpor at that bleak moment. Many concerns rattled my soul in 1975, leading to an overriding feeling of despair.
To begin with, my love relationship prospects looked dismal. I couldn’t see a horizon. Then, I was grieving profoundly for the loss of activism in the anti-war, feminist, and New Left movements — shared values, ideals, a communal enterprise, dreams of Utopia. When the Vietnam War ended and the women’s liberation movement headed to academia, my focus stumbled.
The economic recession that erupted in 1973 meant I — and many of my activist friends — couldn’t find paid work. Fresh aspirations sparked by ideals of collectivism, skills honed in alternative structures, were no longer sustaining. Then there was the issue of contraceptives. Huh? Read on.
Activism and community
From the late 60s through to the early 70s, I was a foot soldier in the anti-war movement, landing in jail twice for civil disobedience. Besides being a convert to the new environmental consciousness, I was also an enthusiastic disciple in the socialist-feminist wing of the new Women’s Movement — who took seriously the critique of patriarchy and its unfair discrimination, expectations, sacrifices, burdens and dangers for all women, regardless of class, race or sexual identity.
We white radicals were also re-acting to the voices of Black Power and reeling with horror in a decade when leaders of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements were killed along with a President and Presidential contender. Then there was Kent State and Jackson State. We felt like the country would explode again like it did after Martin Luther King was assassinated. It is difficult to describe that era of disgust, anger and trauma. For me it unleashed righteous anger and energy to learn totally new skills — how to organize meetings and demonstrations, speak publicly, make flyers, write feisty articles in the alternative press and learn radio production skills at a community radio station.
With an exaltation of feminists, in 1970, I produced a radical feminist soap opera for a community radio station in St Louis, dealing with class differences and racial frictions in this conservative mid-western city. At about the same time, I also co-taught the first women’s studies class with two other students at Washington University.
Off campus, I participated in all kinds of women’s movement activities, including leading a posse to demonstrate in Missouri’s state capitol for legal abortion. On weekends I cleaned lead paint out of apartments housing poor single moms. I wrote for and helped layout our local underground newspaper — the St Louis Outlaw. Then on Friday nights I delivered it to bookstores up the Mississippi River. Back on campus I watched the ROTC building burn to the ground.
Working Class Roots and The Pill
It was all a far cry from my conservative working-class roots in 1950s Victoria, Canada. Despite scholarships I dropped out of university after my first year and left my mother’s house. I suppose it had a lot to do with sexual desire.
I moved to Vancouver on the mainland, it was 1962. In the typing pool at a huge pulp and paper company, I learned about the New Pill. Taking these little pills every day for a monthly cycle was spurring a revolution in sexual behavior and offered up a world where women could make sexual choices for themselves. It is difficult now to conjure the terror by which teenage girls like me lived during the 1950s — the fear and shame of pregnancy under the tyranny of virginity. Boys played by different rules. With “the pill’ came a new promiscuous after-work life in cities. I was energized by it all. Who wouldn’t be on the volume of estrogen that was pulsing through our bloodstreams? We didn’t understand this yet.
Whether it was my restlessness and curiosity or all those hormones in 1964, after dropping out of university again, I was bouncing toward San Francisco on a Grey Hound bus. I immediately landed a job as a secretary. My secretarial skills would continue to keep me afloat for the rest of the sixties even after I returned to university.
The Bay Area was home to multiple revolutions — from the political to the cultural, from the spiritual to the chemical — and I was absorbing them all. From Human Be-Ins to the United Farmworkers’ Grape Boycott, from Peace marches to Black Power. After meeting a radical professor at a Black Panther Party fundraiser in Oakland, I was soon following him to his first teaching gig at Washington University in St Louis. 1968. That’s when I returned to university and became a rebel.
Dreams of Utopia
In St Louis, our lives feverish with activism, we were convinced we could jumpstart a different future. Peaceful. Egalitarian. Non-racist. Feminist. Environmentally toxic free. Communal. And joyful. Our process — participatory democracy. Intellectually we knew it was magical thinking to believe in such a Utopia. It was the process of striving for those ideals that counted. Still, our dreams were always about that idealistic future.
By 1972 I had been on the pill for almost a decade and had developed a breast lump — fortunately benign — and had it removed. That same year, Barbara Seaman’s book, The Pill, appeared warning of the dangers of the high dosages of estrogen in that first decade of pills. Women were developing alarming levels of breast and uterine cancer. I began to question the pill, went off of it, and immediately got pregnant.
My boyfriend, Carl, and I were too engaged in work, study and activism which included dodging FBI agents and informants who had infiltrated St Louis organizations, to consider having a child. In the Bay Area that summer where abortion was legal sometime between working with a posse of women on the first feminist news program (all volunteer) at KPFA (Pacifica radio) and researching the effects of pesticides on California peaches for Environment magazine, I had an abortion.
There was hardly time or space to reflect upon that decision, although I remember a generalized sadness. In addition, after four intense years, my relationship with Carl was unraveling. It was not an atmosphere for a child to enter our lives. Shortly after that abortion, I moved out.
I may have gone back on the pill but unhappily. Yet the alternative forms of contraception were no more attractive. The serious health issues caused by IUDs, the awkwardness of the diaphragm. None of it appealed to me. And I didn’t trust men to take the lead in contraception. This too contributed to my decision.
The War Ends with Economic Recession
In 1973 with an MA in Sociology, I moved to Boston to teach “Creating a Feminist Media” at an alternative graduate school, Cambridge-Godard, and to work with The Red Tape Collective at a commercial progressive FM station. We produced the first feminist radio hour broadcast on a commercial station in the U.S. I earned about $2,000 that year teaching and an occasional $45 co-producing an hour of radio every week on feminist issues like child care and secretaries organizing. I rustled up extra dollars by typing dissertations for Iranian PhD students at MIT.
The drawn out ending of the Vietnam war — from Peace Treaties to official departure — created a huge vacuum for so many of us who had defined much of our lives in opposition to it. The sense of communal purpose, of shared values, of belonging to something that was so much larger than our individual selves, the risk-taking, the simple output of energy, all that was collapsing.
Adding to that period of the war ending, the country sank into a serious economic recession that scourged on through the 70s. Heavy government spending on the War, sky-rocketing gas prices caused by the “Arab oil boycott” that sparked an energy crisis, along with a Wall Street stock crash in 1973 — all contributed to the downturn.
Suddenly, our non-careerist collective sensibilities were being eroded by the need to scramble for paid work in a collapsing economy. Since I bailed on a PhD program, I now didn’t have the qualifications to teach at a university. I knew what I didn’t want — to return to the secretarial pool. My imagination and aspirations had been charged by learning how to produce radio documentaries, by experimenting with the New Journalism, by learning photography and a new technology — video — that had been developed during the Vietnam War. When I went to high school and started university I had no idea these were skills I could learn. Writers. Producers. Photographers. That was the world of men. In fact, white men pretty much dominated and controlled everything in those days — from universities to the press, from radio stations to businesses including restaurants where I now sought jobs.
By the end of 1974 my mental health was stressed by poverty. I was a woman in a world not yet ready to offer me an equal place at the table. Since I had spent so much time critiquing the “corporate owned, male defined media” I was largely uninterested in jobs there. I had been shaped by a profoundly moral and idealistic movement. I had built an identity around creatively produced radio documentaries that revealed a world under-reported or untouched by mainstream media. Giving voice to the voiceless, we used to chant. Only alternative settings would share that ethos. But those institutions expected us to work for nothing.
I had also helped start the first women’s public affairs TV show at a local Boston station — for free — continuing a centuries long tradition of women’s volunteer work! Meanwhile, the male deciders at the commercial radio station cancelled our Women’s Hour. All of these layers of the political and economic substrata fostered my decision.
It was also a despairing winter — exacerbated by living in a basement room of a row house with a shared bathroom and hotplate. Columbus Avenue in those days was considered part of “the ghetto” in Boston, now all gentrified. There was a funeral parlor next door and I watched them bring the bodies in the back door unceremoniously, stiff lumps on a gurney. And then looked on as expensive coffins emerged from the front door. Ominous five-gallon glass bottles, emptied of their embalming fluid, stacked up in the back alley. In that basement with that view, I made my decision.
It was a brutal winter. Sirens wailed at night as fires erupted in the rooming houses on our frozen street. Without heat, poor tenants were using electric or gas heaters that could ignite a curtain. I watched one night as an elderly woman and her infant grandchild jumped to their deaths. That winter, in that bone-chilling, impoverished reality, I made my decision.
Living on Columbus Avenue, I sometimes popped into a tiny jazz club at the end of my block late at night. For the price of a beer I could listen to jazz students from the Berkeley School of Music practice. There I met black hookers warming up before heading out into the frigid winds. They explained that they ended up on the streets because of the racism in the girlie clubs downtown. I began interviewing them, following them to court and meeting the judge. I turned it into a radio documentary about de-criminalizing prostitution. It took me a month to produce. The station agreed to air it. I earned something like $50.
With the wolf at my door, I kept pushing away the sorry prospect of the subservience of secretarial work or smiling for tips, as a waitress. Not sure I could even find that work in this economic malaise.
People familiar with this period could ask, why didn’t you live in a collective like many others? In Boston I initially lived with two other women, but one of them began to consume my identity and life, even dating the same men I did. I couldn’t wait to escape. Besides, as an only child, I had always been fiercely independent with a strong sense of privacy. Collective work, yes. Collective living. Tough for me.
I couldn’t qualify for unemployment. I had no medical insurance. I applied for welfare benefits — $80 a month with food stamps. Although I learned a great deal about how that system treated people, I felt guilty collecting and stopped after a few months when I landed a waitress job. While on welfare, with access to Medicaid, I made my decision.
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
My decision finally came from a deep imaginative failure to envision a future in a long-lasting love relationship so that a father would be around for child rearing. My thoughts were shaped by my mother’s experience. She left a psychologically abusive relationship with my father when I was two. I watched her struggle as a single working mom, yet I was thrilled to live with my grandparents and uncles. She wasn’t. She wanted a guy to make sure we could afford to live in a neighborhood with good schools. She remarried someone who wasn’t kind to me, and who, much to my relief, died when I was fifteen. Although my mum always worked whether single or married, I did not want to be alone raising a child or feel that I had to marry an iffy prospect in order to launch a child into the world. I didn’t have the heart for it. I didn’t crave an identity as mother. I was too depressed.
I felt like the bottom had fallen out. That’s when I made that decision. I don’t remember environmental concerns being part of it.
Why History Matters?
“History…does not refer principally to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in everything we do.” James Baldwin
What I learned from reflecting upon my personal and political history related here is that my grief over the loss of political or community engagement — and love — over the failure to imagine either in my future, can be debilitating, and lead to feeling lost, isolated and hopeless. It can also lead to individual decisions about bringing a child into the world.
Today, given our existential threat, whether young people decide to limit the number of children they have or have none at all, it is the commitment to work with others to confront government policy and change the way we live, that will bring hope.
In her article Heglar insists that African Americans have much to teach us all about building such a movement, about courage, about survival: