My mother Anne Nicol Gaylor directed that when she died, a “small tombstone” should be inscribed with her name and the words “Feminist—Activist—Freethinker.” My three brothers and I had long teased her that when she died we’d instead put on her tombstone: “Here lies 238-3338.”
For more than 40 years, my mother answered her home phone, “This is 238-3338” (and carefully instructed us children to do the same). Our personal home number went from being “the Gaylor residence” to a referral service for abortion, contraception and sterilization. Calls came in night and day after Playboy published our number (without Anne’s permission).
Our phone was also used for various feminist causes and eventually for the Women’s Medical Fund, the abortion charity for Wisconsin women without means that Anne administered for more than 40 years. It also became the main line for the Freedom From Religion Foundation in its earlier days, oft phoned by reporters (and cranks). The appropriation of our humble family number demonstrates the dizzying number of controversial causes and thriving groups embraced by or formed by my mother. Until March, at age 88, she was still personally taking the calls for the Women’s Medical Fund at that home number.
Shortly after my mother died on June 14, a friend who’d been interviewing her about the Women’s Medical Fund and her other activism posed this question to me: How did Anne get to be Anne?
She was thinking of Anne’s public life: her passionate convictions as a feminist and atheist; her dedicated 43-year commitment as a volunteer directly helping more than 20,000 Wisconsin women without means finance abortion care; her feisty creation and administering of the controversial Freedom From Religion Foundation, vibrant today with 23,000 members.
I’ve been wondering something more personal: How did my mother become not just the remarkable activist she was, but such a remarkably good mother—exceptionally gentle, loving and supportive—when she herself never remembered having a mother? Her mother had died when she was not quite two.
I think answering the second, personal question is the key to answering the first.
Although motherless, Anne had a proxy grandmother in the “practical nurse” hired to temporarily care for the family when Anne’s mother was hospitalized. “Gine,” as she was known, ended up staying ten years, cooking, looking after the farmhouse and children.
It was Gine who finger-curled my mother’s natural and much-admired ringlets before school, encouraged Anne in her voracious reading, and who entertained and comforted her with a robust repository of amusing Irish songs and rhymes. Seeds of female independence and rebellion toward authority were also planted by Gine, proudly a “maiden lady,” who was openly undeferential toward men.
Gine, while scoffing at male authority, was outwardly deferential to religion and fiercely “Orange” Irish (Protestant). Attending a one-room school house with only a few dozen books, Anne, “a hungry, growing reader,” who even in desperation turned to her father’s agricultural journals, naturally tried reading Gine’s Bible.
“Far from impressing or comforting me, these forays into its bloody depths frightened and dismayed me,” she recalled. “It was a special childhood cross to bear to be so eager for something to read while there sat that Bible—forbiddingly, uniquely unreadable.”
Anne, a second generation freethinker on her father’s side, often told me that her father, hardworking, quiet and gentle, expressed “embarrassment” about people who bought religion’s phony claims. A relatively lonely childhood on an isolated farm also turned her into an inveterate reader and learner. My mother frequently expressed gratitude to freethinker Andrew Carnegie for endowing the Carnegie Library in Tomah.
Like many who grew up during the Great Depression (but fortunately, living on a farm, never being hungry), my mother became a self-reliant innovator and optimist. She started first grade at age four, kept house and cooked for her father and three brothers from the age of 12, graduated high school at 16, and worked for room and board putting herself through college. Her father died when she was only 19.
She never bothered about public opinion, shocking the campus in the 1940s by wearing “natural” pantyhose (no seam in the back) and upsetting a landlady by wearing shorts in the summer. She breastfed her babies in the 1950s when it was unfashionable and even discouraged, and yes, joyously shed girdle and bra during the heyday of the early women’s movement, when she not only joined but often spearheaded the pickets, demonstrations and many feminist campaigns.
She was really always a feminist. She worked steadily from her mid-teens on, even through four closely-spaced pregnancies, typing term papers and keeping roomers. She began the first temporary employment agency in town in 1958, then launched a highly successful permanent placement service in 1959. Today families needing two incomes are the norm, but back then, she was the only mother we knew who worked outside the home, and we were proud of her.
Anne sold her lucrative business in 1966, when my parents embarked on an exciting but ultimately draining three-year foray into newspaper publishing, putting out a local weekly. Her 1967 newspaper editorial calling for legalization of abortion catapulted her into abortion rights activism. She repeated the call for reform in a letter published in a national medical newspaper, and formed the Madison chapter of the Wisconsin Committee to Legalize Abortion.
She wrote in Abortion Is a Blessing, her book about the battle to legalize abortion in Wisconsin, about an older student in her one-room country school who became pregnant and dropped out at age 14. Anne was always sensitive to the commonplace tragedies befalling girls and young women in the pre-Roe vs. Wade days.
Anne joined NARAL’s national board and started a chapter of Zero Population Growth (ZPG), soon launching the ZPG Abortion and Sterilization Service. When a three-judge panel legalized abortion in Wisconsin in 1970, Dr. Alfred Kennan opened a clinic in Madison, which the Roman Catholic district attorney raided, taking a teenaged patient and all the records, including the appointment books. We protesters flooded city hall. Anne was summoned by clinic workers to help stranded and desperate women from around the state who were arriving at the clinic.
Anne responded by beginning a fund to help pay transportation costs to fly some of those women to appointments in New York state. The Women’s Medical Fund, co-founded by Robert and Peg West, went from a small emergency fund to a major operation after the callous cut-off of federal and state funds for abortion for women qualifying for Medicaid. Anne efficiently helped 20,000 women over the phone with tact and sympathy (and a firm pep talk on what to do not to get pregnant in the future).
Finally came what was to be her life’s work and crowning achievement—becoming the principal founder and director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a thriving freethought association safeguarding the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.
As Anne noted, trying to change the laws against contraception and abortion “turned me into an activist for freethought, because I learned who the enemy really was. That enemy was religion.” She realized that the battle for women’s rights “would never end, because the root cause of the denial of those rights was religion and its control over government. Unless religion is kept in its place, all personal rights will be in jeopardy.”
To those who cannot imagine morality without religion, my mother had a simple rule, and practiced what she preached. She asked of an action: “Is it reasonable? Is it kind?” She spent the last 40 years of her life working so that reason—and kindness—will prevail.