This is what feminism looked like in the 1970s: Birth control had already made its debut, ushering in a radical new approach to sex and relationships that was continuing to gain ground. 1973 saw the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade; Title IX, Title X, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the criminalization of marital rape, and a no-fault divorce law were all passed in quick succession. While the word feminist was a loaded one, it was because women were fed up with the standard order of things.
Like so many of those women, Aralyn Hughes was becoming disillusioned with the homemaker/mother/wife bill of goods she'd been sold for the entirety of her life as a "nice girl." When she chose to become a feminist living in Austin, TX, in the early 70s, it was at a time when the term still meant "slut" or "lesbian" to the general population.
Inspired by Gloria Steinem and the choices and opportunities that sex education granted women, Hughes began volunteering as a birth control counselor at a Planned Parenthood in Austin, eventually going on to become the director at The Ladies Center, the city's first first trimester abortion clinic in the years following the Roe v. Wade decision. There she witnessed—and had her part in dispelling—the cycle of shame that kept women not only in the dark about their own sexuality, but also about the newly available choices afforded them.
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Fast forward several decades: Feminism—at least in the sphere of pop culture—is having another moment. No longer the purview of just one freethinking, often white segment of women, feminism's far reaching influence can be seen in Ruth Bader Ginsburg memes, heard in Beyoncé samples and read about in any magazine featuring female celebrities (Lana Del Rey, Kim Kardashian, Shailene Woodley), who are almost always asked if they identify with the cause.
This isn't always what it was like for women. But in the decades since Hughes' own abortion in the clinic of her employ, the number of abortion providers in Texas has dropped to 18 following the 2013 passage of HB2, the omnibus bill that requires, among other things, that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Those 18 clinics now serve more than 12 million women in Texas—and at least 100,000 of whom have attempted to self-induce abortions in the face of dwindling options according to a study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project. What's more, both the House and Senate have passed bills that propose defunding Planned Parenthood, which is to say nothing of the violence and hate that clinic doctors and volunteers are subjected to.
It's all enough to make a feminist who was there the first fight around feel like we're going backwards.
Like feminism and abortion laws in Texas, Hughes has changed as well, living several lives in turns as an abortion counselor, a lobbyist for the National Organization of Women in Texas, a pig owner, Austin's reigning "Queen of Weird," an author, an artist, a performer, and, most recently, a dominatrix named Goddess Ishtar. As promised to herself so many years ago, Aralyn has remained unmarried since her first divorce and has not had children, a decision she recounts in Kid Me Not, an anthology by child-free women of the 1960s, which she edited.
When I sat down to talk with Hughes about feminism and the recent anti-abortion legislation in her home state, she was very aware of the strides that she and her peers have made for modern women. Over decaf, sugar-free tea, we discussed how far women have come and how far women still have to go.
BROADLY: When did the word feminism first enter your lexicon? When did you become a feminist?
Aralyn Hughes: It must have been about 1971. I started to really be disillusioned with my choice of being a wife, mother, and homemaker and thinking, Oh my gosh, look at Gloria Steinem out there. I like her life better. She [was] talking about things, and I'm going, "Yeah! Right! Why should we make less money? Why should we have to stay home and take care of the kids?"
And, of course, birth control pills had happened in the 60s. Changed everything in the way that women were equal—we could have affairs just like men. We didn't have to worry about getting pregnant as we did before, and therefore we didn't have to face the shame. Not in the 60s, but in the 70s we got options to have an abortion, so if there was a mistake or a failure from birth control or whatever, you could have an abortion and, you know, those freedoms were just amazing. And then being able to see that if I worked, I could have my own money and I could do what I wanted with it.
So that was natural segue into your interest in reproductive rights?
One of the things I was attracted to in the women's movement was that women would have more education about their bodies and about their options and their choices; I always feel like knowledge is power and the more information you have, the better decision you can make for yourself. If women knew about birth control options, they knew it [wasn't] something you think about after the fact—you kind of have to plan ahead of time. That means you're a sexual human being and you're thinking about having sex. Women [weren't] supposed to like sex. [The stereotype was that] it was just those men, and you [had] to fight them off all the time because that was all they wanted to do. With the birth control pill, women were [able to say], "Hey take your clothes off. Come in here." It was a whole different ball game we got to play.
Look at Gloria Steinem out there. I like her life better.
How did you become involved in the Austin abortion clinic?
I was really interested in education. I started volunteering because I was married to somebody in the military, and we moved all the time. I volunteered because no one would hire me.
Eventually, they said they were going to open a first trimester abortion clinic, and I would go and counsel people there on their decisions to have abortions. That was another important thing to me: 1) that women understood what was going to happen and what to expect and 2) that they be sure that that is what they wanted.
It was the most gratifying job I ever had, and I felt like I served people in a way that I've never been able to serve and help people. How grateful they were, not to be shamed and to not be [asked], "What did you do?" You know, "You little slut—why didn't you use birth control? Why didn't you just say 'no' to him?"
When you hear about something like the study that revealed at least 100,000 Texas women had attempted to self-induce abortion—how does that make you feel?
It feels like 43 years ago I fought this battle to have safe and legal abortion in this country, and we are going backwards. It seems so strange and ludicrous to me. I just don't understand it. [Anti-abortion activists] can't overturn the Supreme Court decision, so now they just try to make it as uncomfortable and crazy as they can to scare and intimidate women.
Was abortion as politicized in the 1970s?
It was as political, just different. People had different opinions, but were in discussion about it. Now it is so divided, so violent—people willing to kill doctors and staff in order to save a baby. It is more black and white, more in your face, and certainly in the media almost every day.
I don't believe there was one woman who came in that door who ever thought they'd be there, who ever thought it'd happen to them.
Do you think that, because birth control and abortion are so accessible to women—well, to some women—they're sometimes taken for granted?
I do not. I don't think there's any woman who makes a choice to have unprotected sex and get pregnant [if she doesn't want to be pregnant].
In the abortion clinic, I saw probably 60 patients a week for many years. I don't believe there was one woman who came in that door who ever thought they'd be there, who ever thought it'd happen to them, and who ever thought they'd make that decision.
The relief I saw those women have, from the time they entered the clinic. The looks on their faces. Their sense of relief, their sense of empowerment, their sense that their lives were back and that they were not harmed. And they were not shamed. And they were not reprimanded.
It feels like 43 years ago I fought this battle to have safe and legal abortion in this country, and we are going backwards.
I think a better way to phrase that question is: Do you think the women of my generation are aware of the strides previous generations have made?
No. I think they have no clue. I hear women say, "I'm not a feminist, you know. I'm not a feminist. I'm not one of those bossy, strident, lesbian-leaning, tough, yelling, screaming protestors. I'm not one of those women." No. They don't have to be, because of what we did for them.
I feel the acknowledgement sometimes, but most of the time I just know in my heart that many of the things I did and the peers I had made a tremendous amount of difference in people's lives, women's lives today, and they're not aware of it. [But it's just like how] I always vote. There were some women [suffragettes] who went to the streets and carried signs and wore ugly clothes and funny hats, but I don't think about that when I go to the polls. I just get to vote.
There's a perception that 1960s feminism was white and privileged and not always inclusive.
Those white, privileged women, and I was one of them—I had resources, I had an education, and I had a lot of things. Yes, we were privileged, but we were not just wanting things for privileged white women; rich women in this country can get abortions in this country anytime they want—they can just fly to France. We were very much for poor women's access to abortion, birth control, education, equal opportunity in the workplace. So that [regardless] of [your] job, even [if you were] a housekeeper or a houseworker, [you] get the same rights, same benefits, same everything as other people. We got that ball rolling, and we were maybe the only ones who could do it, because legislators would barely listen to us.
In what ways do you think today's feminism is different from feminism in the 60s? Are there similarities?
I think in many ways women have options and opportunities and privileges and vision more than they ever have before. But I still think in terms of some of the basic things—women's sexuality, the whole issue around whether or not to have children, and what your life will be about [if you don't have children]… I think women have make great strides, and I'm really proud that I have a contribution to that, but [we still have a ways to go].