How Roe Shaped the World of Work for Women
Many factors drove women into the work force in greater numbers in the 1970s. Scholars argue that abortion access was an important one.
May 7, 2022
When Barbara Schwartz looks back at her younger days working as a Broadway stagehand, she remembers the electricity of it: the harried dancers slipping into their costumes backstage, the props people shoving past with flashlights between their teeth.
She was able to throw herself into that high-pressure career, she said, because of a choice she made in 1976. She got an abortion at a clinic she found in the Yellow Pages. It was three years after the Roe v. Wade ruling established the constitutional right to an abortion; to Ms. Schwartz, the world seemed full of new professional opportunities for women. She got a credit card in her own name, became one of the first women to make it into the local stagehand union and joined the throngs backstage 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 border of Virginia and Tennessee. She was drawn to this volunteer work, she said, because to her, the promise from her 20s has dimmed — the result of laws that have chipped away at abortion access, with a leaked draft Supreme Court ruling this past week revealing that Roe is likely to be overturned.
“This is my giant pay it forward,” Ms. Schwartz said.
That is how Ginny Jelatis, 67, thinks about it too. She was of high school senior age the year Roe v. Wade was decided; she began serving as a clinic escort after retiring from her work as a history professor in 2016.
“I feel like my life is perfectly framed by this issue,” Ms. Jelatis said. “I became an adult at 18, and here I am in my 60s still fighting this fight.”
To women like Ms. Jelatis, who entered adulthood in the early 1970s, the world of work and opportunity was changing rapidly. Women’s labor force participation went from about 43 percent in 1970 to 57.4 percent in 2019. Many different factors drove women into the work force in greater numbers in those years, but scholars argue that abortion access was an important one.
“There’s no question that legal abortion makes it possible for women in all classes and races to have some control over their economic lives and ability to work outside the home,” said Rosalind Petchesky, a retired professor of political science at Hunter College, whose research was cited in the Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed Roe.
Those women who entered the workplace just after Roe are now reaching retirement age. Some of them, like Carolyn McLarty, a retired veterinarian, are more committed than ever to their anti-abortion advocacy. Some, like Ms. Schwartz, look back and feel their careers are indebted to the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision, and the reproductive choices it opened up to women. So they are spending their retirement years working as abortion clinic escorts.
The experience of older clinic escorts, shared in interviews over the course of recent months, shows what Roe meant for a specific cohort: Women who fought in support of abortion access when they were on the cusp of adulthood, and whose working lives were shaped by the opportunities they believe that Roe afforded them.
From Opinion: A Challenge to Roe v. Wade
Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
- Maureen Dowd: Samuel Alito’s draft opinion, which calls for overturning Roe v. Wade, is the culmination of the last 40 years of conservative thinking, showing that the Puritans are winning.
- Tish Harrison Warren: For many pro-life and whole-life leaders, a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would represent a starting point, not a finish line.
- Matthew Walther, Editor of a Catholic Literary Journal: Those who oppose abortion, should not discount the possibility that its proscription will have some regrettable consequences. Even so, it will be worth it.
- Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan: If Roe falls, abortion will become a felony in Michigan. I have a moral obligation to stand up for the rights of the women of the state I represent.
“My God, it’s all been brought back,” said Debra Knox Deiermann, 67, a clinic 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 beginning their families or careers as Roe was decided have also fought hard against legal abortion, their adult lives book-ended by a decision they found appalling then and are heartened to see on its way to being overturned. According to Gallup, in 1975, 18 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 29 believed that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances; by last year, in that same cohort of women, now aged 63 to 75, the figure was 23 percent.
A Pew Research poll in 2021 found that 59 percent of Americans said they believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 39 percent 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, between the ages of 18 and 29, are far more likely than older adults to say abortion should be legal in some or all cases.
Bound4Life, a grass-roots anti-abortion group, estimates that one-fifth of its volunteers are retirees. Eagle Forum, an anti-abortion group, which reaches out to people across the age spectrum, estimates that most of its volunteers are 55 and older.
“They are almost the only age group that responds to our emails and take action when we send out alerts to call their elected officials,” Tabitha Walter, Eagle Forum’s political director, said in an email to The Times.
Some are motivated by the tectonic cultural and legal changes on abortion that they have witnessed, and in some cases driven, over the course of their careers.
“I’ve seen the pendulum swing from very conservative to out of hand rejecting God,” said Ms. McLarty, 71, who volunteers as the secretary of the board for Eagle Forum, and has been involved in the Oklahoma Republican Party. “The younger generation is seeing how they’ve been deceived on a lot of things.”
Ms. McLarty said she knows that changes in abortion law over her lifetime have coincided with women’s increased participation in the work force. But for her own part, she wishes she had devoted less time to her career and more to parenting.
“Looking back, I probably would have spent more time at home,” said Ms. McLarty, who worked part-time when her children were young. “There are different times in your life for different chapters.”
The last half-century has brought a host of cultural changes that facilitated women’s entrance into the work force. New technologies created new clerical roles, many of which went to women; high school graduation rates rose; the stigma attached to married women in the workplace decreased. But sociologists and economists argue that legal abortion is a singularly important factor, giving many women the option to delay starting families and save money in early adulthood.
The State of Roe v. Wade
What is Roe v. Wade? Roe v. Wade is a landmark Supreme court decision that legalized abortion across the United States. The 7-2 ruling was announced on Jan. 22, 1973. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, a modest Midwestern Republican and a defender of the right to abortion, wrote the majority opinion.
What was the case about? The ruling struck down laws in many states that had barred abortion, declaring that they could not ban the procedure before the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb. That point, known as fetal viability, was around 28 weeks when Roe was decided. Today, most experts estimate it to be about 23 or 24 weeks.
What else did the case do? Roe v. Wade created a framework to govern abortion regulation based on the trimesters of pregnancy. In the first trimester, it allowed almost no regulations. In the second, it allowed regulations to protect women’s health. In the third, it allowed states to ban abortions so long as exceptions were made to protect the life and health of the mother. In 1992, the court tossed that framework, while affirming Roe’s essential holding.
What would happen if Roe were overturned? Individual states would be able to decide whether and when abortions would be legal. The practice would likely be banned or restricted heavily in about half of them, but many would continue to allow it. Thirteen states have so-called trigger laws, which would immediately make abortion illegal if Roe were overturned.
Recent research has tried to understand the role abortion access plays in women’s employment. Most notable is the Turnaway Study, conducted at the University of California, San Francisco. Researchers followed two groups of women — a group that wanted and got abortions, and another that wanted abortions and were unable to obtain them — for five years and found that those unable to get abortions had worse economic outcomes. Almost two-thirds of those who did not have an abortion they had sought out were living in poverty six months later, compared with 45 percent of those who got the procedure.
The overturn of Roe would mean women across the country face a patchwork of state laws on abortion access, with 13 states set to ban abortion immediately or very quickly after the court’s ruling. There is likely a correlation between the regions of the country where it is most difficult to get an abortion, and those with the fewest child care and parental leave options, according to an analysis of research findings from the financial site WalletHub.
For older women who felt they were able to attain financial stability because of the decision to have an abortion, there is resonance in sharing their stories with the younger women they meet at clinics today.
“The older folks I work with can remember that dread of, ‘My God, what if it happens to me?’” said Ms. Deiermann, who spent most of her career working in reproductive health advocacy.
Many clinic volunteers, like Ms. Deiermann, remember when their classmates and friends got illegal abortions. Telling those stories feels more urgent than ever.
Karen Kelley, 67, a retired labor and delivery nurse in Idaho, who volunteers at an abortion clinic there, spent her childhood aligned with her Roman Catholic family’s anti-abortion views. Then she found herself pregnant in her early 20s, without an income to support a baby. Realizing that motherhood could “derail all her hopes,” she chose to terminate that pregnancy, about six years after Roe.
That’s a memory Ms. Kelley conveys to the women she escorts to the clinic’s steps. “If I’m asked, I’m always honest that I understand how they’re feeling because I had an abortion and they have every right to make the decision,” she said.
And some older women said that the position they’re in now — retired, with savings and stability — is something they trace back to Roe.
“It gave us a chance to decide to marry and have a family later,” said Eileen Ehlers, 74, a retired high school English teacher and a mother.
What Roe gave her, she said, is something she can now pour back into volunteering: “We have time.”