For the last 40 years I’ve been defending a woman’s right to choose and I’m terrified of what the future holds for us if we don’t stand up for what we believe in. My decision to become an attorney and an activist dates back to my pre-Roe V. Wade world teenage years. In the early ’60s, I was an idealistic 17-year-old who planned on joining the Peace Corps and went by the name “Baby,” not Frances Houseman, Esq.
Everything changed the summer before I entered Mount Holyoke while vacationing with my parents and sister at my family’s favorite Catskill’s resort Kellerman’s. This was back when families could take large chunks of time away from work without having the pressure of checking emails or the overwhelming need to keep up with the constant news cycle. Although this might seem like a dream, that time period was a nightmare for women. In fact, I’d rather be at a job where I was contractually obligated to post on social media and take meetings via Skype at 3 AM, then live in a time period with limited career opportunities and women didn’t have the right to choose.
While most folks at the resort were mindlessly playing shuffleboard and my sister was courting a social-climbing, predatory waiter, I refused to waste my summer. Instead, I volunteered to carry a watermelon to help out a worker. Despite being a teen, I knew a paid guest who willingly helped a staff member carry a large and cumbersome fruit was a simple way to break down class barriers. What I didn’t know was that this small act of kindness would change the trajectory of my life and I’d turn my attention away from international causes and I’d become a founding member of the women’s movement.
The watermelon was my entry card to another world that existed in the resort, one that was filled with working-class inner-city folks who lived hard. In order to blow off steam, they partook in semi-erotic dances, which I awkwardly tried to engage in. It was at this exclusive seasonal employee clubhouse, I saw two striking dancers, Johnny Castle and Penny, and I knew that once they accepted me I’d gain entrance into this world. I felt like Margaret Mead. I was also attracted to the male dancer and when I found out he was single I was intrigued.
In order to spend time with Johnny Castle and his friends, I insinuated myself into an uncomfortable situation where Penny admitted she was pregnant. Due to work obligations and limited funds, she knew it was impossible to keep the baby. Carrying the pregnancy to full term and giving up the child would also leave her jobless. When a fellow co-worker suggested that she seek an illegal abortion, Penny didn’t even have the time to take off from work or the money. Since I had both time and access to money, I was able to give her the funds for the procedure, while also taking over her gig at a local resort.
I asked my father for the money for the abortion, which he gave me without even telling him what it was for, and I passed it along to Penny. At first, Johnny Castle thought I was just a spoiled kid, but Penny understood her limitations and accepted the money. Of course, now I had to learn a complicated dance to perform, but I also got to spend hours with my crush and the remainder of the summer in Johnny’s dance studio. We developed feelings for each other after several rehearsals. Due to our age difference, our love was considered illegal in some states, but it was real and passionate.
Finally, it was the night of the big show, which we actually pulled off. However, this achievement was quickly forgotten when we returned to find Penny suffering from the aftermath of a back alley abortion. We were fortunate that my father was a doctor, and was able to nurse Penny back to health.
If you vacationed at Kellerman’s in the early 1960s, you might remember me as an awkward teen that dazzled everyone at the end of the summer talent show. You might believe learning how to dance was the highlight of my summer. And of course, I did have the time of my life dancing alongside Johnny, but being a star in the talent show didn’t impact me as much as watching the atrocities surrounding Penny’s limited options. I can’t go back to a world where a woman can potentially lose their life at the hand of a traveling abortionist who uses unsterilized equipment and leaves a patient to die.
If I learned anything from my summer lover, Johnny Castle, it’s that “nobody puts Baby in a corner.” I won’t stand in a corner and neither should you! Our voices will be heard! Get out of the corner and go out and defend our rights!