Often when I speak about No Excuses, I ask “When did you know you had the power to __(fill in the blank)___?”
This question intrigues people, but rarely does anyone have as clear and direct answer as Merle Hoffman, this week’s “She’s Doing It.” She seems to have been born knowing, and born quite willing to buck the norm of being the archetypical nice and compliant “good girl” in favor of getting done the things she believes are important.
Merle, the President and CEO of Choices Women’s Medical Center, has recently published a memoir I highly recommend, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion Out of the Back Alley and Into the Boardroom.
Merle was kind enough to answer some questions about her life and times for 9 Ways:
Tell me your personal story…why and how did you come to be doing what you a doing?
I really fell into it serendipitously. My early years and adolescence were spent preparing to become a concert pianist. After I graduated from Music and Art, I also dabbled in painting and drama. When I finally decided to go to college at the age of 22, I need three part time jobs to pay for tuition—and one was with an internist , Dr. Martin Gold, for whom I worked as a medical assistant. At just this time (1970), abortion was decriminalized in New York which was three years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationally. Dr. Gold, one of the architects of HIP, wanted to start a service for women subscribers. I got involved in the beginning of this project and it has become my life’s work.
What motivates you? What’s your passion?
I am motivated by very deep feelings of responsibility which began with the first patient who came to Choices. She came from New Jersey because abortion was still illegal in that state. She was white and married with a 7 year old. She was terrified – abortion had just been legalized, and the shadows of the back alley and death were still palpable. But she knew she just could not afford another child. I had to “counsel” her (at that time there was absolutely no concept of this—everything was being done “for the first time”). I stayed with her and held her hand throughout her abortion—I don’t remember her name or her face but I remember her hand, and the thousands who have come after as forming an alliance of absolute faith and trust.
My passion has become political in the sense of doing everything I can in every theater of this war against women to play my part in insuring that no woman will ever again have to put her life on the line to make her reproductive choices.
Jennifer Baumgardner said you have always understood and embraced power. Is that true? If so, why is that? And why do you think you have this attribute when it is so difficult for many women?
I have written that “all children are resistance fighters”— it starts with the word “no.” And for those of us who continue to grow into a life of radical politics, this resistance continues. We continue to say no to oppression, no to inequity, no to the systemic degradation of women’s lives.
I have always been aware of my will to resist—and rather then capitulate, I nurtured it—I struggled against what I perceived as unfairness or arbitrary power and each obstacle I faced and overcame made me stronger.
I had an ego-ideal of myself as an independent courageous, even heroic figure. And it was that self-image that I was continually trying to actualize and live up to. The acceptance of people around me was not as important as my own vision of who I wanted and needed to become. In a sense, I would say that I had a generic trust in my own perceptions of reality rather than other people’s. This kind of self confidence has been called arrogance by some, but it has enabled me to survive.
And then there is the fact that power is responsibility—and many people want what ostensibly comes with power: the perks, the perceived freedom. But ultimately, you come to learn that power has a heavy price. Not every one is willing to pay it, and women are still not taught or conditioned to seek it. Many women have a great deal of difficulty with their own desire for power because they have been so heavily conditioned not to want to even admit that they want power in the world. So this drive for accomplishment—influence—directing events becomes distorted into consumerism, entertainment and/or obsessive self-involvement. There are also strong influences in the feminist community against having power, which is seen as static and almost always negative. It’s as if “good girls don’t want power.” Well, perhaps we have to all become bad girls to get anything good done in this world!
Why did you write Intimate Wars? What do you hope your book will accomplish? For yourself, for others, for the world, however you want to define this. How are you doing do far?
I was coming up on the 40th anniversary of Choices, and I had lost the three women that I loved within the last two years. It was a time to reflect and attempt to put a narrative onto the whirlwind of my life. I wanted to leave the history of my work and the lessons I learned for others to fight against the collective amnesia that seems to be endemic in the movement. I wanted to leave a legacy for my daughter, who did not know me for most of my life and whose life I will share only a part of. And finally, I wanted to start a conversation about this issue, beyond the limiting bumper sticker politics.
What’s the most important leadership lesson you learned on the way?
I will have to put an “s” on lesson! To listen and to follow—without that ability it is impossible to lead. To have a vision—to be able and willing to work relentlessly to operationalize it. To know your own limitations and have realistic expectations of others, to be able to accept the slings and arrows of those who will oppose you and keep going—because you understand that the strength of your power is measured by intensity of your opposition. And finally, to be able to embrace risk and challenge, because you know you can survive the worst of what they can do to you.
If one of the No Excuses Power Tools resonates with you or if you feel you have employed one or more of them at some time in your life, please share what it is and an anecdote that illustrates what you mean.
While I have used all of your power tools, I would say that #4, “Create Controversy” is generic to my being and my work. Never just content to do the work quietly, I sought out debates with leaders of the anti-choice movement to duel politically and bring my truth about abortion and women’s lives to more and more people. I debated Jerry Falwell on National Television in Detroit in 1982:
“Ms Hoffman” he said, “how many abortions did your facility do last year?”
“Reverend I believe we did nine thousand abortions” I told him proudly. (To my way of thinking this high number was a measure of the excellence of our work. Like any medical practice any business, the more people who came to you, the better your services were assumed to be.)
But to Falwell’s ears, it was a measure of mass murder.
“When you meet your maker with the blood of 9 thousand babies on your hands–what will you say, how will you justify that?”
“Reverend, when I meet her I will be very proud because I fought and struggled for women’s rights.”
“Her? Her? Are you saying God is a woman”?
“No Reverend,” I said. “God is beyond gender”
I like to watch that tape sometimes; it’s wonderful comic relief.
Anything else that moves you or that you want to share about your work, your book, yourself?
I chose to have an abortion at age 32 because of my commitment to my work, and I adopted my wonderful daughter Sasharina 7 years ago when I was 58. I love being a mother because when I made the decision to do it, it was my time—and my own experience has deepened my commitment to Reproductive Justice.
I fervently hope that my story and my book will become the catalyst for young women to follow their passions, to have courage and to believe in themselves.
I feel enormously privileged to lead the life of challenge that I have. I have learned, as Flo Kennedy told me long ago, to “love the struggle.”