‘The Right of a Woman to Her Own Person:’ Interview with ‘Jane Against the World’ Author Karen Blumenthal
By: Jamie Gregory
Abortion rights, pro-choice, and pro-life are words sure to start an emotional argument in any classroom. Karen Blumenthal’s latest and final book Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights presents the issue of women’s reproductive rights using a factual and nuanced approach, tracing America’s history of sexual censorship and clarifying many myths and misconceptions surrounding the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. This book will inspire young readers to take a look behind their own preconceived notions to dig deeper into an issue that is anything but one-sided.
As with her other nonfiction books, Blumenthal invites young people into complex conversations by providing the social context for controversies as well as previous historical developments. Part of the Roe v. Wade decision was the issue of privacy. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy within marriage meant the government could not control a married couple’s use of birth control, effectively making birth control legal. Ultimately, Roe v. Wade questioned the reach of government involvement in a medical procedure: a woman’s right to privacy to make a medical decision for herself versus the state’s interest in protecting the developing fetus.
She begins the story even earlier to show the development of the idea that a woman could make choices about her own life. Students may not know that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony did not advocate solely for voting rights but also for rights to education and divorce. Blumenthal details how Stanton advocated for “voluntary motherhood,” the idea that a wife could say no to her husband. Allowing a woman this choice created “the sacred right of a woman to her own person,” indeed a revolutionary idea.
Blumenthal goes on to show how the U.S. Senate approved the Equal Rights Amendment at the same time the Supreme Court decided the Roe v Wade case, connecting reproductive health rights with protection against gender discrimination in the workplace. Students learn that many of these social movements were inextricably linked during the 1960s.
Blumenthal also connects women’s reproductive health rights to racism, which will resonate with young readers: “At the first national conference of Black Power in 1967, a majority of the 1,100 delegates voted for a resolution rejecting birth control programs because they believed such programs sought to exterminate black people, a conviction that had its roots in slavery, lynching, and other crimes against African Americans.”
On the other hand, Blumenthal quotes Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress: “Some black men thought birth control clinics represented a white-power plot. I do not know any black or Puerto Rican women who feel that way. To label family planning and legal abortion programs ‘genocide’ is male rhetoric, for male ears.”
Even after the Roe v Wade decision, poverty continued to influence women’s reproductive health as Blumenthal includes details about forced sterilization without knowledge or consent of the patient and family, typically among minorities, underage women, and those with disabilities. In the late 1970s, the Hyde Amendment, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Harris v. McRae, barred the use of federal funds to cover the cost of abortions. She also provides information about how states have sought additional barriers to abortion throughout the 2000s, even though abortion during the first semester remains legal.
Importantly, Blumenthal discusses how before and even during the Roe v Wade litigation, abortion rights wasn’t nearly the hot-topic that it is today, which is an important point for students to explore: how does the zeitgeist of the times influence popular groups of thinking? How do topics become controversial and politicized? Political strategists at the time combined pro-life enthusiasts who were also dissatisfied with desegregation, the Equal Rights Amendment, affirmative action, and gay rights to unite diverse groups such as evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews under a political Republican tent of “pro-family policies,” or the Moral Majority.
Blumenthal was a young woman herself when Roe v. Wade was making headlines, and the initial court cases originated in Texas where she is from. Because Roe was filed in Dallas federal court, Blumenthal attempted to access the state’s papers and archives on the case for research but found that the attorney general’s office redacted some of the information and refused her requests. She appealed the decision but lost. Fortunately, a previous author who has written about the case had microfilm of the papers available, which Blumenthal then digitized on her own. But interestingly, the Texas State Library and Archives declined her offer of a copy. To learn more, read Blumenthal’s column from March 2020 and view her PDF files of the redacted information.
On April 29, 2020, I attended a free webinar sponsored by MacKids Streaming Schoolhouse, Social Studies Class with award-winning children’s and young adult nonfiction writers Deborah Heiligman and Karen Blumenthal. Afterward, I was inspired to contact Blumenthal for an interview about censorship she may have experienced. After all, she has written books about bootlegging, Bonnie and Clyde, and Hillary Clinton (three of her books were YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction award finalists). But more than that, she was a financial reporter for over 25 years with the Wall Street Journal including contributing to work that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. She was an active supporter of public libraries, serving on the board of the Dallas Public Library, resulting in millions of dollars more in funding for the Dallas Public Library System. I received an initial reply from her, but then sadly learned of her death on May 19, 2020. I am honored to share our brief conversation.
I asked Blumenthal if she had any censorship experiences to share. Here is her response:
“Interestingly, Bootleg, which came out in 2011, was very well received. It even made a Texas state list when one of the committee members was from a Baptist church school in Houston. I had the opportunity to ask him about it–I was very moved that he supported it–and he said that his principal had never questioned their collection. Anecdotally, I think there has been some of that with my Bonnie and Clyde book, which surprised me. I heard a fair bit of concern that it would celebrate or glamorize violence. It doesn’t do that at all. In fact, it tries to ask why they are famous. But there are a lot of assumptions and I think some librarians just chose not to look closely at it, though I think kids are very interested in the subject. With Hillary, again, it’s hard to say. It sold well initially and it was a YALSA nonfiction finalist. But after the election, not so much.”
About Jane specifically:
“I am curious what will happen with Jane Against the World, which is a history of abortion rights and reproductive rights. It came out Feb. 24, so it was out all of a week or two before things started shutting down. Several reviewers recommended it highly for schools and libraries, but who knows? My biggest fear was not that it would be censored, but that it would simply be ignored. In many ways, that’s easier than dealing with parents–just don’t buy it. I don’t think Catholic school libraries will touch it. It’s too soon to tell, though. And with budget cuts coming for sure, it may be hard to tell if it does happen.”
“I did have one new experience with Jane: I requested a photo of the priest who founded the Right to Life committee because I wrote about the origins of the movement and ran into real resistance. After three weeks of trying to get a photo from the archives of a Long Island archdiocese, I was told I could not have a photo unless I could assure the communications person that I presented “the issue in a way that is life affirming.” I was trying to reflect all views, of course. I ended up getting the photo elsewhere. I was also initially told I could use a photo of an old Salvation Army maternity home. After the lawyers got involved, however, my request was denied. In that case, I could not find an alternative. In all my years of doing this and after acquiring several hundred images for my nine books, this was the first time this has happened.”
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working in her 6th year as a school librarian at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC. Previously she taught high school English and French for 8 years. Her academic interests include book censorship and academic freedom in K-12 schools, inquiry-based learning, information literacy, and literacy in high school classrooms. She is an active member of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians serving as the 2019-2020 Chair of the South Carolina Book Award committees. When she is not reading or researching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons cooking, traveling, playing board games, and going to Iron Maiden concerts. Find her on Twitter @gregorjm.