Beverly Whipple: Unsung Hero, Unstoppable fighter for women’s rights

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Together at the National Abortion Federation Awards Luncheon: Beverly Whipple, recipient of a C. Lalor Burdick ‘Unsung Hero’ award, with fellow award winner Sarp Aksel (the Elizabeth Karlin Early Achievement Award) and writer Fran Johns.

 

At first glance, you would not take her for a warrior. Slim, blond, pretty with a deceptive tilt toward fragility, Beverly Whipple could be answering a call from central casting for all-American housewife. But if such an opportunity ever presented itself, Whipple laughed it out of town.

Honored recently by the National Abortion Federation with an Unsung Hero award, Whipple stepped to the dais to accept the award, thanked her longtime supporters and co-workers at the Washington State women’s clinics she co-founded decades ago, expressed confidence in their continuing strength, and took off immediately thereafter to roam around Europe for a few months on a motorcycle. She’s done this three or four times before, accompanied by husband Mike, who is equally open to exploring the world.

In what seems definitely another life, Beverly Whipple worked her way through college, earning a degree in music education. She married, taught school, and had “a pretty good life.” On her way to a long tenure as an unsung heroine of reproductive justice she left that life and held down a job driving an 18-wheeler truck. In the middle of the night, one night, the air pressure in her truck’s braking system “went away,” and the brakes failed. A turnout happily positioned on one downhill stretch saved truck and driver from oblivion. The experience may have persuaded her that truck driving wasn’t the wisest career choice, but her love for the open road continues. She and Mike were delighted to meet fellow NAF Award recipient Sarp Aksel, who sent them off with introductions to his family in Turkey.

The career choice Whipple did make has been a literal lifesaver to countless women in Washington State for more than a quarter-century. In 1979, she and Deborah Lazaldi, both natives of Yakima, founded Feminist Women’s Health Center in Yakima, to offer reproductive choice and healthcare. Known as Cedar River Clinics, FWHC in Yakima (and now also in Renton, Seattle and Tacoma) shares some of the innovative elements of the first Feminist Women’s Health Center, founded by Carol Downer and Lorraine Rothman in 1971 in Los Angeles. Beyond providing reproductive services, the clinics empower women by involving them in their own healthcare – performing their own pregnancy tests, learning about their own bodies, joining support groups.

Whipple and Lazaldi worked nights and used their own money to get the clinic started, and within several years had opened a second clinic in Everett, WA. The Everett clinic – which could stand as a micro-image of battles fought and challenges met – immediately became the target of pickets, harassment and arson. “After the first two fire bombs,” Whipple says, “we rebuilt, renovated and purchased new equipment and supplies. But after the third arson (the arsonist was eventually arrested and admitted guilt) our insurance company canceled our policy and the landlord canceled our lease and confiscated our property.” Neither Whipple nor her clients & associates go down without fighting. “We had women coming in, stepping over the debris after a fire bomb, saying ‘I have an appointment.’” But within a year, the Everett FWHC was forced to close.

Not so the work to protect reproductive rights of women in the area. Throughout the late 1980s Whipple and her associates continued to fight for those women, and their children. Among other things, they established an on-site childcare center in Yakima for children of clients and staff – which was forced to close after a few years because of intense harassment of the children by antiabortion protesters. With assistance from volunteer attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild they filed a RICO (Racketeering-Influenced Corrupt Organization) lawsuit against several antiabortion individuals and groups alleging conspiracy to close the clinic through a campaign of terror, criminal acts and violence. They took the money that some defendants paid – for damages that would seem hard to estimate – and used it for a down payment to buy the clinic “and our independence” in Yakima.

For the next two decades, Whipple and her FWHC colleagues continued to demolish (or often simply ignore or circumvent) opposition while contributing to the progress of women’s rights in a dizzying array of ways: expanding care and clinics, co-sponsoring the historic “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington DC in 2004, sponsoring or co-sponsoring films, forums and fundraisers, political initiatives and medical research in behalf of women’s rights and reproductive justice. Whipple’s significant part in all this was cited in her “Unsung Hero” award from the National Abortion Federation.

Which would be a good excuse for most of us to retire and ride off into the sunset, even on a motorcycle. Whipple already has a new business underway; sitting around doing nothing is not exactly her style.

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