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.

Ahead for women: good news & bad

The years ahead could be not good times to be a woman.

Childcare support? Abortion access? Equal pay? Contraception coverage?

How we will fare in the years ahead — those of us who are females of the species — is an open question; and some of the answers being bandied about are not pretty.

Paul Ryan’s budget would repeal benefits and protections currently enjoyed by millions of women, forcing us to pay out-of-pocket for potentially life-saving things like mammograms and cervical cancer screenings. Cuts in food stamps would hit women disproportionately, cuts in Medicaid would have a similar impact: women make up 70 percent of Medicaid’s adult beneficiaries. Prescription drug costs? Up, thanks to the re-opened Medicare drug coverage gap, the late and un-lamented donut hole. The list goes on, almost as glaringly as the list of benefits to the super-rich goes up. There are not a lot of women, especially single head-of-household wage earners, among the super-rich.

At a recent Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific (CA) gala, former Michigan Governor and Current TV host Jennifer Granholm ticked off these and other ways GOP policies take from women and give to the super-rich. But Granholm, in a conversation with CA Attorney General Kamala Harris moderated by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carla Marinucci, framed the opposing political policies as overall good news. With the GOP’s social and economic attacks on women in such sharp focus, she said, they can be seen for what they are — and defeated.

One can hope.

There are plenty of smart, honorable registered women Republicans. Whether they will worry about senior women having to pay more for drugs, or low-income women losing health benefits, or all women continuing to have to work three months more per year just to make what men make, that’s one of the questions still open. Reproductive justice? All women lose when reproductive rights diminish.

But at another meeting last week the focus was on distaff good news. The National Abortion Federation held its annual meeting, complete with continuing medical education for physicians, nurses and all those who will enable the progress and preservation of reproductive rights in the years ahead. This writer was fortunate to be invited to the Membership and Awards Luncheon, surrounded by extraordinary men and women including several award winners I am privileged to call friends. NAF President and CEO Vicki Saporta was among the speakers, and her report was one of optimism. My own optimism about the future for women in the US.is centered in three of the award winners whom I quite fortunately happen to know. They include:

Maggie Crosby, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, honored for her decades-long fight for reproductive justice — or, more accurately, her repeatedly successful fights for reproductive justice wherever it was about to be compromised.

Beverly Whipple, an extraordinary woman whose story — at least some small snippet of it — is included in Perilous Times. Whipple was leaving immediately after the NAF meeting for an extended motorcycle trip around Europe with her partner, but they slowed down long enough for a table-full of us to celebrate at the awards luncheon. More on Beverly Whipple in a few days.

Sarp Aksel, Past president of Medical Students for Choice and current Executive Clinic Chair of the ECHO Free Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. For those of us in despair about the future of abortion rights, Sarp Aksel is the face of hope. Bright, highly skilled and highly trained, and totally committed to women’s health and autonomy, Aksel is representative of the men and women determined to protect women’s reproductive rights.

Those who would take away women’s right to choose or ability to earn might well make gains for the super-rich in the near future. But they will have to contend with people like Saporta, Granholm, Crosby, Aksel and a host of other fighters for justice… including most of the women of America.