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The Redstockings: “Rapping” for Reproductive Rights in Greenwich Village

Founded in 1969 by activists Ellen Willis and Shulamith Firestone, the Redstockings were one of the first Women’s Liberation groups, known for their then-radical support of a woman’s right to an abortion. Based in New York City, their name is a portmanteau of “Bluestockings,” an 18th century women’s literacy group, and “Red,” then a color symbolizing radical and revolutionary ideals. 

Prior to 1973’s seminal Roe v. Wade case, abortion had been illegal in most states since the 1820s, preventing anyone from terminating an unplanned pregnancy outside of instances like rape, incest, or mental illness. This exposed women and those assigned female at birth (*ACAB) to inadequate and unregulated medical care, and in worst case scenarios, criminal investigation and prosecution for manslaughter and common law infringements. To fight against this grim scenario, the Redstockings organized “raps” (similar to the “zaps” carried out by groups like the Gay Activists Alliance) in which activists would, seemingly out of nowhere, storm legal proceedings, beauty pageants, corporate meetings and other public gatherings to bring attention to their cause. 

“Women Break Up Abortion Hearing” in The New York Times on Friday, February 14th, 1969

In their first rap on February 13th, 1969, the Redstockings broke into a New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Public Health hearing to consider reform of the state’s laws around abortion. What they found outraged them. Of the 15 people on the panel advising legislators on abortion, 14 of them were men and the sole woman was a nun. All advocated for abortion restrictions to remain in place. Only Senator Seymour Thaler, a Queens Democrat, supported the young women’s protest. While the Redstockings berated the other lawmakers, the committee chairman said that the panel were “experts” on the subject, further enraging the activists who believed no one was a better expert on matters of female reproductive rights than women themselves. 

Washington Square Methodist Church, located on West 4th Street.

Incensed by their experience with the NYS Committee, the Redstockings decided to host their own hearing. On March 21, 1969, the group’s members hosted an open call-to-action at the Washington Square Methodist Church in Greenwich Village. One by one, each member took the stand to publically testify about their then-criminal abortions, defying law and custom. In excruciating detail, the women spoke honestly of their experiences, urging lawmakers to overturn laws that caused them physical pain and emotional trauma. As if the activists knew the importance this event would carry for future generations, the Redstockings recorded each person’s testimony for their historical archives. Here’s a small snippet of the recording below:

A clip from the Redstockings 1969 Rap at the Washington Square Methodist Church. Audio sourced from the Women’s Liberation Archives for Action.

In hindsight, the meeting was a crucial moment within the Women’s Liberation Movement. In attendance that night was a young Gloria Steinem, who was sent there as a junior reporter for New York Magazine. Her article “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” inspired by the 1969 meeting, is still available to read courtesy of Steinem, New York Magazine, and the Jewish Women’s Archive. Years later, Steinem would identify the meeting as the moment that sparked her decision to become a Womens’ Rights activist. And Steinem wasn’t the only reporter there. The event picked up media attention from several outlets, including this article, “Everywoman’s Abortions: ‘The Oppressor is Man,’” from The Village Voice’s Susan Brownmiller:

“Restocking Rap – Everywoman’s Abortions: ‘the Oppressor Is Man'” by Susan Brownmiller of The Village Voice.

And New York State did in fact eliminate its ban on abortion in 1970 – three years before Roe v. Wade.

The Redstockings continued their activism throughout the 1970s; however, their membership dwindled in the ‘80s when some of their more radical members voiced staunch opposition to homosexuality. Like some Second-Wave Feminist groups, the Redstockings saw same-sex relationships as a separatist political ideology, one where women and men no longer needed to rely on each other for political and social alliances, leading them to view it as an escapist political movement rather than a legitimate expression of sexuality. Despite this, the Redstockings re-united in 1989 and returned to Washington Square Methodist to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their 1969 meeting at a speakout called “Abortion: Women Tell it Like it Is, Was, and Ought to Be…” To this day, the group still exists, though less active than before. They currently maintain the Women’s Liberation Archives for Action to provide historical resources to today’s feminist activists.

If you’d like to learn more about Feminist social justice movements within our neighborhoods, then we strongly encourage you to check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map. Or, if you’re interested in the history of reproductive rights activism in Greenwich Village, the impeccable tour guide Lucie Levine gave us an excellent lecture on the Religious Left and their concept of the “Equality of the Soul” that is definitely worth checking out!

Further Learning:

Footnote:

*The term ”Assigned Female at Birth” refers to individuals born with female reproductive organs, but who may not necessarily identify with gender expectation of femme or female presentation. For instance, this includes cisgender women as well as non-binary, intersex, and transgender individuals who were born with a uterus and vagina.

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