“We Were The Movement": Lesbian Activism in the Boston Reproductive Rights Movement, by Sara Slager

Our Bodies Ourselves.jpeg

The original cover of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective's Our Bodies, Ourselves (1970).

Left on Pearl.jpg

Movie poster for the 2016 film Left on Pearl, which focused on the 1970s Bread and Roses building takeover. This event led to the creation of the Cambridge Women's Center. 


Front-view of the Cambridge Women's Center before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

 First published April 16, 2023.

“Many of the women who were…involved in the reproductive rights movement were lesbians and were the driving force behind those movements,” Rochelle Ruthchild explains.[1] I first met Professor Ruthchild on June 24, 2022, just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (1973) in Dobbs v. Jackson (2022).

Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild is professor emerita of graduate studies at Vermont College/Union Institute & University and former director of the Russian School at Norwich University. She is now a Research Scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.

Rutchild was a prominent activist during the 1970s women’s liberation movement in the Greater Boston area. Deeply saddened by the recent Supreme Court announcement and ongoing attacks on bodily autonomy, she reflects on her experiences in the movement and the significance of reproductive rights activism.

In 1973, Roe v. Wade struck down various restrictive state laws on abortion. It guaranteed reproductive choice and supported the right to privacy far beyond abortion. At the time of this article’s writing in 2023, there is much concern over the fate of gay and interracial marriage and the right to contraception. Our very rights to basic bodily control and independent choice are slipping away.

Current events sparked a discussion between Ruthchild and me about the importance of building intentional networks that integrate all forms of feminist concerns. It is not enough to focus solely on one aspect of women’s rights; engaging with all forms of oppression that restrict life chances is essential. Activists must move beyond traditional ideas and dominant narratives about social movements and acknowledge the contributions of all vital actors, including lesbian activists in women’s health movements. As was the case in the 1970s, today's feminists must engage with and support various feminist issues as each builds off of one another.

Ruthchild argues that lesbians acted as a significant and essential force for social change during the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. The women’s liberation movement of that era featured complicated relationships between straight and lesbian feminists. There is a common assumption that many or most feminists were straight. Queerness becomes invisibile and gets lost in these narratives. Lesbian activists, however, were essential to securing many women’s rights and freedoms. They had unique perspectives due to the intersections of sexism and homophobia that they faced, which gave them a broader ability to understand oppression as a whole.


During the 1970s, the Greater Boston area was a hub of leftist political organizing. Known as one of the birthplaces of the women’s health movement, it is famous for its longstanding women’s centers that support the holistic needs of women. In the 1970s, however, women’s health was under attack. Fearing mistreatment from male gynecologists, many women began taking their health into their own hands. There was a push for women-centered health care, with women as the primary providers. In a feminist-health care system, women would teach each other how to perform medical procedures. There are countless stories of women gathered together in these centers, providing gynecological exams and supporting one another in understanding their own bodies.

As former health care advocate Paula Garbiano describes the Women’s Community Health Center in Cambridge, MA, women had to learn to “do it for themselves.” According to Garbiano, many women did not have basic literacy about the health and care of their bodies. Participation in the women’s health movement gave them the space and security to explore themselves further.[2]

Amy Hoffman, former editor and writer for the Boston-based Gay Community News, emphasizes that these places felt safe and judgment-free.[3] Though every woman was probably “nervous” and “insecure” about performing these procedures, these women-dominated spaces allowed these feelings to subside.[4] Women and women’s health centers cut out health care providers' professionalized and masculinized presence and allowed women to have a haven to explore their bodies.

On the surface, it may seem surprising that lesbian activists held such a prominent place in the reproductive rights movement, particularly at women’s centers. For many, reproductive health care and abortion access appeared to be straight people's issues and unlikely to affect the lesbian and gay community. This line of reasoning, however, negates the element of bodily autonomy and control, along with the fact that lesbian and bisexual women also wanted to make choices about their reproductive lives, including choices about abortion. As Hoffman explains, "The words 'lesbian mother' sounded to people at that time like a complete contradiction in terms. It was assumed that if you were gay, if you could not have kids, you would not have kids. Now of course that's wrong. Many women came out after being in straight relationships and had kids from that. Women adopted kids and later lesbians started having kids using alternative insemination. So there were lots of women who came out as lesbians who had children or who wanted to have children." Many lesbians also shared with other women an interest in access to abortion for reasons related to rape, incest, health, economics, and other factors.

Medical professionals commonly mistreated straight women, lesbians, and gay men in the 1970s. Doctors and nurses tended to be hostile to same-sex couples, and there was an assumption of sexual impropriety. Many lesbians noted that doctors had harassed them about their sex lives and attempted to convince them to become pregnant. Organizations like Lavender Resistance published pamphlets about these issues, discussing how doctors and nurses mistreated lesbian patients. Medical teams often ignored lesbian health concerns, and lesbianism commonly became “invisible” to doctors.[5]

Though the dominant narrative surrounding the women’s health movement prioritizes the experiences of middle-class straight women, the campaign was only able to achieve its success with the help of intentional coalition-building involving gay liberationists, women’s liberationists, radical lesbians, and socialists. All four groups assumed intersections between multiple forms of oppression and addressed the ways that together they contributed to creating a repressive society. They expanded the definition of reproductive rights beyond abortion and developed a feminist politic that critiqued all forms of subjection based on the control of bodies.

This essay examines the emergence and activist work of three feminist organizations that led the Boston-area women’s health movement. I begin with a discussion of Bread and Roses, follow with an introduction to the Cambridge Women’s Center, and conclude with the activist group Lavender Resistance.

All three organizations included lesbian activists. Though each approached queerness differently, they all are prime examples of the active roles that lesbians played in generating social change in Boston. They also highlight the importance of coalition building and organizing around multiple issues simultaneously. As highlighted in each organization’s records, Boston reproductive activists had longstanding partnerships with other feminist groups inside and outside Boston. These partners advocated for justice related to rape and domestic violence, forced sterilization, and childcare. They all believed that women could not achieve full participation in society without securing their full bodily autonomy.

The 1970s

Before delving into the specifics of each organization, it is first necessary to discuss the Boston context during this period. Boston had unique circumstances that allowed for the rise and necessity of coalition building and a growing lesbian community.

As Barbara Smith of the Combahee River Collective describes in her interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “‘We [Combahee] had a tremendous influence and effect, I think, on the rest of the women’s movement here. And what I’m talking about is that unlike maybe in other places where the feminist movements of course existed—because they existed all over this country and they were quite strong—but here in Boston, the many, many white women of many stripes of feminist knew to a certainty that there were Black women who were feminists, who were activists, who were with them together on whatever march or picket lines or whatever we were doing, but also that we were Black women who were holding the movement, including them, accountable for issues to do with race and racism. And then just access.”[6]

Since Boston had a diverse community and a specific interest in intersectionality, it was the perfect location for feminist organizational interdependence. Smith acknowledges the intersectionality amongst Boston-area feminists who worked with multiple forms of oppression as a means of analysis and action. There was an immediate recognition of multiple oppressive systems and the ways in which these systems interacted to further marginalize various groups. These intersections become ever-more apparent when taking into account other social dynamics within the city. Unfortunately, many of these groups had a common enemy in the conservative Catholic Church. During this period, Boston was a largely Catholic city. Local religious dynamics made access to abortion and non-homophobic health care difficult, especially within a system that was already known for being racist and sexist. For safety, many marginalized groups had to band together, creating shelters and other services to help people in crisis.

Bread and Roses

Prior to the development of Boston’s many women’s centers, early women’s liberation activists developed socialist organizations to support the needs of women in crisis. One of the most well-known organizations is the socialist collective Bread and Roses. While many are familiar with the organization because of its role in forming the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which produced the influential book Our Bodies, Ourselves, its role in pre-Roe v. Wade abortion support is less studied. According to Cambridge Women’s Center archivist Libby Bouvier, Bread and Roses had a substantial hotline that instructed callers on how to receive abortion services in New York. The phone line mainly supported young girls and teenagers. Significantly, most of the hotline staff were lesbians. As noted by both Bouvier and Ruthchild, many of the founders and significant leaders of Bread and Roses were lesbians.

Ruthchild says that the members of Bread and Roses were much more receptive to lesbian concerns and politics than many other feminist organizations at the time.[7]  Bread and Roses is also a prime example of feminist coalition building based on understandings about the intersections of oppression. Bread and Roses, for example, was unabashedly part of the New Left and was oriented to workers' rights. According to a 2014 speech by Bread and Roses member Tess Ewing, Bread and Roses did not want “equal rights.” It wanted “liberation.”[8] The group believed that all aspects of oppression must be challenged and eradicated for liberation to occur.

Though Bread and Roses only existed from 1969 to 1971, it gave birth to a wide range of feminist organizations essential to the fight for reproductive health care.

Cambridge Women’s Center

In 1971, multiple Bread and Roses members participated in the hostile takeover of an abandoned Harvard University building located at 888 Memorial Drive in Cambridge.[9] The takeover was the birthplace of the Cambridge Women’s Center, which is still active in 2023. During this episode, women marched from the state house to the future home of the Women’s Center in Cambridge. In addition to demanding the creation of the Women’s Center, the collective also supported many International Women’s Day demands.[10] International Women’s Day is a holiday founded by communists and socialists. It is a day set aside to celebrate the achievements of women and fight for their collective liberation from patriarchal control. It demands free social access and rights to health, safety, and security. Abortion access and lesbian concerns were in the forefront of feminist demands during this takeover. After the construction of the center, center staff began hosting feminist consciousness-raising groups. Topics ranged from lesbianism and childcare to sexual assault and self-defense.[11]

Lavender Resistance

While women’s centers played a pivotal role in the women’s health movement, independent activist groups also were essential contributors. They often were more queer-focused and had more radical politics than the women’s centers, which generally had to abide by funding guidelines and outside pressures from politicians.[12]

Lavender Resistance was a socialist collective of lesbians and gay men that fought to end imperialism, racism, and workplace discrimination. Famous for their demonstrations during gay pride marches, the group was more radical than many gay rights organizations during the 1970s. Unlike other gay rights organizations, Lavender Resistance was a proud feminist organization with roots in the women’s liberation struggle. Its members believed sincerely in liberation and felt that only socialism would provide it.

One of Lavender's Resistance’s primary campaigns targeted the rise of the New Right. During this time, there was a radical push towards conservatism and a steep rise in homophobia. Many of the New Right's most prominent activists, including Anita Bryant, were known as homophobes and proponents of “sexual purity.”[13] This emphasis on “sexual purity” led Lavender Resistance to its work with abortion advocates. Many lesbians and gay men saw abortion bans as an attack on “sexual freedom.”[14] Though it may seem like abortion would solely be a straight women’s issue, Lavender Resistance saw it as the first step to further attacks against same-sex relations. They also saw connections between medical views of homosexuality as a disease and medical control over women’s bodies.[15]

Lavender Resistance believed that abortion bans normalized the intrusion of the medical profession into people’s sexual relationships, which could be deadly for gay people. As Lavender Resistance members mentioned in many of their newsletters, doctors were often unsafe. Lesbians and gay men faced high hostility and ridicule in medical spaces, making access to quality health care very difficult.

Coalition Building

One of the most crucial lessons of Lavender Resistance is its attention to coalition building. Instead of separating issues into “straight” or “gay” concerns, they addressed nuances in situations that impact everyone on a large scale. Lavender Resistance focused heavily on collectivist work and strongly connected with feminist organizations inside and outside the Greater Boston area. Throughout their records, they discuss meetings at the Transition House (another group founded through the Women’s Center in Cambridge), the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (the Boston chapter of the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, or CARASA), and the Harriet Tubman House.[16] All of these organizations were feminist groups that advocated for women’s safety and security in addition to healthcare support. They broadened reproductive justice to focus on forced sterilization, housing, the right to work, and child care concerns, noting an important dynamic of oppression.


What do feminists mean when they say “reproductive freedom” instead of “reproductive rights?” For many feminists, “reproductive rights" is not expansive enough. It evokes images of abortions and birth control. While these are still valid and essential parts of “reproductive freedom,” “reproductive freedom” moves beyond these two things. According to CARASA, “reproductive freedom” is the ability to control when one has children and when one has to participate in socially acceptable roles for women. Reproductive freedom enables women to participate on their terms and in the ways they feel comfortable. It allows women to choose to raise or not raise children. It also allows them to do so with full social safety nets and intentional and government-provided care. This unique approach is willing to discuss things like forced sterilization and discrimination against lesbian mothers. It acknowledges that not all women have the same access to motherhood and that society views their motherhood differently. It reflects all women participating in activist work, regardless of their sexuality, class, or race. I believe that today's feminist activist work can take lessons from this approach and apply it to the current rise in New Right control of bodies. Liberation is the work of all, and we must acknowledge how oppressive systems intertwine to create a harmful and unsustainable world.


[1] R. Rothschild, personal communication, June 24, 2022.

[2] P. Garbiano, personal communication, June 27, 2022.

[3] Amy Hoffman, personal communication, June 17, 2022.

[4] Amy Hoffman, personal communication, June 17, 2022.

[5] Lavender Resistance, “We Want You to Feel Well,” Box 1, The History Project.

[6] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, editor, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017

[7] R. Ruthchild, personal communication, 2022.

[8] Tess Ewing, “Bread and Roses." This paper was presented as part of "A Revolutionary Moment: Women's Liberation in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

[9] L. Bouvier, personal communication, 2022.

[10] R. Ruthchild, personal communication, 2022.

[11] L. Bouvier, personal communication, 2022.

[12] J. Singer, personal communication, 2022.

[13] Lavender Resistance, “Free All Oppressed People,”  Box 1, The History Project.

[14] Lavender Resistance, “Free All Oppressed People,”  Box 1, The History Project.

[15] Lavender Resistance, “Free All Oppressed People,”  Box 1, The History Project.

[16] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, editor, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017


Bouvier, Libby, Oral History by Sara Slager, 2022.

Ewing, Tess, “Bread and Roses." Paper presented as part of "A Revolutionary Moment: Women's Liberation in the late 1960s and early1970s.

Garbarino, Paula, Oral History by Sara Slager, Schelsinger Library, 2022.

Hoffman, Amy, Oral History by Sara Slager, Schelsinger Library, 2022.

Lavender Resistance, “Free All Oppressed People,”  Box 1, The History Project.

Ruthchild, Rochelle, Oral History by Sara Slager, Schlesinger Library, 2022.

Singer. Janice, Oral History by Sara Slager, Schelsinger Library, 2022.

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017