Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Abortion Caravan

Over the last few weeks, there have been virtual events for the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Caravan, including celebrations of the publication of Karin Well’s extraordinary new book that details its history.
(And in case you missed it, don’t forget about the excellent series that Active History put together five years ago for the Caravan’s 45th anniversary!)
The Abortion Caravan occurred in the wake of amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada in 1969 that made abortion legal, but only under very specific, very restrictive conditions. Under the new law, women seeking abortions would have to get the approval of a hospital-based therapeutic abortion committee, comprised of three doctors (with another doctor providing the procedure). These conditions meant that safe, legal abortion remained inaccessible for many. Even if women could find (and arrange to get to) a hospital that would do it at all, access was still contingent on the whims of a therapeutic abortion committee.  Women took to the open road to express their fury– trekking from Vancouver to Ottawa—and to call for abortion on demand.

The Caravan left Vancouver in the last days of April 1970, with seventeen women packed into an Oldsmobile convertible, a Volkswagen bus, and a pick-up truck. Known as the “abortion cavalcade,” they brought a black coffin with them to symbolize the deaths of women who were unable to procure safe, legal abortions.

The Caravan stopped in several cities along the way: Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Lakehead (Thunder Bay), Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, and Toronto. In each city, they held town halls and meetings, with guerrilla theatre presentations depicting the challenges that women faced obtaining abortions, and the outcomes of those illegally procured. The Caravan’s numbers grew as the women headed east.

When the Caravan arrived in Ottawa on Mother’s Day weekend, they “proceeded to cavalcade through the town.” As Gwen Hauser wrote in the June 1970 edition of Pedestal, “The response we got was overwhelming. People lined up outside their houses, and on the streets, giving us V’s, fists, and waves, and shouting encouragement for our ventures.”

On the Saturday, hundreds joined the Caravan on a march through Ottawa to Parliament Hill. Angry with the limited response they were getting from government, some protesters then proceeded to the Prime Minister’s residence “carrying their black coffin and wearing their black clothes to demand a meeting with Trudeau. They were met by police and a wall of silence.”

On May 11, 1970, the Caravan took a different approach. While others demonstrated outside, thirty-six women entered the galleries of the House of Commons, chained themselves to their seats, and proceeded to disrupt Parliament as one woman after another stood up to speak. Gwen Hauser wrote for Pedestal that:

…[a]t first we were not taken seriously, but as more and more women got up to speak, and the guards were unable to stop us, the MPs became increasingly disturbed. Shouting cries of ‘Whores!’ ‘Sluts!’ and other goodies from a male chauvinist repertoire, some of them rushed up into the galleries, and the speaker was finally forced to adjourn parliament.”

The House of Commons was shut down by a protest for the first time in Canadian history.

Retelling this story is critical, as it was an important victory for feminists in Canada. Although it would take nearly two more decades for the abortion law to be repealed, the closure of Parliament and the attention it brought to feminist mobilization was a victory in itself. Following Mary Trew, the Caravan:
…was the first national action taken by Women’s Liberation groups in Canada and marked a great step forward in the development of our struggle for human dignity. For those women directly involved, it was an action that was at once physically gruelling, emotionally exhausting, and politically educational. It is difficult to describe the enormous inspiration that sprung out of almost every one of the public meetings and rallies held across the country—the strength that came from the knowledge that so many Canadian women, from all sorts of backgrounds, identified with that action and with the women’s liberation movement as a whole.

There is another victory evident in the history of the Abortion Caravan, another worth celebrating. Through a scrapbook of documents and media clippings created by Marge Hollibaugh, we can also see the way that women who were engaged in the Caravan framed their contributions in terms of liberation and against gendered expectations for women’s bodies and lives, in spite of coverage that sometimes dismissed their efforts.
As the women trekked across the country, they were described as “girls,” with notes about their age or what they were wearing, subtly suggesting that they should not be taken seriously. In an article describing the Caravan’s Toronto meeting, for example, Margaret Weiers, wrote for The Toronto Star that, “[t]he speakers, who objected to wearing makeup for television even though a producer suggested their faces would look washed out on screen, wouldn’t say whether they were married. None of the four has children. They, and their supporters in the audience, wore pants and boots and ponchos in what almost seemed to be a uniform.” (See page 17 of the scrapbook pdf).
Other articles insisted on including information about any men who opposed the protest, in some cases, including quotes from them, rather than from any of the feminist organizers or attendees. And headlines like “Abortion Backers Dump Coffin at PM’s Door,” while not entirely inaccurate, implied that the Caravan was taking an unreasonable approach to calling for change. This is not to say that there was not supportive, or at least objective, coverage of the Caravan, but many articles actively worked to undermine what the Caravan was attempting to do.

The dismissal of the Abortion Caravan as a means of legitimate protest, and the attendees as troublemakers, highlights how women were portrayed in mainstream publications, and the sexist disdain for those who expressed their anger. As Barbara Freeman describes in Beyond Bylines: Media Workers and Women’s Rights in Canada, the Abortion Caravan made a significant impact on the way that feminist activism in Canada was covered insofar as “[d]epictions of the way they dressed, and the swear words they used, only underscored the still prevalent expectation that young women should be ladylike, and these young radicals definitely were not…”.

The Caravanners were angry and did not pretend to be otherwise, choosing not to follow the conventional rules of engagement. They did not want to behave like ladies and contested who the concept of being a lady is intended to serve. And their expressions of fury, as well as their commitment to changing the rules by which women were expected to live their lives, were well-described by the press, even when portrayed in negative terms.

Looking back with fifty-years of hindsight, we can see the change in coverage of the Caravan over time. Articles about the 50th anniversary certainly understand the Caravan as a “landmark”, and Karin Wells’s history as “a story that should be told”. The outrage and zeal of the protesters is now recognized as an asset rather than a liability. And while not everything has changed—space is still given in mainstream media to anti-abortion protesters in the name of “balanced coverage” (including reflections on the Caravan)—there is a victory in the widespread mainstream recognition of the Caravan as not only significant but also necessary in shaping the way media (and the rest of us) talk about abortion and women’s lives.

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