ARROWSIC, Maine — Not so long ago, the topic of family planning was so scandalous that it simply wasn’t discussed in polite society. Well into the 1960s, it was illegal in many states for an unmarried woman to use birth control methods such as a diaphragm, a contraceptive sponge or The Pill. Even married women usually needed the written permission of their husbands. In some states, including Maine, the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church and its strict opposition to contraception added another layer of difficulty. And, until the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973, access to a safe abortion under the care of a physician was a privilege available only to wealthy women or couples with connections in the medical community.
Julia Kahrl remembers. The energetic 81-year-old Arrowsic grandmother, called “Judy” by her friends and family, says the current wave of right-wing political thinking in this country threatens decades of progress and the widespread freedoms that younger women and their partners now take for granted. After a lifetime steeped in the mission of promoting reproductive choice and women’s health in developing countries, Kahrl has turned her attention homeward, recently founding the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, or GRR! a Maine-based organization aimed at protecting hard-won reproductive freedoms for generations to come.
The group, established in 2013, has an active membership of about 30 women and a mailing list of 100 supporters. They lobby in Augusta against bills that seek to restrict access to abortion, sex education or contraceptives. Members distribute information about the relative effectiveness of different forms of birth control and contact information for providers of women’s health services, including abortion. They host educational discussions and work to combat shame and public stigma related to women’s sexuality.
George Hill, president and CEO of Maine Family Planning, says the friendly but determined and well-informed grandmothers in GRR! have made a big impression at the statehouse. “Every pro-choice lawmaker in Maine wants a photo-op with this group,” he said.
Kahrl “brings a deep and wide understanding” to the debate over women’s reproductive rights, Hill said, at a time when political support feels fragile. With the makeup of the Legislature changing every two years, the laws protecting access to birth control and abortion “could disappear in the next legislative session,” he said.
Raised in a world of activism
Kahrl was born into privilege, the great-granddaughter of industrialist James Gamble, co-founder of Procter & Gamble. Her physician father, Clarence Gamble, inherited the family fortune and developed an early interest in maternal health and population control. During the 1930s, his longtime association with birth control activist Margaret Sanger, whose work formed the foundation of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, led him to establish and fund birth control clinics, educational programs and research projects in 14 U.S. states.
In 1957, Gamble founded the Pathfinder Fund, a family foundation aimed at expanding access to birth control in developing nations. By the mid-’60s, Gamble and his volunteer field workers — mostly middle-age women with no clinical background but with an interest in public health, population control and women’s rights — had visited more than 50 countries and succeeded in establishing clinics in more than 30.
“I grew up with all this talk and activity,” Kahrl recalled. “It was known in our family as ‘Daddy’s Great Cause.’ … He was very concerned about population explosion in the poorest countries of the world and wanted people to know they could do something about it.”
Today, Pathfinder International supports access to contraception and safe abortion, maternal and infant health, adolescent health, prevention and management of HIV and AIDS, and advocacy and educational outreach in more than 20 countries, with a particularly strong presence in India, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The organization now receives the bulk of its funding through the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, a program of the U.S. Department of State. Judy Kahrl serves on the board.
A feminist’s path
The early exposure to her father’s idealism and the controversial goals of Pathfinder nurtured Kahrl’s independent spirit.
“I was never what anyone would call a radical feminist,” she said. “But I always had an interest in the issues that affect women and felt that women’s perspectives should be examined and considered.”
A graduate of Radcliffe College, she married in 1954 and moved with her husband to Ohio, where he taught English at Ohio State University. Their first child — one of four — was born in 1959, and she became active in La Leche League, a then-new organization aimed at promoting breastfeeding as the safest, cheapest, most nutritious and most natural way to feed a baby. At the time, she noted, prepackaged infant formulas were being heavily marketed to women in higher socio-economic groups. Breastfeeding was represented as old-fashioned and declasse.
In 1963, she read Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book “The Feminine Mystique,” which challenged American women to seek fulfillment beyond the traditional roles of homemakers, wives and mothers.
“I didn’t understand why she was so pissed off, frankly,” Kahrl said. “I was loving my family life.” But over time, “it became clear to me that women were being squeezed out of leadership roles, that they were hitting the glass ceiling — long before anyone was actually calling it the glass ceiling.”
At Ohio State, Kahrl completed a master’s degree in cinema and photography and a Ph.D. in adult education. She worked as a personal counselor for a while. After her husband died suddenly in 1989, she was hired as a consultant to a boys-only private school as it went co-ed and diversified its student body. A second marriage ended in divorce, and Kahrl relocated in the late 1990s to a saltwater farm on the lower reaches of the Kennebec River, where she and her first husband had planned to retire together.
GRR! — the mission comes home
Proposals surface regularly in Maine and other states to require a “cooling-off period” of several days before a woman can terminate an unwanted pregnancy, to ban second-trimester abortions, to require parental consent for minors to obtain birth control or an abortion, to require that abortion clinics conform to hospital standards and to require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
These and other measures “for the so-called protection of women and girls,” Kahrl argues, are medically unnecessary, prohibitively expensive and really aimed at eroding the constitutionally protected right to abortion and women’s ability to determine their own reproductive and economic choices.
“Whenever any subordinate group gains power, the dominant group pushes back,” she said. “We see this backlash happening now against the black community, and we see it happening against women.”
In recent years, “I had been feeling anxious about the ongoing efforts [in this country] to restrict access to abortion and birth control,” Kahrl said.
Then, in 2013, she visited a Pathfinder project in Mozambique. “I met with a group of grandmothers who were going around in their communities talking about birth control,” Kahrl said. “And the light came on.” When she got back to Maine, she sent a blast email to a group of age-appropriate women in her social and professional sphere, and Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights was born.
To date, GRR! members in their trademark yellow T-shirts have demonstrated as a group at the State House, met individually with lawmakers and sent thank you notes to those who have voted to protect access to abortion and contraception. They conduct panel discussions, including one earlier this week at the public library in Brunswick examining the backlog of unfilled judicial seats at every level in the nation, including on the U.S. Supreme Court. They partner with other groups such as the Maine Women’s Fund, the Maine Family Planning Association, the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Civil Liberties Union to build strength and awareness around the issues they champion.
GRR!’s emergence comes at an important time, said former Rep. Sherry Huber, 78, of Falmouth, who served the Maine Legislature from 1976 through 1982. Huber, who ran twice, unsuccessfully, for governor in the 1980s, describes herself as a “progressive Republican.” Her late husband, David Huber, also a Republican, served in the House and the Senate and was the primary legislative force behind the creation of subsidized family planning services here in 1971.
“The right wing has never given up since Roe v. Wade was passed,” Huber said. She said it would be all too easy for women to lose the hard-won freedoms established over the past 50 years.
“If men were able to get pregnant and bear children, there would be no issue [over their right to contraception and abortion],” she said. “I marvel that there are people who argue that women shouldn’t have that right.”
Judy Kahrl says GRR! is always looking for new members, particularly in northern and rural areas of the state. There are no membership fees — only the willingness to advocate for reproductive choice at every opportunity.
“People don’t expect to see a bunch of grandmothers in yellow T-shirts show up at a demonstration or a rally, talking about these issues,” Kahrl said, “but it seems to have an impact. I guess everyone knows you don’t mess around with grandmothers.”
For information, visit grandmothersforreproductiverights.org.