ARROWSIC, Maine — For the past four years, Judy Kahrl and her group of Maine grandmothers have testified before the Legislature, organized postcard campaigns and otherwise advocated for the reproductive rights and health they fought for decades ago.
Their efforts have been largely focused on Maine until January, when Kahrl, 82, of Arrowsic posted a photo of herself and her two granddaughters, both wearing the group’s signature bright yellow T-shirt bearing the message, “My grandmother fights for my rights. GRR!” on the Facebook page Pantsuit Nation.
The post took GRR!’s message to a national audience, generating 17,000 “likes” and more than 400 comments. After registering GRR! as a nonprofit organization, Kahrl and other board members are writing bylaws as they work to expand the group nationally.
“Just this weekend, we got comments like, ‘Oh, we should start a group here in Columbus, Ohio,’ and other people have said, ‘Is there a group in Oklahoma or Los Angeles, because I would love to be active with a group working for reproductive rights with people my age,’” Kahrl said Monday, shortly after a meeting of GRR! officers.
“What we’ve discovered is that GRR! has a unique perspective that gets people’s attention,” Kahrl said. “We have lived through the days before Roe v. Wade, and even through the days when contraception was illegal … and we are getting really angry about how reproductive health care is getting more and more limited. It’s not just abortion anymore but family planning. Those of us who have lived this many years and who are not in our reproductive years anymore worry about our granddaughters and grandsons — that they wouldn’t have health care. That’s upped the need for our advocacy.”
Among the stories she shares is of a visit to a doctor in 1954, just before she was married, when Kahrl tried to get contraception and her doctor told her to write out her own prescription for a diaphragm because it was illegal to prescribe one to an unmarried woman. Or another of a girl in her college dormitory, who went away for a weekend and never came back.
“Nobody talked about it, but clearly the young woman had gone away and either she went off to have a baby somewhere in secret or she died of an abortion,” Kahrl said.
Kahrl said some Southern states have one clinic statewide for women to schedule an abortion, and attempts have been made in Kentucky and Missouri to close the last one.
“Trump blithely said, ‘Oh, they can go to another state,’” she said. “Sure, [what about] a poor woman who can’t get gas for her car?”
As grandmothers, Kahrl said members have more time — though many provide child care for grandchildren and find themselves with “a limited energy budget” — but are using their unique perspectives to both educate young people and those nearing the end of their reproductive years, who may take such rights for granted.
They also work to raise awareness among people her own age who, forgetting about their grandchildren, think a reversal of reproductive rights won’t affect them.
“I was talking to a retired doctor the other day and told him what I was doing — about how funding for family planning is being attacked with Title X and, of course, Planned Parenthood — and he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that,’” Kahrl said. “Oh my gosh that tells me that if someone who used to be in the health care world doesn’t know, then probably lots more people don’t know. It tells me we’ve got more work to do.”
Kahrl isn’t new to advocacy or to reproductive rights. In 1957, her father, Dr. Clarence Gamble, a pioneer in family planning efforts, founded what would become Pathfinder International, a nonprofit organization that works to provide contraception and health care to women around the world.
With 500 people on their mailing list, Kahrl said it’s hard to say how many “members” the group has, but said, “We need more GRR!s in northern Maine.”
Kahrl said interest in GRR! expressed by residents of other states couldn’t be more timely.
“The fact is there is more necessity for taking action at the state level than there ever was,” she said. “ If Roe v. Wade gets thrown out, it will go back to the states again, and action will have to be taken there because the pro-lifers — we call them anti-choicers — they are ready to be active. … We know we’re going to have to take action.”