Lucinda Cisler

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Lucinda "Cindy" Cisler is a feminist activist who was heavily active in the early Women's Liberation Movement and the movement to repeal laws restricting women's access to abortion.


  • 1969. "Unfinished Business: Birth Control and Women's Liberation."
    • Appeared in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement (ed. Robin Morgan). New York: Vintage Books. 245-289.
  • 1970. "Abortion law repeal (sort of): a warning to women".
    • May 1970. Appeared in print as "On Abortion and Abortion Law: Abortion Law Repeal (Sort Of): A Warning to Women" in Notes from the Second Year: Women's Liberation (May 1970), p. 89.
    • August 1970. A condensed version of the article appeared in a feature on "Abortion Reform: The New Tokenism" in Ramparts (Aug. 1970), p. 19.
    • October 2000. An even more condensed version of the article appeared (mis-dated to 1969) in Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement (eds. Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon), pp. 140-143.


Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, Dear Sisters (2000)

Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement (2000), p. 140.

Abortion was nationally legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade in 1973, but this decision only legitimated what was already happening: a wave of activism in the 1960s had produced widespread repeal of state antiabortion laws. Seventeen states had legalized or decriminalized abortion before Roe v. Wade, and antiabortion laws had been challenged in twenty-nine other states and the District of Columbia. This legislative action was the result of a concerted effort on the part of civil libertarians, physicians and feminists. The women's liberation movement held speak-outs; filed class-action suits; initiated referendums; and educated, lobbied, and demonstrated for reproductive rights. Additionally, feminists created networks that helped women get access to abortions while they were still illegal. Feminists saw this process not only as an opportunity to change laws, but also as a forum for educating the public about women's need for reproductive freedom.
Before the rise of women's liberation, the abortion reform movement had chipped away at the most egregious denials of legal abortion--for example, in cases of rape, insanity, and fetal deformity. In contrast the women's movement argued for repeal of all statutes criminalizing abortion: Lucinda Cisler was a pioneer of this position. In 1969 [sic], Cisler warned of the dangers of a compromise reform that would give decision-making power to doctors and the legal system instead of women. Part of Cisler's argument was recognized in the Supreme Court's creation of the constitutional rationale that women had a privacy right to control their pregnancies in the first trimester. Another part of Cisler's argument however--that women should have a right to choice throughout pregnancy--was not recognized, and as a result physicians as well as lawmakers retain some power as women's moral guardians.
This partial legalization, precisely what [Lucinda Cisler|Cisler]] warned against in the following article, opened the door to today's continuing attempts to hinder women's right to abortion, and mandatory moralistic antiabortion lectures. Starting in the 1980s the "New Right" discovered that abortion was a useful issue for recruiting a grassroots following and began pouring money and other resources into nationwide antiabortion campaigns. Their intolerance created a climate that encouraged attacks on clinics and murders of health care providers. Although antiabortion-rights activists have not succeeded in recriminalizing abortion, they have put the women's movement on the defensive and forced it to continue to focus a large share of its energies on maintaining the right to abortion.

Katha Pollitt, "Abortion History 101" (2001)

Katha Pollitt, "Abortion History 101," in Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture (2001), p. 307.

Beginning in 1969, radical feminists held speakouts on abortion, at which hundreds of women went public with their own experiences: "I spoke first," recalls historian Rosalyn Baxandall of the initial speakout in New York, held at Washington Square Methodist Church, "and was totally scared--I could lose my job or go to jail. Who knew?" While the legislature was stymied--minor reform bills had been proposed in 1967, '68, and '69 but had been defeated in the Assembly--women lawyers mounted a federal court challenge to the New York State law that had the 1970 legislature terrified of being left with no abortion law at all, recalls Emily Jane Goodman, now a judge. There were demonstrations, a feminist speakers' bureau, lobbying efforts in Albany and brilliant and tireless organizing by Lucinda Cisler, co-founder of New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal.

Feminist Majority Foundation, "Feminist Chronicles"

Feminist Majority Foundation, "Feminist Chronicles: 1969"

The first national conference on abortion laws convened in Chicago and decided to establish the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). Lawrence Lader was the first chair. NOW's representatives included: Betty Friedan, Lucinda Cisler, East Coast Chair of NOW's National Abortion Committee; and Lana Phelan, West Coast Chair. Friedan spoke on abortion as "A Woman's Civil Right." (01/14-16/69)

Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow, The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation

Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow, "Chronology," in The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation, p. 502.

Early 1969. "A Marriage Agreement" by Alix Kates Shulman written; published and reprinted in journals and books through the early 1970s. 1969, first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves from Boston Women's Health Collective. Lucinda Cisler's legendary bibliography of works about women circulates by mail-order. Naomi Weisstein's important critical analysis "'Kinder, Kuche, Kirche' as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female," written in 1968, begins to circulate widely.

Jennifer Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (2003)

Jennifer Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (2003), p. 29:

Redstockings criticized feminists in NOW for supporting abortion rights only half-heartedly. NOW added abortion to their "Bill of Rights for Women" in 1967, having almost left it off of their platform for fear of alienating Catholic women. National NOW remained ambivalent about abortion in the last years of the 1960s, leading radical feminists in Redstockings to see themselves as the only true champions of a woman's right to abrotion. Some local affiliates of NOW, however, including New York City, took a strong stand for abortion law repeal. Lucinda Cisler, founder of New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal (NYALR) in 1969 and a vocal radical feminist campaigner for the repeal of all abortion laws, was also a very active and influential member of NOW-NYC. Eventually local chapters of NOW, including New York City, began to refer women to safe illegal abortionists with the help of the Clergy Consultation Service.

Jennifer Nelson, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (2003), p. 46-49.

Although feminists disagreed among themselves as to the goals of the abortion rights movement, most radical feminists called for the total repeal of all abortion laws. They believed there should be no restrictions on a woman's ability to attain an abortion. Radical feminists, who adhered to this position, including those in Redstockings, were unhappy with the 1970 New York State abortion law and the restrictions on abortion provision that quickly followed. In the months after the legalization of abortion in New York, Lucinda Cisler, of New York Radical Women, NYC-NOW, and founder of New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal (NYALR), carefully elaborated the radical feminist abortion rights position in her widely read 1970 article, "Abortion Law Repeal (sort of): A Warning to Women." Cisler had been instrumental in promoting the repeal position and organizing the movement for the eradication of the outdated New York State abortion statute. Repealers like Cisler, and the activists in Redstockings and Abramowicz, wanted the old abortion law removed from the books entirely. They asserted that reproductive decisions belonged in the hands of pregnant women, not with the state or with physicians. To make this point, a group of radical feminists handed out flyers at an abortion rally with the picture of the ideal abortion law--a blank page.73
Cisler responded to the New York State legislature's passage of the new abortion law, scheduled to take effect in July of 1970, with grave misgivings about how beneficial it would be for women who needed an abortion. Other abortion rights activists disagreed with Cisler and viewed the New York State statute as remarkably liberal. After all, they argued, in most states abortion was still illegal.74 But Cisler believed that her doubts were confirmed when, at the behest of anti-abortion Catholics and physicians interested in maintaining control over abortion services, both the New York State and the New York City health commissioners proposed a series of guidelines restricting abortion provision. The guidelines maintained that only doctors could perform abortions, that abortions would be restricted to hospitals, and would be limited to the first or second trimesters.75
Radical feminists feared that nonfeminist abortion rights reformers would accept the health commissioners' regulation of the New York State abortion law. They emphasized that only a feminist fight for abortion law [47] repeal would ensure the availability of abortion for all women regardless of income. And only feminists understood that these demands rested on the struggle for women's equality. For Cisler and the Redstockings, abortion rights had to be addressed in the context of a feminist movement. The two were intimately intertwined because the one could not be achieved without the other.76
In order to bolster this position publicly, Cisler wrote her article on abortion law--published by Redstockings in 1970--that immediately gained recognition among radical feminists. In this article she attempted to steer the abortion rights movement onto the path of abortion law repeal by countering, in turn, each of the restrictions proposed by the health commissioners. The first restriction (and the one most likely to remain in force) made it illegal for anyone other than a physician to perform an abortion. Radical feminists opposed this restriction because they believed that female paramedical technicians in clinics could perform affordable abortions. They noted that since the nineteenth century doctors had fought to maintain their monopoly over abortion because it generated a lucrative income. According to Cisler and other feminists involved with abortion rights and women's health, the simplicity of the abortion procedure meant that women who were not physicians could easily master it. Radical feminists associated with the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU) in the Jane collective, as well as the Society for Humane Abortion in California, proved this point when they began to provide safe abortions to women at a low cost. At first the Jane collective employed a man they thought was a doctor to perform the abortions. When they found that he was not a doctor, the Jane collective began to train themselves to perform abortions. They functioned for four years (1969-1973) without medical complications, performing hundreds of illegal, inexpensive, and medically safe abortions. For very poor women, Jane provided free abortions, believing that no woman should be prevented from terminating a pregnancy for financial reasons.77
Radical feminists also believed that doctors should give up their monopoly on abortion because so many still felt it was a stigma to be labeled an abortionist. Abortion, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, remained associated with illicit sexuality and crime, despite the pressure to make it legal. Redstockings confronted these negative stereotypes in their speakout and in their writings. They felt strongly that neither women who had abortions nor abortion providers should be stigmatized as criminals or sexual perverts. If women performed abortions, radical feminists [48] reasoned, they would not be intimidated by these negative attitudes because they would be providing a service that they all needed.78
Cisler and other radical feminists argued that by restricting abortion to hospitals, the New York health commissioners discriminated against poor women. Clinics could provide safe abortions at much lower costs. Also, hospitals were not outfitted to provide for the large numbers of women who wanted a legal abortion. Eventually, profit and a limited concern for the health of poor women, who would be forced to continue to seek out cheap underground abortions, encouraged the establishment of low-cost abortion clinics. Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and NARAL fought for the legalization of freestanding clinics, which began to provide large numbers of safe, legal abortions at reasonable prices.79
Cisler rejected two more restrictions proposed by the New York City and New York State health commissioners: "abortions may not be performed beyond a certain time in pregnancy, unless the woman's life is at stake," and "abortions may only be performed when the married woman's husband or the young single woman's parents give their consent." Cisler contended that both restrictions compromised the feminist ideal that a woman needed to decide what to do with her body under any and all circumstances. She added that opposition to these restrictions required little explanation, however. As with other restrictions she discussed, none but the pregnant woman--not husbands, parents, physicians, clergy, or the state--should ever decide whether to continue a woman's pregnancy.
Cisler worried that some abortion rights activists would accept the restrictions proposed by the health commissioners. Their blindness to the problems that restrictions could create for the least privileged women might produce class divisions within the movement, weakening it in the long run. Cisler explained this threat and her belief that radical feminists needed to take the lead within the abortion rights movement to ensure abortion rights for all women:
All women are oppressed by the present abortion laws, by old style "reforms," and by seductive new fake-repeal bills and court decisions. But the possibility of fake repeal--if it becomes reality--is most dangerous: it will divide women from each other. It can buy off most middle-class women and make them believe things have really changed, while it [49] leaves poor women to suffer and keeps us all saddled with abortion laws for many more years to come. There are many nice people who would like to see abortion made more or less legal, but their reasons are fuzzy and their tactics acquiescent. Because no one else except the women's movement is going to cry out against these restrictions, it is up to feminists to make the strongest and most precise demands upon the lawmakers--who ostensibly exist to serve us. We will not accept insults and call them "steps in the right direction."80
This passage cuts to the core of the radical feminist position in the abortion rights movement and delineates some of the fault lines within that same movement. Cisler argued that restrictions placed on abortion access had an oppressive effect on all women, but they hurt poor women more severely than middle-class women. Some mainstream feminist abortion rights activists (including National NOW), however, adopted moderate abortion law reform, because they hoped to achieve easier access to abortion for themselves and other women in their immediate milieu. As a result, they ignored the needs of poor women. Radical feminists, who saw themselves as the most revolutionary and genuine part of the feminist movement, underlined the importance of including all women in their demands for gender equality.