Merle Hoffman is a legendary women’s rights activist, journalist and health care pioneer. Since the early 1970s, she’s fought on the front lines of the war against women, standing up against anti-choice activists since before Roe v. Wade was passed. In 1971, Hoffman helped found one of America’s first ambulatory abortion centers: the Flushing Women’s Medical Center in New York, since renamed Choices Women’s Medical Center.
Under Hoffman’s leadership, the center has expanded to offer a comprehensive range of both reproductive and primary care services. The medical center is founded under the vision of “Patient Power,” a term Hoffman coined, which is a philosophy grounded in knowledge and education, empowering all patients in the health care system.
She is also the co-founder of the National Abortion Federation, a professional association of abortion providers, and founder of the New York Pro-Choice Coalition, the first umbrella organization of pro-choice individuals and organizations committed to ensuring legal, safe abortion in New York. Hoffman is publisher and editor-in-chief of On the Issues magazine, an online feminist magazine of independent, critical thinking.
Today, she continues to serve as the CEO of Choices, now one of the nation’s largest women’s medical facilities. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Choices Women’s Medical Center. The legacy of Hoffman’s work and the work she continues to this day has had an immeasurable impact on women’s rights.
Her memoir, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Board Room, is a fascinating must-read for anyone interested in not only Hoffman’s inspiring life and her journey to abortion rights activism, but also a historical account of the anti-women movement still being waged today.
Interviewing Hoffman was an honor. Her tireless work in support of women’s rights is awe-inspiring and motivational.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Merle Hoffman.
Anna Sterling: How does today’s backlash against women’s reproductive rights compare to the battles you faced in the 1970s and 80s?
Merle Hoffman: It’s bolder. It’s more relentless and creative. It has the feeling of extraordinary entitlement when you had four of the Republican presidential candidates jumping over each other, showing who could be the most radical. Not only do they feel entitled to go there, but the support is very strong. I was in Virginia a couple months ago at one of the clinics when they were talking about the possibility of passage of the sonogram legislation. And I just came back from Pennsylvania where I was speaking last night and they were in an uproar because there is another legislation attempt to push this fetal sonogram legislation. It’s like blinkers. It’s putting blinkers on women because they have to look at the screen and try not to even avert their eyes. As I said, it’s relentless, its maddeningly creative, and if they don’t make abortion illegal, they are succeeding in making it impossible for many, many women in many states in this country.
AS: How do you sustain yourself and stay motivated in this ongoing war against women?
MH: You know, I’m a happy warrior. As Flo Kennedy said to me years ago, “You have to love the struggle,” and for me that’s the essence of it. It’s not that I’m doing this because I expect to see a result. After being on the front lines for 40 years, the result I’m seeing is not terribly positive. It’s because I understand it’s process. I understand that the struggle is where the passion comes from and where the intensity and commitment comes from. I can’t control the outcome of my work or activism. I know I have to speak and act because it’s the right thing to do and the results of those actions I can’t control. All I know is: I have to do it. It’s going to sound strange, but I really don’t take it personally. I understand if we have a defeat or a moment of pullback. I have a more philosophical attitude toward it; it might be because I read a lot of philosophy and I think a lot about it. It’s a lifetime commitment.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
MH: I don’t read fiction! Growing up, I discovered Elizabeth I and Joan of Arc and that was it. I read history of any of the great women I could find that lived in the world and made a great difference. I read some George Sand and some, when I got older, philosophical fiction, but I’m really not much of a fiction reader so I couldn’t say.
My heroines in real life are the women I work with everyday at Choices and the patients I see. The patients who go past the picketers, who live lives with difficulty and struggle and make their decisions in a very negative environment, but continue to make them and continue to put their bodies on the line. That’s a heroic decision. And all of the providers in the country I’ve worked with for so many years and continue to work with that put their lives on the line everyday to do this work. These are the people who are heroic to me and anyone else who struggles for social justice in times and circumstances of difficulty and danger. People who stand up for what’s right– I see them in all different areas. I respect actions of individuals more than individuals.
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
MH: It’s thinking creatively and proactively. The separation of thought and action has to be minimized. I would like to see a far more active movement in multiple ways, so that we never get to the point where we have to have silent protests because male legislators want to insert vaginal probes into women who don’t want them. The fact that we’re at this point tells me there has to be a lot more action, radical action, that’s continual and creative. That’s why I say courage is so important and why you have to practice it. Without drawing a line in the sand and without saying, if you cross this line this is what’ll happen, we will defend this with civil disobedience, and whatever we have to – that’s the point we have to come to in this movement. In 1989, I organized the first pro-choice civil disobedience. It was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. That was because Cardinal O’Connor was supporting Randall Terry in Operation Rescue. Nine people were arrested. I’d like to see this kind of action now. What’s happening in this country in terms of women’s rights and reproductive rights demands that kind of response.
AS: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
MH: Food is definitely shrimp dumplings. I love shrimp dumplings! [Laughs] Drink is iced decaf cappuccino. I wouldn’t want to be too hyper on a desert island by myself. I’d have to take my Kindle because I have access to any of [the feminists] I wanted. I’d get too bored with one person. If I had a long enough battery, I would take the Kindle and read them all!