I take pride in standing up to bullies, especially landlords. I’ve made a career of fighting for justice for the underdog. I’ve always known I wanted to be a lawyer since my youngest days growing up in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (population 13,000). But with seven siblings and parents who had to quit school to work on the farm, there was no imagining that any of us would go to college.
Two of my brothers did, and had to work full-time and take breaks between semesters to save up money, and battle serious illness without health insurance. Accepting financial aid did not fit with the family’s sense of rugged self-reliance. My mother’s response to all of my teenage desires and ambitions was, “Find a good man and get married.”
Graduating high school, I was surprised to receive a $300 scholarship from the Business and Professional Women’s Club. That took this nascent feminist as far as a fashion merchandising class at Madison Area Technical College, and there, I learned about financial aid. The lesson came from a slightly lecherous counselor who put his arm around me and said, “There’s no reason you can’t be a lawyer if you really want to.” Still, when I later took out loans out to enter law school, my non-college siblings derided me as a “professional student.”
But the door was opened to me. I enrolled in political science at MATC and was turned on to Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Alinsky spoke more truth in a paragraph than I’d gained during 12 years of attending Catholic Church and being told to turn the other cheek. I ate up his advice for how to change the world. I knew from observing the Vietnam War and Watergate that there was no justice except that which one could bring about oneself.
Transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study history, Black history and women’s studies, I was in heaven. And after graduating, I became pregnant. This was 1982, less than a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. My best friend drove me 70 miles to Milwaukee to obtain an abortion through Planned Parenthood. Back in Madison, there were no jobs, even for college grads as the nation was in the middle of a deep recession. The welfare department was only too glad to give me a free, one-way bus ticket to New York City. I had to find a job immediately, and then an apartment; hard enough for a 23-year-old but how much more difficult if I’d had to drag along a child! To earn money, I worked for eight months before law school began, as a receptionist for an air conditioning company, commuting from my shared apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Law school required 10 hours of classes and study every day. Plus, I wanted to be involved with the community where I lived in Newark, NJ portions of which were contaminated by Agent Orange which had been manufactured there. I did work-study but needed student loans to pay for tuition, food and rent. In truth, I could have worked full-time and gone to law school at night for four years instead of finishing in three, but it would have been involuntary servitude to have to provide for an unwanted child, all the more so as the father was homeless at this time.
I’ve never had regrets about my abortion. Feminism took me from being a very depressed teenager who believed what the mean boys said to me – that I was ugly and no one would ever love me – and opened new possibilities for me to leave the tradition-bound world I grew up in and pursue my life’s dreams. When those dreams were almost snuffed out, Roe v. Wade allowed me to remain the master of my own destiny. The right to control one’s own body that we gained 40 years ago this January was won through generations of struggle by women who made it possible for me to become who I am today: a sexually and professionally satisfied radical lawyer!
Ann Schneider serves on the executive committee of the NYC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (nycnlg.org). She has been the author of “The People’s Lawyer” column for The Indypendent since 2003.