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There are genuine heroes in the world, and Bill Baird is one of them. You can pretty much tell who the good guys are by how much they are vilified. Those who actually succeed in their righteous cause generally enjoy such rewards as death threats, historical rewrites, media blackouts and loss of income. Bill has endured all of that and more.

Bill Baird

photo courtesy Pro-Choice League

I was fifteen in 1972 when Bill Baird won the first of three landmark Supreme Court cases granting rights and freedoms to single people, teenagers and gay people relating to birth control and sexuality. I was not unaware of the firestorm surrounding the issue of abortion (Baird’s NY clinic was literally firebombed) and the controversial Bill Baird. By the time I entered college – in Boston, where in 1967 Baird got himself arrested in order to argue for single people’s rights to birth control – my access to birth control was unquestioned. I don’t think I even imagined that an unmarried woman would not have had that legal right just a few years prior. Those were heady days for young people with short memories. We were riding the tail of a cultural revolution that had dashed racial barriers, bashed gender roles, and felt close to crashing the glass ceiling. We got the benefits of those fights without getting beat up or worn down. We hadn’t any sense of the reactionary drag that would come to bear on the vessel we expected to sail into the new age.

Fast forward to 2011. I was attending my second national conference of the American Humanist Association and looking over the schedule at breakfast. I had circled Bill Baird’s talk, because the name clicked when I read his bio. Here was the legendary man himself.

“Oh, Bill Baird… he’s gotten kind of bitter… I think I will go to…” one of my breakfast companions said, naming a different speaker. I put a big asterisk next to the session I had already circled. It proved to be one of the most enlightening and inspiring ninety minutes of my life.

Was Bill bitter? Well, he certainly had harsh words for the humanists, the feminists, for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and our own AHA among others, all the groups that had spurned him while he was fighting an unpopular fight with unpopular tactics. (Here he held up an enlarged black and white photo of a woman who has died on a tiled kitchen floor from a botched home abortion.) The stories poured out of him – beatings, arrests, threats, repudiation; loss of family, friendships and professional career; and the personal fortune earned from that career expended on legal battles fought not for himself – a successful, professional, fully empowered, while male – but for us. For women. For humanity. It was clear that what hurt the most was the questioning of his motives. Why would a man put his life on the line for women, blacks and the poor? He was suspect on all fronts – an infiltrator trying to subvert the women’s movement; a commie, an atheist; a racist who wanted to bring birth control to the inner city in order to reduce the black population; a womanizer on the make! When in truth he was only ever a humanist, a humanitarian intent on saving lives, a patriot dedicated to defending the highest ideals of our country.

Bill is still a warrior. He’s rough, he’s rude, he’s righteous. He’s full of fight. But today, at 80, he’s fighting for the record, for respect, for acknowledgment of the role he played – at great personal cost – in laying the the groundwork for Roe v. Wade. He is nearing the end of his hardworking days, a wounded hero who’s legacy just happens to be crucially relevant to today’s conversation about women’s health and reproductive rights.

Which brings us to the present. I recently contacted Bill and his wife Joni, in my capacity as co-chair of the AHA Feminist Caucus, to ask if Bill would help us raise awareness about the ERA by issuing a statement with some historical perspective. Joni relayed the emails back and forth and offered insightful comments of her own. What are we trying to do? What are we trying to say? We got to know each other a little.

And then Bill Baird called me. My hero. Our hero. He prefaced the statement on the ERA below with a careful explication of true humanism, in which we all work for the liberation of each other, not just our own “oppressed group” – “We need to remove self-imposed barriers. It’s people helping people. I don’t have to be black to support black people” – and a rapid-fire complaint about feminists who can’t acknowledge the men who have been on their side and the sacrifices men have made for women’s rights. Following up in a later conversation, Bill would say to me, “You tell me who’s bitter. Why would they try to write me out of history? I am not bitter, I am wounded.” He was not speaking metaphorically. Nothing about this story is metaphorical. The blood and gore of desperate women, the pain and fear of his own incarceration and abuse were all to real, and traumatize to this day.

Heroes, by definition, are powerful characters. They can be as unnerving to those they defend as they are to those they battle. We may feel uneasy being indebted to them. I can see how a previous generation of feminists may not have wanted a wealthy white male – the epitome of the patriarchal establishment – jumping into the fray to act as their champion. But let’s be honest. Who else was going to do it? Who, then, had the resources, the confidence – and, yes, the balls – to do what Bill Baird did? He was our champion. We needed him. We still need him because unfortunately the advancements he fought for are slipping away. Fortunately, he is still here for us.

Heroes do exist, and it would serve us well to look past the battle scars, learn their stories, and thank them for all they’ve won for us by defending those gains with equal courage, conviction and passion.

Statement on ERA from Bill Baird

My U.S. Supreme Court case Baird v. Eisenstadt legalized birth control nationally on March 22, 1972. Baird was quoted 6 times in Roe v. Wade and in my two other U.S. Supreme Court cases, Baird v. Bellotti I and Baird v. Bellotti II for minor’s rights to abortion.

For nearly 50 years I fought against anti-birth control and anti-abortion laws that have enslaved women for centuries often resulting in poverty, illness and even death. The suffering that I witnessed when abortion and birth control were illegal propels me to continue to fight for the equality of women and all of humankind.

I fervently believe that the Equal Rights Amendment must be passed so that women can be on an equal playing field with men in our nation. It is a national disgrace that this battle for equality continues into the 21st century. Women must be granted permanent equal rights in our U.S. Constitution.

This mission is more pressing than ever given the lack of clarity and consistency from those holding and running for political office. With only three more states left to ratify this vital constitutional affirmation for women’s rights, let all of us working together usher in a new era of equality for all Americans.

[This article has been published under the title “Bill Baird: Wounded Warrior Battles On” in the Winter 2012 Issue of Free Mind, a publication of the AHA. For more information on the AHA Feminist Caucus and Pass the ERA action tools, click here. To read more about Bill Baird and contribute to the important work that he and Joni continue to do, visit their Pro-Choice League website.]

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