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Guide to the WHAM! (Women's Health Action and Mobilization) Records TAM.162

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Tamiment staff

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 05, 2020
Finding aid is in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Edited in 2010 to incorporate inventory of Boxes 1-26. Boxes 27 and 28 added by Rachel Schimke.  Boxes 29-32 added by Rachel Schimke. Boxes 33-34 added by Rachel Schimke. Edited by Maggie Schreiner to reflect updated administrative information  Edited by Heather Mulliner to include 2017 accretion  , September 20102012 , March 2014 , May 2014 , July 2014 , July 2017

Historical/Biographical Note

Women's Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) was founded in 1989 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services of Missouri, which granted states more power to restrict women's access to abortion. WHAM! began as a direct action committee of the Reproductive Rights Coalition (RRC), and later became an independent organization following the dissolution of the RRC. WHAM! emerged at a moment when abortion became one of the most prominent, controversial, and polarizing issues in American life, and many women felt that the Webster decision was emblematic of a larger, serious threat to the protections of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Operation Rescue was shutting down women's clinics, budget cuts in New York City threatened to close community family planning clinics, and Supreme Court decisions, including the 1991 "Gag" rule, were generating what WHAM felt to be a crisis in women's health. While several national organizations -- like the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood -- were doing abortions rights work on the legislative and legal fronts, WHAM felt that a stronger response was needed in light of increasingly organized and high-profile anti-abortion activism of the religious right. Drawing on the influence of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), WHAM! focused on direct action that specifically targeted officials and institutions who controlled public policy and programs, and relied on the use of media-centered actions, civil disobedience, and phone zap campaigns. WHAM! became known for its high-visibility, aggressive actions aimed at leaders and institutions that controlled policy around women's health issues, including the Centers for Disease Control, the Catholic Church, the U.S. Supreme Court, and elected officials. While one of WHAM!'s primary goals was absolute access to abortion on demand, also advocated for reproductive rights broadly to include access to health care generally and the right to feed, clothe, and educate families regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation. This broad set of concerns was reflected by one of WHAM!'s early and most notorious actions, in conjunction with ACT UP: the Stop the Church demonstration at St. Patrick's Cathderal in December, 1989, to protest John Cardinal O'Connor's positions on abortion, AIDS, and homosexuality. Over 5,000 people demonstrated outside while protestors disrupted the homily inside the church. This joint demonstration, as activist and journalist Esther Kaplan wrote, "testified to the creative strength of a coalition built around sexual and reproductive freedom." This action was emblematic of WHAM!'s ongoing attacks on the Catholic Church, and as the song and chant sheets in the collection testify, they coined a number of slogans aimed at the church, including, "Pray, you'll need it/ Your cause will be defeated," and "Four, Six, Eight, Ten/Why are all your leaders men?"

Over the years, in conjunction with other groups like the Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue and the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force, WHAM! developed a model set of practices for protecting access to women's clinics targeted by anti-abortion groups. A WHAM! committee, the New York Clinic Defense Task Force, eventually developed into a separate organization to focus solely on this ongoing, weekly task. Another key group that developed within WHAM!'s clinic defense activities was the Church Ladies for Choice, a group of (mostly) gay men dressed in church lady drag, replete with flower-print polyester frocks and sensible shoes who, in their words, "reverse the venom of anti-abortion terrorists with raucous safe sex fun," entertaining clinic defenders with reworked hymns and standards, including "This Womb is My Womb," "Every Sperm is Sacred," and "God is a Lesbian" to the tune of "My Country 'Tis of Thee."

The core of WHAM!'s activity revolved around high-visibility, aggressive direct actions, often conducted through a joint WHAM-ACT UP affinity group called Action Tours. WHAM! joined with ACT UP and NOW to protest the nomination of David Souter to the U.S. Supreme Court, and one WHAM! member, along with eleven ACT UP members, got national attention for their civil disobedience inside Congress. And in one of their most publicized actions, they "gagged" the Statue of Liberty to protest the so-called "gag rule" that prevented federally funded health clinics from counseling abortion. WHAM! members dropped a banner that read "Abortion is Health Care/ Health Care is a Right" over the statue's pedestal and obscured her face with another banner reading "No Choice/No Liberty." WHAM! again joined with ACT UP to occupy the offices of the Centers for Disease Control in New York to demand that the official definition of AIDS be expanded to include infections specific to women and IV drug users. While the abortion debate raged across the country in the early nineties, it also sparked debate within the women's movement. The constant attacks on clinics, and the ongoing legal battle over the definition of abortion put activists in what many felt was a narrowing, reactive position that threatened to drain energy from the movement over time. Many WHAM! members wanted to adopt a more proactive approach to women's health issues and to connect more effectively with the issues of race and class that shaped access to health care, but it was unclear if the organization could sustain wide-ranging work on a variety of issues when it had been most effective in honing techniques around public awareness and clinic defense. In response to criticisms that the group attracted primarily white activists, WHAM! began conducting "Resisting Racism" workshops in 1992 and 1993.