In Memoriam—Lawrence Lader & Gloria C. Knighton

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a lengthy obituary for a key reproductive rights thinker and leader, Lawrence Lader. Through his early journalism and then activism, he was one of the first people in the 1960’s to openly expose and challenge US laws criminalizing abortion. It is safe to say that his research, writing, and help in founding the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) were key factors in igniting an American movement for reproductive rights. I did not know Larry well, but I admired him greatly. I particularly appreciated him because he was one of the few people to document the truly radical, grassroots activism of other women and men of the early reproductive rights movement. Through him, I learned about such people as Patricia Maginnes, the founder of the nation’s first abortion rights organization, and a woman who actively sought to be arrested as a way to challenge California laws restricting the distribution of information about abortion, contraception, and venereal disease.

Larry stayed active all of his long life and I even had the privilege of once helping to represent him and another organization that he founded, ARM (Abortion Rights Mobilization) in their efforts to make RU486 available to women in the United States.

In addition to Larry, America’s reproductive rights movement lost another key activist this year – though one far less recognized.

She was my friend, ally, and NAPW advisory board member Gloria C. Knighton. I met Gloria in the 1980’s when she was hired as an administrative assistant at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. Gloria did not come from privilege and, in fact, struggled through much adversity to support herself and her family. Gloria was a rare person who could honestly say she loved her hometown of Newark, NJ. More than almost anything – except perhaps her husband Leon—and more than even Newark, Gloria loved her work.

Gloria was proud, actually thrilled, to be part of any effort to defend human rights, including women’s rights and reproductive rights. She had unique skills at working with highly dedicated but sometimes temperamental lawyers. But what she especially, and most particularly loved, was the challenge of producing last-minute briefs. This often meant staying up night after night typing, copying, and organizing endless exhibits for absolutely last minute filing. There was no one with her energy, flare, and dedication to these all night legal advocacy extravaganzas. And through it all Gloria could be counted upon for “keeping it real.” She ensured that issues of race, class, and fairness –as well as the latest Farrikhan media uproar, the O.J. Simpson trial, or whatever was happening with Whitney Houston (Gloria babysat for her when she was little)—never went without extended comment and analysis.

Gloria Knighton was part of the group that founded the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (now CRR). With the exception of some years at a large financial firm – something she considered to be a sort of public interest exile- she spent most of her adult life working for, with, or on behalf of public interest and civil rights organizations. She helped establish National Advocates for Pregnant Women and served on our advisory board. Gloria was an avid supporter of another organization as well, Be Present, Inc. In October of last year she attended their Black and Female, What is the Reality? retreat where she found friendship, support and a place to recharge and refresh her activist soul. At the time of her death, Gloria was working for the Center for Constitutional Rights and with her beloved friend Cathy Albisa’s organization, the National Economic And Social Rights Initiative.

What I am struck by most, though, and what is not reflected in any obituary or even on any formal court documents, is that there are very few major reproductive rights cases in the past twenty years in which Gloria did not play an important role. In many cases, including quite a few that went to the United States Supreme Court, the legal briefs would not have been produced and filed without the benefit of Gloria’s extraordinary talent, commitment, and energy.

Gloria and Larry never stopped working for reproductive rights and social justice. I will never stop appreciating them, their commitment, and their life-long activism that should be a model for all of us.