The tan business envelope is postmarked Jan. 31, 1957. It is addressed to “MISS JANEY BEBOUT,” arriving via airmail from Annapolis, Maryland. Not to her home but to the house of a sympathetic aunt who could keep a secret, one town away in Ashtabula, Ohio.
The sole content of the envelope is one sheet of paper, crackly with age and separating at the folds. It is a form letter from the Maryland secretary of state’s office detailing requirements for marriage.
The letter reads, in part:
“IT SHALL BE UNLAWFUL WITHIN THIS STATE FOR ANY FEMALE BELOW THE AGE OF SIXTEEN YEARS OR FOR ANY MALE BELOW THE AGE OF EIGHTEEN YEARS TO MARRY. … EXCEPT ON THE CERTIFICATE OF A LICENSED PHYSICIAN, WHICH SHALL BE PRESENTED FOR THE APPLICATION FOR THE MARRIAGE LICENSE, TO THE EFFECT THAT THE GIRL IS PREGNANT.”
Note how the law insulated boys from adulthood a little longer, the better to preserve their options.
Maryland required no blood tests. The application fee for a marriage license was $1; if granted, the license cost an additional $2.
On the day this envelope was mailed, Janey was an unmarried 19-year-old, four months pregnant with me. She and my 20-year-old father would marry 11 days later in Cumberland, Maryland, after fleeing — “eloping,” she insisted to her children, “because we were so in love” — their family farms in the middle of the night.
I recognize my mother’s loopy handwriting in dark blue ink on the back of the envelope. She noted the mileage on my father’s car before they started driving and the total upon their return after a short honeymoon in Washington, D.C. She chronicled their gas stops, too, most in $1 increments.
They were two farm kids with virtually no money and no plan beyond saving my mother from a lifetime of public humiliation as an unwed mother. In 1957, marriage was her only option.
I just, this week, discovered this envelope. In a curious twist of timing, I found it one day after Ohio Gov. John Kasich vetoed the so-called heartbeat bill but signed into law his 18th restriction on a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. This latest one prevents a woman from getting an abortion after 20 weeks, which is when many medical abnormalities are first detected. No exceptions for rape or incest and a limited one to protect a mother’s life.
Kasich is not fooling anyone who’s paying attention, including Dawn Laguens of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund:
“(Kasich) may hope that by vetoing a six-week ban — which would have virtually banned abortion with almost no exceptions — he comes off as moderate,” Laguens said in a statement. “The 20-week ban will force women to travel long distances and cross state lines in order to access safe, legal abortion.”
Right-wing extremists who support laws such as this are driven by an insatiable desire to shame women. They want us to feel dirty and immoral and unworthy in the eyes of God as they define him.
Most of these legislators are men whose maleness exempts them from ever knowing what it feels like to have no control over their bodies or their daily lives. If they are impotent, they can take a drug to give them erections. If they want to have unprotected sex, they can do so without worrying about what an unplanned pregnancy would do to their bodies and their health, their families and their future.
These men will never know the desperation of scraping up enough money for a plane ticket, a train ticket, bus fare or gas for the tank of a car to get them to a state that still protects a woman’s constitutional right. They do not worry about bringing into the world children they — and we as communities — cannot afford.
My mother had no option but to give birth to me. Some readers who oppose abortion rights love to remind me that my mother didn’t abort me. Far too many of them wish aloud that she had, and isn’t that an interesting approach for people claiming to cherish life?
The discovery of that envelope reminds me, yet again, of what it was like not so very long ago for women like my mother. From the moment she found out she was pregnant until she and my father made that middle-of-the-night journey to a state that would marry them, she lived in fear of being exposed as an unmarried woman who dared to have sex.
A devout Christian, she was pro-choice when abortion rights became the law of the land, in 1973. A devoted mother, she encouraged all of her daughters to visit Planned Parenthood before having sex. “Stay in control of your life,” she once told me.
My mother never fully shed the shame of her unplanned pregnancy all those years ago.
“I still would have had you,” she told me when I was 36 and a newly single mother. “It just would have been so different here” — she pointed to her heart — “if the choice had been all mine.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
IMAGE: Demonstrators hold signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court as the court is due to decide today whether a Republican-backed 2013 Texas law placed an undue burden on women exercising their constitutional right to abortion in Washington, U.S. June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque