Decades after a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna found her freshman-year roommate bleeding in their dorm room, the campus remains a battleground for women’s rights.
“In those days, there was no ‘pro-choice,’” the source said. “Women were considered to be unable to make decisions about themselves.” According to the source, this way of thinking was highlighted by a strict curfew for female students in the UW-Madison dorms, while “the boys could do whatever they wanted.” Male staff and students never referred to women on campus as women; they were “girls.”
The source returned to her dorm room one night in fall 1960 to find her roommate in bed at an uncharacteristically early hour. Her roommate brushed the source’s concern aside and said she simply felt under the weather. The source left for dinner and returned one hour later.
“I came back and she was hysterical because she was bleeding terribly,” said the source. Back then, students couldn’t make calls from their dorm buildings, so the source ran downstairs to alert the dorm advisor.
“I said to her, ‘[my roommate] needs to get to the hospital. She’s bleeding and you’ve got to call the ambulance right now,’” the source said. According to the source, the advisor claimed she needed more information to call Emergency Medical Services.
“I looked at her, and I was all of 17 years old,” the source recalled. “I said, ‘Either you’re going to call them, or I’m going to call them.’”
“They saved her life,” the source said of the first responders who arrived after the advisor eventually called the paramedics. The source went to the hospital with her roommate, where she learned about the backdoor abortion her friend had earlier that day.
“She was alright, but she was never able to have children,” the source said of her roommate.
The Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, almost a decade later. Forty-five years after the decision, however, reproductive healthcare faced a new threat: President Donald Trump’s appointment of conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation raised concerns among women’s rights activists in Wisconsin about the possibility of a right-leaning Supreme Court revisiting Roe v. Wade. A 170-year-old state abortion ban would go into effect automatically if the decision were overturned; abortion would become illegal in Wisconsin again.
Nine states passed legislation restricting abortion procedures by June 2019. Some of the newly introduced laws did not offer exceptions for cases of rape or incest and many were promptly blocked by federal judges. Though the source no longer lives in Wisconsin, she worried the state may be the next domino to fall in enacting laws to limit abortion access.
“I always thought if this country survived 1968, they could survive anything,” the source said, referring to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and former President Robert F. Kennedy. “Now, I’m not so sure.”
Kavanuagh’s confirmation was temporarily delayed by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before Congress that the Supreme Court nominee had sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. Though Kavanaugh was confirmed despite her allegations, Ford’s testimony inspired other survivors to share their stories. Nathalie Reinstein, who was a freshman in college at the time, came forward in 2018 via Facebook about surviving an assault at a UW-Madison fraternity party during her junior year of high school.
“I blamed myself for willingly drinking his drinks. I blamed myself for willingly kissing him on the dance floor. I blamed myself for willingly flirting back,” Reinstein said on Facebook. “So I stayed silent.” It took her three years to publicize her story, Reinstein said in an interview, because she feared social repercussions for coming forward.
“We fear that we will be dismissed as liars, as overly-emotional women, and as non-credible sources accused of having an agenda,” Reinstein said on Facebook of herself and other survivors. “If Brett Kavanaugh is given a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, then women and other survivors in this country will be sent a painful message: our stories don’t matter.”
A 2019 campus climate survey reported that 26 percent of UW-Madison undergraduate women had experienced sexual assault since arriving on campus. Nola Pastor, a violence prevention specialist for University Health Services at UW-Madison, explained that people often assume survivors could have prevented their attackers from assaulting them.
“Our society often tends to ask survivors questions like, ‘Why don’t you fully remember what happened? Why didn’t you fight back?’ A lot of things that are really blaming and can be re-victimizing for survivors,” Pastor said.
Ford’s testimony sparked protests across the country, including in Madison, the Wisconsin state capital. Thousands gathered to march from the bottom of State Street, through Langdon Street, which houses the Greek Life buildings, and up to the capitol building, where survivors were invited to share their stories.
“After watching [the hearings] I was like, ‘There’s no way he could get appointed and confirmed',” said UW-Madison senior Mia Wagner. “Now I think I am kind of expecting everything to go for the worst.”
Wagner said she felt compelled to attend the Madison protest against Kavanaugh’s appointment not only to show support for survivors, but for her own mental health. It put her at ease as a reproductive justice activist to witness other people expressing frustration over Trump’s appointment of an alleged sexual assailant to the Supreme Court.
Women’s rights activists in Wisconsin have also expressed concerns about exclusivity in advocacy groups, especially amongst white feminists. UW-Madison is a predominantly white campus whose student leadership has been scrutinized for ostracizing students of color. The university’s homecoming committee posted a video on Facebook in October titled “Home is where WI Are,” but it was deleted following prompt criticism from students and alumni who pointed out that almost all of the featured students where white and the “underrepresented populations” the video’s narrator referenced were left out.
Black women experience sexual assault at higher rates, but are less likely to report it, according to Now.org. A report by the National Women’s Law Center found that four in 10 Black women cannot afford to pay more than $10 for contraception. Consequently, Black people who menstruate are likely to be disproportionately affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling this month upholding the Trump Administration’s 2017 rollback on the Obama-era contraceptive mandate; this ruling allows employers to refuse to provide birth control coverage for their employees.
“It’s important to highlight the statistical differences between the sexual assault victims of color, specifically women of color,” Wagner said. “That is something that has been kind of left out of the conversation, at least in the circles that I’m in. But that’s where I think there’s an opportunity for the university to address that differently.”
Wagner, who founded the UW-Madison Reproductive Justice Coalition Board and formerly held a board position for the Student Alliance for Reproductive Justice board member, discussed the abundance of events about reproductive rights students can attend. Her organizations coordinate Condom Crawls with high student turnout, informative panels and promotional events to discuss access to reproductive health care — a stark contrast from the campus the source knew in 1960.
“Obviously 2016 was a big step back [for women’s rights],” Wagner said. “I’ve been really encouraged and uplifted by the readiness people have to jump into action.”
In addition to her campus involvement, Wagner interned at Planned Parenthood for two years, earning praise from women’s rights activists. The source’s mother unconventionally volunteered at Planned Parenthood in the 1950s, but despite her favorability toward access to reproductive healthcare, the source didn’t share with her what happened to her freshman year roommate. “Pro-choice” didn’t exist back then, according to the source. Her roommate’s father, a well-known surgeon, remained unaware of his daughter’s situation until her trip to the hospital.
Despite legal changes and new campus clubs to promote women’s rights issues, there remains a lack of dialogue to address the issues of sexual violence on college campuses and limited access to reproductive health care.
“It took me years to finally come forward with my story,” Reinstein said. “Initially, I was just terrified.” Her Facebook post came three years after the assault.
“People just don’t have the training and preparedness to be able to comfort someone” who has been assaulted, Reinstein said. Pastor and other violence prevention specialists at the Violence Prevention and Survivor Services division of UHS have plans to change that. They have implemented required workshops for incoming UW-Madison students to learn about consent and empathizing with survivors and are working on ways to improve their current programs, like having more student leaders co-facilitate workshops.
“Education coming from someone that’s a part of your community is really powerful,” Pastor said. Though Pastor acknowledged the difficulty of changing cultural norms, she expressed optimism about tackling campus sexual assault.
“We’re up against a whole history of sexual violence often being normalized,” Pastor said. “It takes a lot of time and energy to change those numbers … It’s on all of us to work really hard to get there.”