In Love Memory of Dr. Gertrude Neilson


It is impossible to live on this planet and be entirely unaware of the freak show that is passing for a presidential campaign in this year 2012. Lately I have been drawn into the insane fulminations and strategies to oppose any health insurance plan that allows women to receive contraceptives. How can people be against abortion AND against contraception? Do they want to go back to the world of my childhood where women had eight kids, three teeth, and worked 18 hours a day seven days a week? What is wrong with these idiots!

I find myself remembering a heroic woman named Gertrude Neilson, a retired medical doctor who, at age 75, ran an illegal womans health care clinic in her home on the edge of the University of Oklahoma campus. In Oklahoma in the 1960s it was a felony to sell or otherwise provide contraceptive devices to any unmarried person below the age of 21. There were a few gas stations around town where the men’s room had a machine that sold Trojans at three for a quarter. At that price they were famous for breaking, in flagrante delicto. There were folk remedies involving coke cola and saran wrap. And there was trying to jump out of a 4th story window, as one my dorm mates, who found herself pregnant and disowned by her religious fanatic parents, tried to do.

But that wasn’t all we had. We had Dr. Gertrude Neilson, whose name and phone number were written on the walls of every lady’s room on campus and for a several-mile radius beyond. She provided contraceptives, sex education, and well women’s care to any young woman who had the courage to knock on her door.

It did take courage. We were for the most part virtuous young ladies brought up in the 1950s, crossing our ankles and waiting for Mr. Right, as God and our parents expected of us. In going to Dr. Neilson’s unmarked door we were defying our parents, God, and the State of Oklahoma.

I remember my journey to Dr. Neilson’s door. I had fallen in love with beautiful Brenn of the wavy black hair and big brown eyes, who read poetry out loud. Our attempts to stop the train just short of the Promised Land were becoming increasingly feeble and half-hearted. We planned to spend the rest of our lives together, so how wrong could it be? I called Dr. Neilson and in a tiny, quaking voice requested an appointment. She had a pronounced Norwegian accent and a rich, warm voice. “You come in and see me. It’s okay. I see you soon!”

She lived in a big, two-story brick house surrounded by beds of flowers. I walked up the path to her door and across the big wooden porch like a person on her way to be hung. I rang the door bell and stood there, quaking and wondering if I was going to pass out. I was a sinner, and, with this act of premeditation, a first degree sinner.

The door opened and big, wonderful old woman who looked like the star of every oatmeal commercial you’ve ever seen reached out one big calico-covered arm and pulled me in, chuckling and making warm, little clucking noises. She interviewed me, went over me from head to toe, gave me wise counsel about love, sex and life, and then gave me birth control pills, saying, “Now, these take one month to start working so you stay on the wagon for one month!” shaking her finger vigorously. “Then you come back and see me again, so I see you are okay!”

I floated out of her office on a pink cloud of love and anticipation. On behalf of all the many hundreds of young women you saved from forced marriages, lives postponed, back alley abortions, suicide, Dr. Neilson, I thank you!

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