Recording Choice: Oral Histories with Susan Hill
On the evening of April 30, 2009, the Southern Oral History Program hosted “Recording Choice: Oral Histories with Susan Hill, NC Reproductive Rights Pioneer.” The reception was attended by nearly 40 people, including university administrators and former state politicians, and honored the life work of Susan Hill, co-founder and CEO of the National Women’s Health Organization, a pioneering group of clinics that provide abortion and other reproductive health services. A series of interviews with Hill recorded by Johanna Schoen, Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa, have been deposited in the Southern Oral History Program archives at the Southern Historical Collection, and will soon be open to the public. These interviews shed new light on the history of women, medicine, and public policy in an era when the fight over legal abortion took center stage in American politics.
SOHP director Jacquelyn Hall began the evening by introducing Professor Schoen and Tim West, Curator of Manuscripts and Director of the Southern Historical Collection at UNC’s Wilson Library. West lauded the addition of the interviews to a series he said was the most used by scholars of all the 4,000 manuscript collections in the archive. Schoen went on to describe how the interviews document the life and work of a young, white woman whose political consciousness was forged in the civil rights and women’s rights movements and who contributed mightily to the struggle to provide safe and affordable abortion services in the wake of Roe v. Wade The interviews focus especially on Hill’s involvement in establishing some of the first legal abortion clinics after 1973, and on the impact of the violent anti-abortion movement in the 1980s and 1990s. Schoen is using the interviews in writing a biography of Hill entitled Bringing Abortion to America.
Born in 1948, Susan Hill grew up in Durham, North Carolina and graduated with a degree in social work from Meredith College in 1970. In the early 1970s, she moved to Florida where she served as a social worker in Brevard County. Minutes after the Supreme Court announced its ruling in Roe v. Wade, Hill received a call from physician Sam Barr, asking whether she would join him in opening the first abortion clinic in the state. Three weeks later, the clinic opened its doors to hundreds of women seeking legal abortions. In 1975, Hill moved to Washington DC to work with the prominent abortion rights lawyer Roy Lucas. She helped to establish the National Women’s Health Organization, a group of free-standing abortion clinics, and has served as president and CEO since 1996. From the beginning, the National Women’s Health Organization sought to provide safe and compassionate abortion care to women in the most underserved areas of the country. It also laid the legal foundation for access to abortion services, serving as plaintiff in over 30 federal and state lawsuits concerning abortion rights. The organization encountered every form of opposition, from zoning ordinances intended to block the opening of clinics to anti-abortion activists who vandalized and invaded clinics, fire bombed facilities, and murdered a clinic doctor.
In 2007, Hill received North Carolina’s highest honor for public advocacy in the face of personal risk, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s Nancy Susan Reynolds award, an honor often referred to as “North Carolina’s Nobel Prize.” She has also won the North Carolina Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger Award, the National Organization for Women Unsung Hero Award, and the Fund for a Feminist Majority Feminist of the Year Award.