Clare McCullough


Mujeres de La Raza: Milwaukee Latinas’ Community Engagement and Activism Following Roe v. Wade

Yazmin Gomez

Capturing the attention of a nation, Roe v. Wade was a landmark decision that has shaped judicial power and personal rights since its 1973 ruling. The 7-2 Supreme Court decision found that a woman’s right to privacy extended to their ability to seek an abortion. Such a decision was then determined to be one that should be made between a woman and her physician. In 2014, an estimated 650,000 abortions were performed and understanding the reasons and ramifications of seeking an abortion is important to a larger discussion of reproductive rights and autonomy.[1] A controversial subject, abortion is a nuanced issue that intersects law, religion, ethics, health, and more with the individual. The ruling was crucial in defining modern feminism as it established the one of the movement’s goals. Though reproductive rights and abortion were central issues for early second wave feminists, this was not always the case for all women activists.

To gage the full scope of abortion opinions, it is important to feature the voices of all individuals including often marginalized women. Such an emphasis may further complicate the issue but it is essential to advancing discourse as well as helping dispel assumptions that all women hold the same opinions. In focusing on Milwaukee Latinas post-Roe, a specific location and population is considered to understand individual’s attitudes. Throughout the 20th century, Milwaukee Latinas navigated multiple worlds and roles as they aimed to satisfy the needs of others and themselves. That said, the personal often remained private and Latinas focused their activist efforts in areas beyond issues of reproduction. Despite the goals of the larger women’s movement, Milwaukee Latinas forged their own activism aimed at the specific needs of their community given local events, circumstances, and cultural expectations.

Though local Latinas did not place an explicit focus on abortion rights, polling has recorded the abortion attitudes of Latinas and the nation at large. While public opinion is often classified as either ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’, the reality is much more nuanced. National polls in the years following Roe v. Wade have found that most Americans support some form of abortion. However, these opinions are often situational and more people are accepting of abortion in cases of rape, incest, and when pregnancy endangers a mother life. Elective abortions on demand have often had the least amount of support throughout widespread public polls.[2] However, there can be a variety of reasons for an individual’s stance on abortion. Within the Latinx community, attitudes have varied depending on nationality with Mexicans being the least willing to approve of abortions. That said, overall approval post-Roe was somewhat lower compared to non-Hispanic Whites but higher than African-Americans. However, Latinas have a higher rate of abortion with some suggesting this is due to a reliance on less effective contraception and more frequent pregnancies.[3]

Within the state of Wisconsin, abortion was not legal until 1971, but this did not prevent women from seeking the procedure. Prior to legalization, women would often travel to states with legalized abortion to ensure a safe procedure. Networks were established to facilitate a women’s trip to New York or other states.[4] However, the procedure and travel fees could often exceed several hundred dollars, making a safe, legal abortion difficult or impossible for working class women to acquire. Faced with the reality of the price and extent of travel, some women elected for risky, illegal but close to home and often cheaper abortions. Exhausting these options, others carried their pregnancy to term.[5]

That said, organizations such as Planned Parenthood were present in the Latinx community to assist in other ways. Planned Parenthood established itself in Milwaukee in the 1960s with most early clients being married, middle-class White women. It later established traveling clinics to service several communities as they began noting the needs of low-income areas for quality health care and family planning assistance to alleviate poverty. However, since abortion was not yet legal, the organization only provided contraception and family planning counseling to married couples.

The proposal to establish such clinics created a public dialogue chronicled in letters to Wisconsin Secretary of State Vel Phillips. Archived in her files on these clinics and later abortion bills is various letters from community members, theologians, and organization leaders. These letters reflect Milwaukee’s need for such services and their benefits for the city and individuals. Acknowledging the limited access to downtown clinics, county hospitals, as well as the effects of family size on those in poverty, these correspondences signify a complex grasp of the topic at hand and it ramifications.[6] Yet, there appear to be none from those who identified themselves as Latina. Some allude to this lack of voices from within the affected communities as they state their privileged positions as advocates. Though Latinas may not have been advocating to politicians directly, they were still involved with other Latinos.

According the 1970 census, a low estimate of the Milwaukee Latinx population was about four thousand, with actual demographics believed to be over ten thousand. Mexicans made up sixty-five percent of the area with most of them coming from Texas and identifying as Chicanos. The rest of the area was majority Puerto Rican with a smaller Caribbean, South, and Central American population. In addition to national ties, the Latinx community is one also defined by location. Much of the population resided in and around the south side Walker’s Point neighbor located between Florida St. and Lapham St. and 1st and 16th St, with some extending these boundaries to 37th St. and Oklahoma Ave.

In comparison to the rest of Milwaukee, the Latinx community differed from the rest of the area in several ways. Milwaukee historian John Gurda’s research indicated that South Side residents, on average, were majority working class, bilingual and had less education completed and larger households. There was also a distinct generation gap between older immigrants and their younger, American-born children. This latter group soon became those most active in social movements and local groups. Gurda stated that almost twenty percent of the area lived below the poverty line. As a result, issues such as jobs, education, and child care became central to the community.

Gurda also mentions a growing leniency towards religious observation. Perhaps influenced by American Catholics, religiosity seemed to begin to wane around this time among Latinos. However, it was still seen as the responsibility of women to uphold religious traditions.[7] This may include ensuring regular church attendance, organizing church-related functions, and continuing other established traditions within the home. This indicates not only the influence of Latinas within the domestic sphere but also the significance placed on maintaining cultural norms.

However, the decline in religiosity is notable as the Latinx community at large tends to be associated with strong religious ties to Catholicism. Though still a component of cultural identity, religion carried less weight than once assumed. In addition, individuals appeared to distance their religiosity from their public opinions. For example, in Vel Phillips correspondences, there are several religious leaders who make sure to note that their views are not necessarily that of the church. In identifying as private citizens, these individual’s separate portions of their identity to explain their stance.[8] In fact, several studies have found that religious individuals are willing to defy church doctrine for personal or situational reasons. Take for instance the widespread use of contraception amongst Catholics despite it being condemned by the church.[9]

Distinctions between an institution and the individual are common and Latinas are no exception. One California Chicana, Alisia documented her religious upbringing and reproductive choices in Sumi Hoshiko’s Our Choices: Women’s Personal Decisions About Abortion. Elaborating on her childhood, she notes the significance of family, the Catholic church, and a good value system enforced by her mother. In regards to the church, she credits it with instilling within her a respect of kin and elders. In fact, she viewed her familia [family] as the focus of her personal life and professional work. She also attended Catholic schools for several years and states that its teachings were not something she could disregard with ease. This prefaces her explanation for seeking two abortions during her life. While she had grown to view her spirituality as more informal and personal, she still felt a sense of religious guilt stating that, “Oh my god, me castiga Dios [God is punishing me] you know?” Considering herself a good mother, Alisia refers to this role in explaining her decisions. Having already had four children, Alisia felt she could not support another child at the time. By limiting her family size, she could continue to support her children and lessen her fear of being unable to provide.[10]

Within the local Latinx community, the power of family is present and it served as a powerful influencer to all, including activists. It appears that Latinx activism was rooted in interpersonal relationships and coalition building within the community. Movements which were most associated with family and community wellbeing took precedent over the area. For example, education was a major topic of discussion for local leaders. Advocacy for quality schools, bilingual education, and access to higher education was based on it benefits to one and their family. A good education meant better jobs and a better quality of life.

This activism is best exemplified at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where student demonstrations in response to discrimination, little university support, and a general lack of representation shaped local Latinx thinking. The movement made headlines and resulted in the development of various programs and service centers for underrepresented students. With only twelve Latinx students enrolled at the university in 1970, efforts to increase enrollment and student support systems were established by the School of Education. However, this initiative was more appropriate for top university administrators to implement. Through sit-ins, walkouts, and petitions, activists led by Roberto Hernandez helped found the Spanish Speaker Outreach Institute in 1970.[11]

During the same time, the university’s Feminist Center had made reproductive rights a central issue and structured their activism around women’s issues. As previous research has indicated, the more educated one is, the more accepting one may be of a contentious issue such as abortion.[12] There is little evidence of Latinas being involved with the group’s community outreach. It is however possible that Latina students were involved and interested in the work done by the center but felt that there was a choice to be made between supporting women’s rights or Latinx rights. Later student groups on health, pro-choice, and pro-life ideologies were established but appeared to still lack Latina participation. While university students have some of the most relaxed abortion attitudes, events such as those UW-Milwaukee may have pushed these discussions to the backburner for Latinas. Also, due to the already low enrollment of Latinx students in general, there may have been few Latinas at the institution. However, this conflict of identities and support has been present in other social movements as women have dealt with supporting all the aspects of their identity.

The participation of Latinas within activist circles is a complicated one with women often doing valuable work while not receiving the proper respect or accolades. Also, many did not receive formal training or even identify as activists. However, through their actions to help others and mobilize a community, one could consider these women activists.[13] Latina political participation has been found to be based on more informal, social coalition building as opposed to a traditional focus on voting. This may be due to cultural influences that limit formal political participation and enforce gender roles. Also, emphasizing voting ignores the potential power of undocumented and disenfranchised individuals. Latinas approach to activism tends to be based on equality and community compared to Latino men. Thus, Latinas are less concerned with nationality as they focus on broader Latinx connections.[14]

Latinas were involved in almost all sectors of activism and many founded organizations aimed and increasing educational opportunities and improving community health. In promoting health initiatives and local centers, family planning was only a small portion of the services Latinas helped support. In addition to Planned Parenthood, other organizations functioned to address reproductive health, preventative care, and child care.[15] Furthermore, with a sizable portion of the population living below the poverty line, access to jobs and fair wages was another focus for activists. In addition to participating in labor movements, several Latinas founded professional development and skill building groups.

However, some community members expressed frustrations with regulatory systems in place that seemed to hinder their efforts. For instance, some day cares struggled to provide necessary assistance as they faced social and political hardships. Serving low-income families, some of whom received welfare assistance, many day cares struggled to provide adequate care and maintain their facilities. Also, municipal and federal regulations determined where and for how long children could be in these centers. Meant to protect children, community members argued that lawmakers, who were majority elite males, were out of touch and incapable of comprehending the daily realities of working-class families. There is also a mention of the social stigma associated with welfare. Citing political rhetoric of “get mothers to work” and “pulling yourself up by your boot straps”, child care leaders discussed the assumptions made about those receiving public assistance. Regarding mothers and their work, activists asserted that motherhood is work and should be valued as such.[16]

In more radical circles, many of the same issues were discussed through a more revolutionary lens. These smaller pockets of activists were often inspired by similar movements around the country. For instance, elsewhere, the west coast saw Chicana feminism bloom amongst student leaders. The discourse of Chicana feminism reached Milwaukee through publications such as La Guardia and The Young Lord as well as word of mouth.[17] In this development, Chicanas and Latinas began sharing more personal topics that affected them as active women of color. In various editorials and articles, women discuss the sexism they experienced within the activist community.

A poignant and candid mention of misogyny and sexism, Latina activists elaborate on feelings of being excluded from leadership positions or demeaned by their colleagues. Writing in La Guardia, Mary Lou Espinoza discussed Latinas access to power and stated that no other oppression is as severe as that of women of color. In relegating women to a domestic sphere, she argues that not only have men devalued women but that Latinas have been brainwash by culture to remain subordinate. Espinoza suggests that women can prosper and add a much-needed perspective to the various movements. She states, “Latin women do not want to become men. They want to be able to breath, to educate ourselves, to influence our community and society at large, and to contribute it with our insight of life.” [18]

If these women did not feel supported by their own peers and supposed allies, they may have been less likely to talk about the most personal of issues in a public setting. This misogyny was part of a greater cultural issue of machismo which emphasizes manliness and power. However, some antiwar activists saw this machismo as dangerous to everyone, not just women. Some argued that with men being encouraged to enter the Vietnam war, machismo was being used to promote violence rather than education and self-betterment. Machismo could be a useful tool for community advancement but war warped masculinity to be defined by violence. To reshape this narrative, Latinas should have made themselves informed citizens who, alongside men, could redefine the power of machismo in the Latinx community.[19]

The role of men in Latina activism was distinct compared to that of Anglo feminists and their respective movement. Some groups made sure to distance themselves from standard “Women’s Lib” groups.[20] Milwaukee activist Maria Rodriguez argued that, “We [Latinas] didn’t see ourselves as the Gloria Steinem feminists; we saw our men as participants of community change.”[21] An activist since the 1970s, she has been a lifelong advocate of education, reproductive rights, and increasing cultural knowledge. Rodriguez argues that Latina feminism was more collectivist and women wanted to include one’s spouse and family. Inclusion of others was important as decisions made by Latina feminists had to consider the ramifications on the family. Local Latinas did not want to exclude those closest to them but rather include them in their narrative. This approach further demonstrates the role of community within movements. With less of an emphasis on the individual, Latinas strove to campaign for whole groups.

In addition, context helped define local Latinas immediate concerns. For instance, Rodriguez participated in and developed many organizations targeted towards issues impacting Latinas. In an oral history, she explains that while she was involved in broader, mainstream women’s groups, she and other Latinas felt there needed to be a focus placed on their community. Detailing her motivations for founding the group “Latinas En Accion”, Rodriguez stated,

“…that we were part of this community and that we needed to really focus in on some of the things that would affect women and bringing them to, well dealing with social justice issues and making sure that women were advancing.”[22]

In addition to community organizing, Rodriguez worked at Planned Parenthood where she aimed to increase girls and women’s awareness about educational programming. She mentions the conversation she had with her mother before accepting the position. Worried she would disapprove or ask her reconsider, Rodriguez’s mother, instead discussed with openness the realities of many Latinas in the past. Noting the lack of health education and family planning options available to older generations, Rodriguez’s mother supported her daughter’s attempt to change and inform her community. Surprised at her response and candor, Rodriguez reflected on her mother’s support as indicative of her larger intolerance of inequality and want to help others. She remarks that she was encouraged to use her knowledge to inform and empower those who may not always be able to advocate for themselves.

Close relationships with established trust, such as that between mother and daughter, are crucial to furthering important conversations and movements. As highlighted in Rodriguez’s interview, she discusses a hesitance to talk to her mother about the controversial Planned Parenthood. However, due to the deep respect and trust between each other, a fruitful and surprising conversation arises, one that questions cultural assumptions. Yet her initial worries also suggest that not everyone engaged in sensitive dialogues.

Conforming to traditional cultural notions of femininity proved to be a source of conflict for young Latinas at the time. Some young women state they were encouraged by previous generations to improve their lives through education. Citing the lack of opportunity for one’s mother or grandmother, young Latinas were often told of the financial and personal opportunities education provided. However, others disregard this and stated that women should help their families by seeking the roles of mother and caretaker. Due to expectations to be housewives and mothers, the willingness to become educated or enter the workforce is hindered as women grapple with pleasing both their families and themselves. For some women, working was not an option as they had to help support a family.[23]

While not exclusive to the Latinx community, these issues were exacerbated by an urgency stressed by previous generations to seek marriage and subsequent motherhood at an early age. Such a focus on the role and necessity of motherhood made it seem to be an obligation rather than a choice. Those who married but did not have children right away still felt the obligation to become an ideal wife and mother as soon as possible. Those vocal against these pressures were perceived as rebellious and were met with confusion. With much pressure coming from older individuals, generational differences further fueled tension.

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Many young Latinas discuss an inner conflict that arises as they attempt to seek their passions while maintaining a strong cultural identity. One woman, Gloria Villanueva Jimenez, shares her experiences in an El Universal article. From childhood, she expressed an untraditional attitude towards gender roles and sought to be a leader. She explains that despite her academic accomplishments and interests, her parents questioned her interest in higher education. Over time, however, her relationship with her parents improved as they understood the validity of her choices. She explains that an adherence to tradition is not an issue and many women find fulfillment in motherhood and housewifery. In doing so, she is acknowledging that limited opportunities for women restricts them of their full potential. Restricting Latinas to one role further excludes them from a larger narrative. A mother herself, Jimenez concludes by noting that Latinas unhappy in their roles should ‘break out’ and pursue other routes in life.[24]

Milwaukee may serve as a small reflection of larger national opinions. Issues that the nation faced manifested themselves on a microscale in varying degrees in Milwaukee. However, location specific events had the power to stress the urgency of some issues over others thus making the perspectives of Milwaukee and its residents unique. An initial focus on Roe v. Wade does not encompass the full spectrum of motivations of the Milwaukee Latinx community. While a watershed moment for all women, it was a distinct landmark for Anglo women’s movements during the second wave of modern feminism. Within the Latinx community, as with the larger population, there are a variety of abortion opinions dependent on a several factors. However, due to a host of personal and cultural reasons as well as community events, Milwaukee Latinas did not outright address abortion, let alone the Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade. For instance, local issues such as student demonstrations, unemployment, and access to a quality education held precedent over national issues. Though an important issue, reproductive rights were not always at the forefront for these community activists.

Expanding the voices of women included in a conversation further informs a greater narrative of the complexities of gender issues. A consideration of one’s cultural and geographical location, among other factors, acknowledges the varying circumstances in which individuals experience the world. The analysis of Milwaukee Latina’s activism and their related roles within the community demonstrates the role of context in fueling movements. As presented, the Milwaukee Latinx community established various networks to rectify their most immediate concerns. The power of Latinas has been ever present but they have long been ignored by others. Amplifying these women is crucial to chronicling their legacies as activists and individuals. As organizers, leaders, and mothers, Milwaukee Latinas found empowerment and fulfillment by addressing the specific needs of the community closest to them in their own ways.

















Arenas, Andrea-Teresa, and Eloisa Gomez. 2018. Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Latina    Activists. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018. Reproductive Health: Data and Statistics.     February 16. Accessed 2018.   

Chavez, Jennie V. 2016. “Women of the Mexican American Movement, 1972.” In Women’s     America: Refocusing the Past, by Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron De Hart, Cornelia         Hughes Dayton and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, 733-735. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eschenburg, Beverly, May 9, 1971. “Abortion Legal!” Kaleidoscope.

Erickson, Pamela I., and Celia P. Kaplan. 1998. “Latinas and Abortion.” In The New Civil War:           The Psychology, Culture, and Politics of Abortion, by Linda J. Beckman and S. Marie            Harvey, 133-155. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Espinoza, Mary Lou. 1970. “Latin Leaders Leave Wives at Home.” La Guardia. June. 8.

Gibbons, Jim. 1958. “Abortion & the Law.” Kaleidoscope, March-April 29-11: 5.

Gurda, John. 1976. The Latin Community on Milwaukee’s Near South Side. Milwaukee:        Milwaukee Urban Observatory.

Hoshiko, Sumi. 1993. “Alisia.” In Our Choices: Women’s Personal Decisions About Abortion,     by Sumi Hoshiko, 85-90. Binghamton: Haworth Press.

La Causa Day Care. n.d. “las madres abren daycare center.” La Guardia.

La Guardia Staff. n.d. “cumunal clinicas de salud del sur.” La Guardia.

Longoria, Thomas. 1998. “Gender and Political Participation in the Latino Community.” El          Universal, 5,8.

Moore, Joan. 1998. “The potential for Female Leadership.” El Universal, Winter: 9.

Rodriguez, Maria, interview by Casey Resendez. 2015. Interview with Maria Rodriguez, Fall             2015 Wisconsin Historical Society, (Fall).

Sanchez, Corinne. n.d. “exploitation of machismo.” La Guardia.

Statement of Emily Louis Before the Social Development Commission in Support of Planned             Parenthood Proposal, 16 December 1964, Box 62, Folder 1, Vel Phillips Papers, 1946- 2009, Wisconsin Historical Society, Division of Library Archive and Museum   Collections, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries’ Archives Department.

Statement Presented by Lucius Walker Before the Social Development Commission in Support          of Planned Parenthood Proposal, Box 62, Folder 1, Vel Phillips Papers, 1946-2009,      Wisconsin Historical Society, Division of Library Archive and Museum Collections,             University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries’ Archives Department.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. n.d. UWM Latino Activism.   collections/latino-activism/.

Unknown. n.d. “Mujeres de La Raza.” La Guardia. 3,10.

—. 1971. “Las Chicanas.” The Young Lord, 1.

Villanueva Jimenez, Gloria. 1998. “A Latina Baby Boomer Speaks Out.” El Universal, Winter: 1, 9.

[1] “Reproductive Health: Data and Statistics,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention,                                   February 16. Accessed 2018.


[2] R. Sauer, “Attitudes to Abortion in America, 1800-1973.” Population Studies (1974): 65-66.

[3] Pamela I. Erickson and Celia P. Kaplan, “Latinas and Abortion.” In The New Civil War: The                Psychology, Culture, and Politics of Abortion, by Linda J. Beckman and S. Marie                        Harvey, (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1998), 136-137.

Abortion rates: 47% of Latinos, 51% of Whites, 42% of African-Americans.

[4] Beverly Eschenburg, “Abortion Legal!” Kaleidoscope, May 9, 1971.

[5] Jim Gibbons, “Abortion & the Law,” Kaleidoscope, Apr. 11, 1968.

[6] Emily Louis, “Statement of Emily Louis Before the Social Development Commission in                         Support of Planned Parenthood Proposal,” (Vel Phillips Papers, 1946-2009), December                        16, 1964.

[7] John Gurda, “The Latin Community on Milwaukee’s Near South Side,” (Milwaukee:                           Milwaukee Urban Observatory, 1976), 11-16.

[8] Lucius Walker, “Statement Presented by Lucius Walker Before the Social Development                           Commission in Support of Planned Parenthood Proposal” (Vel Phillips Papers, 1946      -2009).

[9] Pamela I. Erickson and Celia P. Kaplan, “Latinas and Abortion,” 147.

[10] Sumi Hoshiko, “Alisia.” in Our Choices: Women’s Personal Decisions About Abortion, by                 Sumi Hoshiko, (Binghamton: Haworth Press, 1993), 85-90.

[11] “UWM Latino Activism,” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,                -collections/latino-activism/.

[12] Pamela I. Erickson and Celia P. Kaplan, “Latinas and Abortion,” 143.

[13] Andrea-Teresa Arenas and Eloisa Gomez, Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Latina                                Activists (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018), 5.

[14] Thomas Longoria, “Gender and Political Participation in the Latino Community.” El Universal                 (Milwaukee, WI), Winter 1998.

[15] La Guardia Staff, “cumunal clinicas de salud del sur.” La Guardia (Milwaukee, WI).

[16] La Causa Day Care, “las madres abren daycare center.” La Guardia (Milwaukee, WI).

[17] Jennie V. Chavez, “Women of the Mexican American Movement, 1972,” in Women’s                              America: Refocusing the Past, by Linda K. Kerber, Jane Sherron De Hart, Cornelia                 Hughes Dayton and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 733       -735.

Unknown, “Las Chicanas,” The Young Lord (Milwaukee, WI), 1971.

[18] Mary Lou Espinoza, “Latin Leaders Leave Wives at Home,” La Guardia (Milwaukee, WI),                 Jun. 8, 1970.

[19] Corinne Sanchez, “exploitation of machismo,” La Guardia (Milwaukee, WI).

[20] Unknown, “Mujeres de La Raza,” La Guardia (Milwaukee, WI).

[21] Andrea-Teresa Arenas and Eloisa Gomez, Somos Latinas: Voices of Wisconsin Latina                                Activists, 169.

[22] Maria Rodriguez, interview by Casey Resendez, Wisconsin Historical Society, Fall 2015.


[23] Joan Moore, “The potential for Female Leadership,” El Universal (Milwaukee, WI), Winter                   1998.

[24] Gloria Villanueva Jimenez, “A Latina Baby Boomer Speaks Out,” El Universal (Milwaukee,                       WI), Winter 1998.


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