Faith, Reproductive Politics and Resistance: A Conversation with the Reverend Joan Bates Forsberg

Reverend Joan Bates Forsberg played a notable role in struggles for contraceptive access in the 1950s and 1960s and abortion access in the 1970s. Although her name regularly appears in historical accounts of Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court case that overturned Connecticut’s ban on contraceptives, historians have repeatedly described Forsberg as a minister’s wife or as a graduate student despite the fact that she was an ordained minister and a community activist.

I interviewed Reverend Forsberg for my book-in-progress, Making Choice Sacred, which focuses on the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, the largest abortion referral service in the United States before Roe v. Wade. Made up of Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, and dissident Catholic nuns and priests, the CCS lobbied for the repeal of abortion laws, challenged Catholic anti-abortion activists, and helped women obtain safe abortions in the United States and abroad.

Joan Forsberg. (Courtesy of Yale Divinity School Memorabilia, RG 53, Series 5: Faculty Photos.)
Joan Forsberg. (Courtesy of Yale Divinity School Memorabilia, RG 53, Series 5: Faculty Photos.)

This excerpted oral history with Reverend Forsberg, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, spotlights how her longstanding activism and her religious commitments informed her dedication to reproductive rights. It also provides evidence of the important connections between struggles for racial justice in the 1950s and the reproductive rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Our conversation here focuses on the religious roots of her economic activism and contraceptive-rights activism and her involvement as a state’s witness in Griswold v. Connecticut.

That Forsberg’s radical and religious history has been overlooked reflects a widespread and longstanding cultural and scholarly perception of American religion as opposed to reproductive rights. Most of the foundational literature on the history of reproductive politics was written after 1980 in the wake of the consolidation of the Christian Right. Consequently many historians have unintentionally adopted a conservative narrative, which views religion as a repressive force that resists reproductive choice. Contributing to Forsberg’s erasure has been the fact that historians have reproduced contemporary newspaper accounts, which described her as a “New Haven housewife” married to a clergyman. Thus, Forsberg’s dynamic past and the ways in which her faith informed her contraceptive rights activism have been misunderstood.

Forsberg’s own words reveal the importance of her religious activism to her struggle for contraceptive access. They remind us that reproductive rights, as we know it now, took shape as an ecumenical religious and liberal political project led by many activists, including courageous and dynamic women and men of faith.

I was born in 1928 into a schoolteachers’ family. Both of my parents were teachers in Chatham, a small suburban all-white town in New Jersey. I grew up Congregationalist. My parents were very active in church. My mother was a Sunday school superintendent for many years. A lot of my religious training, my memory of her leading worship, or telling the stories in worship or watching her, much later on I realized these were my first images of a woman in ministry. Lots of women later on said they never saw a woman in the pulpit, and I realized I had that image of my mother, which helped shape me.

I went to college. I first wanted to go into radio broadcasting back in the 1940s. My folks agreed I could go. I went off to what was then Endicott Junior College in Beverly, Massachusetts, which had training in radio broadcasting. I was blissfully happy there. But at the end of my first year at Endicott I went off to a church youth conference. I was a counselor at a church youth conference and it was a very moving week. At the end of the week at the regular fireside service, there was a call to what they called “full time Christian service,” I had this absolute distinct sense of being called into that. I had a very untraditional response of, “Yes that is me! Yes!”

I answered the call to the ministry. I went back and changed my major in college. I went on to Drew University and graduated from Brothers College of Drew University in New Jersey in 1950. I lived in Chatham and was commuting there and finished school there and majored in philosophy and the Bible.

The summer that I felt called and talked about going into ministry. I asked some ministers at the conference, “What do you do? How do you prepare for that? Where do you go after college?” One of them said, “If you want to do Christian education go to Union Theological Seminary in New York. If you want to really go into the ministry go to Yale Divinity School.” So I applied to Yale not knowing at that point that Yale Divinity School admitted only ten women a year of all the people who applied.

After I sent in my application as I finished college somebody said to me “Oh don’t be disappointed they only take ten women a year. You have very little chance of getting in.” That was a little scary but I made it.

I entered Yale Divinity School in 1950 and graduated in 1953. I majored in campus ministry. I met a fellow student there in my first year, Bob Forsberg. The Reverend Carl Robert Forsberg. We were engaged by the end of my first year and married the end of my second year. He was called to work with the poor. He had committed his life to voluntary poverty, and he was already living in the slums of New Haven in the inner city. I was ordained January 1954 and began working in ministry in 1954.

So we graduated together, moved into the tenements in the inner city and were there until the city redeveloped that area. We then moved to another inner city area in New Haven, the Dixwell area. I worked doing various things. We had a storefront church. I preached. I did calling. I did all kinds of pastoral stuff. I also just tried to be a neighbor. I think that was a piece of it. I had neighbors that just wanted to talk a lot. And then very shortly we had kids. Then I was home as a mom. Or I was out. I’d go hither and thither with a kid in a stroller being active in the neighborhood that way.

Our group ministry was men and women of different ages and different denominations.

We started a few years after the East Harlem Protestant Parish and we modeled our form of group ministry on theirs where we all shared our budgets and had an organized life and set disciplines. It was Protestants trying to figure out how to survive and work together in an urban situation. Roman Catholics of course knew how to do that. They had discipline. These Protestants, we were all so freewheeling. We had to set up our own sets of disciplines. The one that unnerved our families the most was that we all shared our budgets at the beginning of every year.

The living in the neighborhood was not what most Protestant clergy were doing. How would we know what people were going through if we weren’t going through it? You can’t live outside and commute into a slum and talk to people about the problems they’re having with rats and cold and hard landlords and that kind of stuff unless you’re experiencing it. It’s fake somehow. At least we felt that you had to be part of it in order to talk about a “we” in the church. It was clear to us we needed to be there.

You know there’s one way you can’t ever really identify totally at that level and that is we always had an escape route. If things really, really got bad, if we ever had a terrible illness and if something really awful had happened, we had white relatives out in the suburbs and we could always go to them. We always had an escape route. We knew that. Our neighbors knew that. When we talked about “us” in the neighborhood they knew that they were there and probably stuck there and that we were there by choice and weren’t stuck there. It was very poignant in a way. You want to share and to really be family and brothers and sisters in a Christian context. And yet we always knew that some brothers and sisters had it better than some others.

We were there because we were called by God to meet a need in God’s world. And the church needed to be there, and that’s what we were doing. It was always in the context of a call to ministry and whatever that form of ministry might be. It wasn’t political organizing. That’s not what we were doing. It wasn’t cold social action. It was always in the context of that we were there because we thought God cared about the city and most churches had forgotten about it. It acted out in political terms but that wasn’t the motivation. It was sometimes the result. The motivation was always how to help bring the reign of God, the life that God envisioned for people here on earth.

Before we had the three kids, I was still in school when we got married. We have to back up to that point. I had finished my second year. We got married. I was determined to finish my degree and go into the ministry. I had a very strong sense that a woman was responsible for contraception. My mother had talked to me about contraception and taking responsibility in marriage for planning your family. That seemed very matter of fact and obvious to me.

A 1906 political cartoon in Puck titled "St. Anthony Comstock, the Village nuisance." (L. M. Glackens/US Library of Congress)
A 1906 political cartoon in Puck titled “St. Anthony Comstock, the Village nuisance.” (L. M. Glackens/US Library of Congress)

However, here I was in good old Connecticut, which was a heavily Roman Catholic state and it had a law that had been in for a long time, which said that birth control for married couples as well as anybody else was illegal. So what is one to do about this? And that is how I backed into all this other stuff. I backed into the Griswold case way before the Griswold case simply because I was a woman who wanted to plan my own family and lived in Connecticut and had to do something about the birth control issue.

What I did about it was drive down over the border into New York state to Planned Parenthood Center in Rye, New York. We didn’t have enough money. We didn’t have money for a private OBGYN. I’m sure that folks that went to private OBGYN people could get fitted for diaphragms and prescriptions for birth control because the doctor knew them and nobody was going to turn anybody in to the state.

But if you went to the clinic — as I did — at Grace New Haven Hospital, there was no way they were going to break the law and do anything about offering birth control. I can remember being in an examining room and overhearing a woman on the other side of the curtain. The doctor was saying to her, “But you have eight children and you must not have another one. Your body can’t take it. You must not have another child.” And she’s saying, “Are you going to help me doctor? What are you going to do?” And he’s saying, “There’s nothing I can do. I can’t help you.”

So I’d heard about the Planned Parenthood clinic in Port Chester. What I did was drive down to Rye, New York periodically to get birth control there. What that led to was my neighbors in our inner city parish saying — they would tease me: “You’re going to get pregnant. You’re going to stub your toe and have a kid.” And I kept saying, “No I’m going to finish school and plan my family.” So we would have these conversations. I’d say, “No, no, no there’s things you can do. I see a doctor in New York.” Eventually they would say, “Can I go with you? Do you have room in your car?” Eventually, for several years, I was driving a van load of women and myself down across the state border to Rye, New York.

These were my neighbors. They were mostly young black women. That was the neighborhood. I had a rule in my own head, that I never raised the topic with anybody. It was very clear to me that somebody else’s family planning or the way they raised their kids was their business. And particularly in a black neighborhood, it’s not up to a white person to say, “You ought to use birth control.” I wasn’t about to coerce anybody or convince anybody but if they asked me I would say, “Sure there’s room in the van. Come on!”

It’s about an hour down to Rye from New Haven and then we’d spend a little time there and grab a hamburger and then come back. I learned a lot in those van trips listening to those conversations. I also learned that a number of women would bring home birth control and their husbands wouldn’t allow them to use it. I learned a lot of wild things that people did in terms of trying to prevent pregnancy that I’d never heard of. I learned a lot. We would make these trips down and drive down and then there’d be lots of joking coming back. “Did the cops follow us? Anybody see the police? We’re border running!”

It was kind of an intimate seminar room in that van coming and going. It made me very aware of situations of many women beside myself. When you’re in a situation like a state that does not allow you legally to use birth control and to be responsible for planning your family. Now you understand that you could buy and sell — it was perfectly legal for drug stores to buy and sell condoms and spermicidal jellies and stuff — it was perfectly legal to buy it. You just couldn’t use it when you got home. The ridiculousness of that was just more than you could stand sometimes.

While I was in seminary, and all during those years, every two years Protestant clergy and some others would go to Hartford to the legislature to try to get rid of the Comstock law, which was on the books. This was the law that said “you couldn’t do this,” that said “no contraception for married couples.” It was a no-no. Well the Comstock laws had been put on the books by a fervent Protestant clergy person for heaven’s sake. So the Catholics in the state legislature would say “Well the Protestants put this on the books and we’re simply upholding it.” And no Catholic legislators were going to stand up and say their name and vote for birth control. So every two years the effort to get rid of the law got shot down.

So then what were you going to do? The law wasn’t going anywhere. As I said, if you had enough money you could get a private OBGYN and that took care of it. If you didn’t, you just had lots more kids than maybe you wanted. Or you went to Port Chester as I did. My whole concern that got me into Griswold — and all this stuff was very personal — it had to do with me and planning my life and planning my family. It wasn’t any great high noble cause or philosophical cause at all. It was very basic.

I guess it was after I had the third kid and I saw in the New Haven newspaper a notice that they were going to test the law in Connecticut and that Planned Parenthood was going to open a clinic in defiance of the law. They were going to open a clinic New Haven, Connecticut on Trumbull Street. And I said “Behold! They’re coming close to me! Hot dog!” So I called up.

They said the first week it would be open, I think, Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

I called up and said, “Could I get an appointment?” I got an appointment for the early evening, I think it was the Wednesday, not the Monday. The week that it opened, the police were outside. The New Haven police were outside. There was a lot of press. A lot of hubbub. The whole thing was illegal. Mrs. Griswold was there. Dr. Buxton. A lot of hubbub.

Bob drove me to the clinic. He was very supportive. My neighbor came too. I joked with my neighbor that they may have to come get me out of jail. The second evening, Wednesday, there was no police, no hubbub. I saw Mrs. Griswold. A different doctor saw me and prescribed the pills. On my way out the door I saw Mrs. Griswold there. I just said to her, “Thank you so much for doing this for us. I know this is a risk for you. But it’s certainly helpful for us and if there’s anything I can do to help you let me know.” And she said “thank you,” and smiled and out we went. I wanted to help her. I was so pleased she was doing this on behalf of all the women. I wanted to be aboard with her getting rid of that law on behalf of all the women, get it to the Supreme Court and get rid of this problem.

Estelle Griswold outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in 1963. (Lee Lockwood, Time & Life/Wikimedia)
Estelle Griswold outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in 1963. (Lee Lockwood, Time & Life/Wikimedia)

Two days later it was Friday. The clinic opened. The police arrived and shut it down and took Mrs. Griswold and Dr. Buxton down to fingerprint them. I read it in the papers. That was Friday. Saturday morning the phone rang. “Joan this is Mrs. Griswold, Estelle Griswold,” she said, “You said the other day, if there was anything you can do to help to let you know. There is something you can do to help.” I said, “Ok… what would that be?” She said, “We need you to turn state’s evidence and we’re going to take this to court and fight it in court but we need people who were there to turn state’s evidence and go to court with us.”

I said, “You want me to testify against you and Dr. Buxton in court?” She said, “Yes! Yes! That’s the only way we can get this thing in the works and fight the law.” I said, “Ok… Can I keep my pills?” She said, “Yes.” That’s how I got into the Griswold case.

It was kind of fascinating. I went down to the New Haven police station to be interviewed by Detective John Blazi. I didn’t exactly remember him but I started to talk and he said, “Just a minute, Forsberg… Forsberg… Are you married to the guy who used to keep the storefront church down there on Oak Street?” And I said, “Yeah…” “I used to be the cop on the beat! I used to go by that church all the time.” We lapsed into about ten minutes of personal recollections. He said, “You remember Sneaky Pete?” “Yeah! He walked through our plate glass window!” Then he said, “Oh! Ok! We’ve gotta talk about this case” and then he took down information on me. But it was sort of funny that I ended up with somebody who knew my name. It was not at all terrifying to talk to a policeman as I thought it had might be. He made me turn over my pills. Then several weeks or months later we actually went to court.

And there were three women. One was I think from England who was a student, a social work student at Yale. And somebody from Dixwell maybe? The wife of the director of Dixwell Community Center. The three of us were there. It was only one day. I remember I had never testified in court before. I remember thinking, “What should I wear?” I dressed in my most demure dress and tried to be very proper. It had little heart shaped buttons down the front. It was very demure. It was brown with a little white pattern in it. I certainly didn’t go looking like a clergy person. I was trying to feel comfortable and look proper.

I got called up to the stand. I’d never testified in court before. The lawyer asked my name. I don’t remember what order the questions came in. He asked about my having gone to the clinic and did I see Mrs. Griswold and did the doctor examine me and was I given a prescription. And I said, “yes.” I remember he stopped dead in his tracks and looked at me and he said, “And have you used it?” These were the birth control pills they had given me. And I said, “Yes!” And he paced back and forth a little and then he turned right in front of me and he said, “And did it work?” I remember trying not to be sarcastic or appalled or anything just trying to be very demure. In the back of my head I said to myself, “I devoutly hope so.” But I think what I said out loud was, “I don’t know yet.” What I most remember about this was at the very end, he paced back and forth in front of me, not saying anything, he went to one side and went to the other and then he came and stopped dead in front of me, and he looked at me and said, “Are you married?” I thought that was an outrageous question at that point. It looked like he was trying to embarrass me. He already knew. I answered all the questions and I waited to see what would happen as it went to trial.

Epilogue

Reverend Forsberg’s 1962 testimony that she used birth control pills obtained from Planned Parenthood in New Haven enabled the state to convict and fine Estelle Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton for providing illegal contraception. More than that, it allowed Griswold and her allies to challenge this conviction all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that Connecticut’s ban on contraceptives violated the right to marital privacy. In his majority decision, Justice William Douglas sacralized marital sexuality writing, “Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred.”

Although Forsberg’s involvement role in Griswold ended with her testimony, her reproductive rights activism continued as did her pathbreaking role in expanding women’s presence in ministry. She became program director at the Ecumenical Center for Continuing Education for Clergy at Yale University. In 1970, she joined the Connecticut branch of the Clergy Consultation Service through which she counseled women with “problem pregnancies” and helped them obtain abortions. She subsequently led Yale Divinity School’s Women’s Center, and she later became an assistant and then an associate Dean for Student Life at Yale. She held the latter position until her retirement in 1993. You can listen to a 1975 recording of her sermon on International Women’s Year.

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One Comment

Donna Schaper

WHAT A MARVELOUS INTERVIEW! THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH. JOAN FORSBERG MARRIED WARREN AND I AND WAS MY HEROINE FOR EVER. SHE STILL IS TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH.

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