February 1991
By Laura Fraser
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark

When Mary Ellen Mark arrived in Winnemucca to shoot this month's story on Nevada's abortion law, the town was stark and barren. "It was a bit like reliving a western film," says the photographer, who has traveled the world over with her camera for more than twenty years. Her work has appeared in more than forty magazines, including Life, Time, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. Currently she is at work on her eighth book, Mary Ellen Mark: Twenty‑Five Years, A Retrospective (Bulfinch), due out in September. Much of the book focuses on India, where she has photographed Mother Theresa, street children, and circus life. Says Mark, "Famous people are photographed so many times it's difficult for them to relax. But for the unfamous, it's something special." Mark shares her interest in India with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, who joined her there in 1989 to research the screenplay he is working on with John Irving. When not in India, the couple lives in New York City.

Says Mark of working on the abortion referendum story, "Usually when I tell people what magazine I'm working for, they give me a hard time. But when I mention I'm working for Vogue, I get all the time I want. Everybody wants to be in Vogue."


There was a chance to keep abortion legal in Nevada, even if Roe v. Wade was overturned‑if the women played their cards right. Laura Fraser followed the campaign that might signal where the nation is headed

Pro‑choice activist Harriet Trudell and her grandson, Tres, at home in Las Vegas.

Donna Rogers and Pro‑Life Andy Anderson (his legal name) demonstrated against abortion in Reno.

It is a long way to just about anywhere in Nevada. The distances stretch across vast sagebrush plains, broken up only by bare hills, telephone I poles, and billboards for loose slots and cheap motels. The ranches, mining towns, and cities are spread out and isolated; it isn't easy to get Nevadans together.

But when the state's Planned Parenthood director, Louise Bayard‑de‑Volo, invited several women she knew to come to Reno to talk about saving Nevada's right to abortion, they came from all over. They came from Carson City and from Vegas, and they came from groups as politically divergent as the Junior League and the National Organization for Women. Some thirty‑five of the state's most active women organizers gathered because they knew Nevada was in trouble.

It was July 1989, and the Webster decision giving states a freer hand in restricting women's access to abortion had just come down from the Supreme Court. Already talk of bills making abortion outright illegal in Nevada was circulating in the corridors of the state legislature, which is heavily dominated by Mormon, Catholic, and other antiabortion interests. Democratic governor Bob Miller had announced that he would happily sign any bill restricting abortion that crossed his desk. In one of the most conservative states in the union (Nevada hasn't voted for a Democratic president since John F. Kennedy), it looked as if the days of liberal abortion laws were numbered.

State senator Sue Wagner told the women in Reno that there might still be a chance to keep abortion unrestricted in Nevada. Better yet, they could keep it legal even if Roe v. Wade was overturned‑if they played their cards right. The conservatives in the state, she argued, would vote to protect choice, if they were approached the right way. After all, Nevadans revel in their anything‑goes attitude‑their legal gambling and brothels, instant marriages and divorces. They hate government intrusion (the feds own 87 percent of Nevada land, which accounts for a good deal of the resentment), and they hate taxes more. They want to keep Uncle Sam out of their back pockets‑and their bedrooms.

 "I'm a Republican, and I think pro‑choice is a conservative position," said Wagner, who went on to become the state's lieutenant governor. "We want to keep the government out of our lives. That's a Republican principle, and a pretty typical attitude in Nevada, regardless of party."

The statute on the books in Nevada when Webster came down was virtually the same as Roe v. Wade (it made abortions for any reason legal up to the twenty‑fourth week of pregnancy). The legislature, it seemed, had every intention of changing that statute. But in Nevada, the people can take a law out of the hands of the legislature by holding a referendum, voting yes or no on keeping the law on the books. So if people voted to affirm the abortion statute‑the strategy Wagner was suggesting‑it might as well be written in stone.

If, on the other hand, the referendum didn't pass, the law would be erased. And then, if Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court, Nevada would revert to an older law from the days when abortion was a crime. By pushing for a referendum, the women were risking everything.

"It's a huge gamble, all right," said Mylan Hawkins, coordinator for the movement born of that meeting in Reno, the Campaign for Choice, as the November 1990 election drew near. "But we're a gambling state, and we've got good numbers, and all we can say is, don't crap out on us."

Those kinds of odds didn't sit well with pro‑choice leaders back East, recalls Maya Miller, who is serving as sage, strategist, and occasional deep pocketbook for the Campaign for Choice. Miller, seventy‑five, has long‑standing ties to the national women's movement; in 1974, during NOW's first push to get women into public office, she made an unsuccessful Democratic bid for U.S. Senate in Nevada. "The nationals were afraid to have us out here doing this lone, loose‑gun operation," she says, sitting in her wide‑windowed ranch house, the sun streaming in through golden apple trees. Miller lives on what used to be a divorce ranch, where socialites from New York came to ride horses, drink cocktails, flirt with the cowboys (an East Coast newspaper once sent a photographer out to see what was so darn special about that Washoe Pines wrangler), and otherwise establish residency for six weeks before getting their quickie divorces. Local legend has it that Clare Boothe Luce wrote the play The Women at another dude ranch, as the locals politely called them, just down the road.

The East Coast groups had some reason to fear the Nevadans. For one thing, the nationals were pushing an electoral strategy‑getting as many pro‑choice politicians into office as possible‑and they wanted the states to fall in line. For another, they'd been burned before by referenda and were afraid this one might be bungled. Not only had Nevada women sustained a crushing setback with an Equal Rights Amendment referendum in 1978 (a campaign organized by many of the same women who put together the Campaign for Choice), but two pro‑choice referenda in Colorado and Michigan had gone down recently, denting the coffers of the national groups in the process. "Planned Parenthood wanted to send someone out to dissuade us from doing this," says Miller, chuckling. The National Abortion Rights Action League was similarly discouraging. After a long conversation with an organizer from NARAL, Miller remembers, the woman told her, "I don't know whether my board will agree to that." Miller replied, indignant, "Well, what does your board have to do with it?" NARAL knew the Campaign for Choice needed to find funding, but Miller insisted that if they had to, they'd raise it themselves. Except for one donation from NOW, the Campaign for Choice raised all the money needed to put the referendum on the ballot in its own state.

The national groups had other beefs with the Nevadans. Some wanted them to write an initiative that would be more liberal, preventing parental‑ or spousal‑consent restrictions and providing funding for abortions for poor women. The American Civil Liberties Union was concerned that the language of the existing law in Nevada was more restrictive than that of Roe v. Wade. But the women from the Sagebrush State decided to go with what they had‑they didn't want to push their luck‑and rebelled against the national groups. "We had to establish our independence," says Miller. "National groups have no concept of politics in Nevada."

After the nationals stopped meddling, the women in the Campaign for Choice began wrangling among themselves, mainly over the question of image. On one side were the Junior League women, most of them Republicans, who wanted to avoid using the A word in the campaign, concentrating instead on "choice." They didn't want street fighting or demonstrations, and they didn't want to associate themselves with the failed ERA campaign. On the other side were feminist politicos from NOW and Catholics for Choice, who had been involved in a widely publicized, often physical clash with Operation Rescue, which was attempting to blockade abortion clinics in Las Vegas. They wanted a more strident campaign, emphasizing the word "abortion." Says Miller, "It was the ladies versus the grubbies." It took her and another peacemaker, Maggie Tracey (who became the campaign chair by virtue of her willingness to talk calmly to anyone on the phone for any length of time, says Miller), to bring the two sides together. "The ladies' strain won over," says Miller. "But we made sure the sweatshirts, who'd been working in the trenches, were respected."

Polls and focus groups confirmed that the ladylike approach was best. "In the focus groups, people were unclear about the emotional issues around abortion," says Miller, who sat through several sessions. "But it was very clear that people would go with 'choice.' A whole libertarian mentality surfaced, with gung‑ho workingmen saying the government should be out of our busi­ness." And in fact, when the Campaign for Choice set about getting petitions, using the slogan BECAUSE YOUR PERSONAL LIFE IS NONE OF THE GOVERNMENT'S BUSINESS!, they got almost eighty thousand signatures, more than had ever been collected on any referendum in the state's history.

"It's part of this whole free attitude, the free spirit about sex," says Miller, referring to the state's penchant for scantily clad showgirls and open prostitution. "You can't set up women as the object of your entertainment and not have abortion be available." Miller looks out over the divorce ranch, where tiny redwood cabins nestle in the pines and the lodge with its sloping porch stands empty, used only occasionally now by retreat groups or for fashion shoots. It's natural, she muses, that abortion should be legal in the only state where both gambling and prostitution are allowed; someday‑she hopes not‑Nevada might be one of only a few safe states for an abortion. She glances slyly at her daughter. "How would you like to set up Washoe Pines as an abortion ranch?" she asks. Then, gravely, she shrugs. "We could do worse."

Out on the campaign trail, Mylan Hawkins stops in Winnemucca, a small town in the heart of the cow counties known to outsiders as a place to stop along 1‑80 when you just can't drive any farther. There's a meeting at the library to rouse support for Question 7, the pro‑choice referendum. It has been rumored that the local Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly's antiabortion group) will picket, and though they don't come, neither do many supporters. There are thirteen in all, including one man. But that's more than showed up in Elko.

Hawkins, a stylish computer consultant from Reno, makes a speech to the women seated in their knit pants, appliquéd blouses, and hairdos frozen in time. "This is not an issue about abortion," she tells them. "It's about whether or not this state or the federal government can tell you what to do." She pushes the bias buttons the cow counties are known for, pointing out that if the legislature gets at the abortion law, it'll take the taxpayers' time‑and money‑to wrestle it out. Legal fees to take restrictive amendments to the courts in the past, for instance, totaled about $350,000 for Nevadans. And if abortions become hard to obtain, she says, there will be more women and children who need public assistance. "Look what happens to eastern states, and see how they're swamped with welfare," she says. Members of the audience are nodding. "Do we give up this right and open up the door to more government?" she asks. "No, not in Nevada."

A couple of women agree but say they're afraid to put up pro‑choice signs on their property. "This is a small town," says one. "A lot of people are afraid to speak up because of their jobs." But by the end of the meeting, two or three have agreed to take signs, and others say they'll talk to their friends. The man in the cowboy hat, David Canter, vows that no one's going to touch a sign on his property. He and his wife are Republicans and strong believers in choice. "If they take away a woman's right to choice," he says, "then they might try to take away my right to bear arms."

Down the street, past the casinos and churches, live several women who share many of the sentiments of the people at the library, but from more direct personal experience. They live on a discreet dirt cul‑de‑sac off the main road where several houses glow with neon signs‑the Pussycat Saloon, Villa Joy, My Place. Inside Simone de Paris, past the bar, five women of various ages sit around a dining table, eating dinner and ironing their clothes before they start work.

Therese, in patterned leggings and a cut‑off T‑shirt, looks about thirty‑five but says she's twenty‑three. She has four children and bore the first one at the age of twelve, after a doctor refused to perform an abortion because she didn't have her parents' consent. "I didn't have any options, and I don't think children should be having babies," she says. "If a person isn't ready to be a parent, what happens to the child? All the taxpayers who voted no on abortion will pay for it, along with everyone else. And the child becomes a victim of circumstance." Therese says she's working here temporarily, making money to send to her kids in Las Vegas (where prostitution is illegal).

Gigi, a heavily powdered fortyish woman in a black camisole and beret, says she thinks Question 7 will pass.' 'Nevada gives people more of a choice," she says. "They legalized prostitution, so you'd think they'd be for it."

"You'd better believe it," laughs Lisa, a muscular woman with glitter sprinkled on her neck. "Most of the guys who come through here are definitely pro‑choice, just from the fact that they hang out in whorehouses."

"That," says the madam, Virginia, sternly, "is not a discussion that should come up on dates.'

[Insert caption: ‘It’s a huge gamble, all right. But we’re a gambling state, and we’ve got good numbers, and all we can say is, don’t crap out on us

All the women giggle. Virginia leaves, and Lisa continues. "Look, I bet 80 percent of the men in Nevada have at least checked out the brothels," she says, twirling a silver shoe. "And you know how they're going to vote."

Las Vegas showgirl Janet Ford collected signatures backstage at Bally's to put abortion on the ballot. "Freedom of choice is what America is all about.

In Carson City, with its neat blocks of square houses, the matter doesn't seem so certain. The NO ON 7 signs are on lawns everywhere, and at the Nevada Day parade, children clamor to carry bright red NO ON 7 balloons. As the high school bands, Indian princesses, and flashing sheriff's cars pass, Louise Bayard‑de‑Volo passes out Choose Choice literature to the crowds on the sidewalk. She's reminding those who take the literature to vote, because in Nevada, people with a laissez‑faire attitude about government, people who might vote for choice, often don't vote at all. Bystanders pelt her with insults‑"Baby killer," "Murderer"‑and she looks worried. "I'm running into a lot of noes today," she frets.

The crowd's opinion is mixed. Ask the woman in fringed boots drinking peach coolers with three rowdies in the back of a pickup, and she says, "Sure. They'll have unwanted kids and who'll support them? Us taxpayers, that's who." Ask a casino bartender in a feathered cowboy hat, and he tells you,

'I'm from the era where girls had to go to Tijuana for an abortion, and I'd rather see 'em legal." Tommy with the beer, boots, and cigarette mumbles, "It's none of the government's damn business."

But the woman standing quietly with her husband won't talk. He explains, "She doesn't have no opinions," and then says he's voting no. A Mormon firefighter in his fifties says he's voting no because ''abortion shouldn't be used for birth control.'' His wife, too, refuses to say anything. A woman standing near the man passing out the red balloons says, "I don't believe we have a choice to kill unborn children." And Pro‑Life Andy Anderson (his legal name) is an attraction himself. Standing near his parked car, which is plastered with pro‑life bumper stickers and photos of fetuses, he tells all who pass by about his granddaughter who was "murdered" by abortion.

In Sparks, outside of Reno, Janine Hansen briskly runs the Choose Life campaign to defeat Question 7. In the cluttered shopping‑mall office are several volunteers stuffing envelopes, with Pro‑Life Andy Anderson providing running commentary. Hansen's children, who are schooled at home, study in a room behind the campaign office. Hansen, a bright‑eyed, no­ nonsense woman, claims her group will defeat the referendum. "Nevada technically allows abortion through the ninth month," she says. "We feel a great majority of people believe in reasonable limitations." Her campaign literature, passed out door‑to‑door in nearly every Nevada neighborhood, asks voters to consider whether abortion should be allowed for sex selection, birth control, or up to the ninth month of pregnancy.

Hansen admits the pro‑choice opposition does appeal to the antigovernment spirit of Nevadans. "But the government tells you what to do every day. They tell you you can't drink and drive. They tell you what to do with your garbage. Isn't it a legitimate function of government to protect life?" Hansen says that her campaign has focused not on the issue of when life begins, but on a bad law. Through the referendum, she says, Nevadans would be locking in a law that can't be changed. "I don't know of any time when a vote of the people has been reversed in Nevada. It's almost impossible to overturn a referendum," she says. "We feel if we lose this, we may be locked out for ten or twenty years."

But Hansen is optimistic. As the statewide coordinator of the Stop ERA campaign in 1978, she's been in a situation where the polls told her she was behind. She won that time, overwhelmingly, largely due to last‑minute church support. ''We'll win,'' she says flatly. ''We've had daily prayer in the office, and we've put feet on our prayers. Now it's up to God. "

Seventy‑five‑year‑old Maya Miller, a pro‑choice activist who once rain for Senate, at home on her Reno ranch

The women wrangled over their image. The Junior Leaguers wanted to avoid the A word. The feminist politicos wanted a strident campaign. "The ladies' strain won."