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Remembering Grace Paley (December 11, 1922 – August 22, 2007)

What’s your favorite Grace Paley story? I have The Collected Stories and am ready to get started. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Just As I Thought, and although I’m only about halfway through Part One, I know I want to teach these essays one day, particularly “The Illegal Days,” which begins:

It was the late thirties, and we all knew that birth control existed, but we also knew it was impossible to get. You had to be older and married. You couldn’t get anything in drugstores, unless you were terribly sick and had to buy a diaphragm because your womb was falling out. The general embarrassment and misery around getting birth control were real. . . . We had in common this considerable disgust and anger at the whole situation.”

“The Illegal Days” is a first-person account about a time not so distant or unfamiliar to our own; and at its emotional core is Paley’s important perspective about women’s bodies, women’s reproductive rights, and women’s health in general. She recalls how she woke one morning “bleeding fiercely” and how she feared she was having a miscarriage, since she’d had one before that began with heavy bleeding. When she called her family doctor he refused to see her until she convinced him days later because she had “continued to bleed. . . . for three, four days.” Paley writes:

A good friend had an even clearer experience with this. She also was bleeding at the wrong time, and it didn’t stop. She went to the emergency room here at a Catholic hospital, and they refused to take care of her. They just flatly refused. They said she had to have a rabbit test to see if she was pregnant and the results would take a couple of days. They would not touch her because she might be pregnant, and they might disturb the child. She continued to bleed, and they would not take care of her. She was a little skinny woman; she didn’t have that much blood. Well, she wasn’t pregnant. It turned out she had a tumor. It was an emergency–she had to be operated on immediately.

Your life, a woman’s life, was simply not the first thing that hospital had on its mind at all. Not only that: Even if the doctor had compassion–and in my friend’s case, one of the doctors was very anxious about her–they couldn’t do anything unless they were willing to risk a great deal.

I think women died all the time when abortions were illegal. The horrible abortions were one way; the other way was the refusal of institutions–medical, church, and state–to care for you, their willingness to let you die.

It’s important to be public about this issue, and I have been for years. . . .

These guys who run at the clinics . . . are point men who make the noise and false, hypocritical statements about human life, which they don’t much care about, really. What they really want to do is take back ownership of women’s bodies. They want to return us to a time when even our children weren’t our own; we were simply the receptacles to have these children. . . .

And another point I made is that abortion isn’t what they’re thinking about; they’re really thinking about sex. They’re really thinking about love and reducing it to its most mechanical aspects–that is to say, the mechanical fact of intercourse as a specific act to make children in this world, and thinking of its use in any other way as wrong and wicked. They are determined to reduce women’s normal sexual responses, to end them, really, when we’ve just had a couple of decades of admitting them.

Some other Grace Paley links:

An interview at PEN: “Grace Paley: Open Destiny of Life

Sarah Lawrence College’s “Remembering Grace Paley

The Paris Review interview: “Grace Paley, The Art of Fiction No. 131

Poets & Writers: “An Interview with Poet and Fiction Writer Grace Paley

The New York Times obituary: “Grace Paley 1922-2007

Happy belated birthday, Grace.


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