Black Politicians and Abortion Rights: Lloyd Barbee and Wisconsin's Abortion Law

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 12:10 PM
Chicago Ballroom VIII (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Nicola K. Beisel, Northwestern University
Between 1965 and 1971, African American state legislators introduced bills to reform
or repeal abortion laws in New York, Illinois, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Michigan,
and Wisconsin. With the exception of Dorothy Brown, a physician who introduced
legislation to reform Tennessee’s abortion law in 1967, these legislators are ignored
in extant historiography – and, with the exception of Brown, these politicians were
men. This paper focuses on the work of Lloyd Barbee, who introduced a bill to reform
Wisconsin’s abortion law in 1965, and in 1967 became the first politician in the nation
to introduce legislation that would repeal a state abortion law, and thus legalize abortion.
Barbee is the only black state legislator who worked to legalize abortion who has left an
extensive archival record. These records show his evolving thought on the meaning and
politics of abortion, as well as his collaboration with early women’s rights advocates who
persuaded him that the decision to abort should be made by women, not physicians.

Barbee is remembered as the attorney who led the fight to desegregate Milwaukee’s
schools, not as a pioneer in the struggle for reproductive rights. Feminist historiography
has largely credited the radical branch of the feminist movement with formulating and
popularizing the notion that abortion is a woman’s right. But Barbee’s papers tell a more
complex and interesting story. From the beginning, the struggle for reproductive rights
has been intertwined with the struggle for racial justice.

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation