The Woman in the Photo


It's unlikely that you met her in person. But you might have met her in death if you were reading about the Roe vs. Wade decision in Ms. Magazine back in April 1973. This is her story—at least some of it.

Geraldine "Gerri" Twerdy Santoro was born on August 16, 1935 and raised with 14 siblings on the farm of a Ukrainian-American family in Coventry, Connecticut. She was always a fun-loving, tree-climbing girl who later became a free-spirited adolescent, an eager young wife, and later the devoted mother of two daughters. This idyllic description of rural life in the years pre- and post-World War II quickly evaporates when you learn that Gerri was also the victim of years of domestic abuse at the hands of a cold, self-hating, and bigoted man—Sebastian "Sam" Santoro—whom she had naively and impulsively married at age 18. As a young bride in 1953 determined to get married before her best friend did, she subsequently endured years of abuse to try to save her marriage. She left Sam after she saw him repeatedly beat and whip their daughters with a belt.

Trying to build a new life, Gerri met a kinder, married, and smooth-talking 43 year-old man at the training school where they both worked. Clyde Dixon was completely different from her husband and Gerri, now 28 but still with dreams of a more hopeful future, talked of marrying Clyde and living in a big house with him and her daughters. But it was not to be. She became pregnant and when she learned that Sam was returning from California to see her and the girls, Gerri feared for her life and the lives of her daughters. She and Clyde checked into a motel on June 8, 1964 with the intent that Clyde would perform the abortion, using surgical instruments and a textbook that he had obtained from a co-worker. But she started to hemorrhage and Clyde panicked, leaving her by herself in the hotel room. Gerri died alone and in pain, discovered by the motel cleaning woman.

The utter tragedy of her needless death during these years of unsafe and illegal abortion in the United States is further compounded when we imagine her fear and desperation as her bleeding increased and she tried to stem the flow of the heavy, warm blood with towels. She must have been in abject agony, terrified, knowing that she was going to die, and that she would never see her beloved daughters again. These were Gerri's last hours: alone, suffering, writhing in pain in an impersonal motel room, and perhaps, in her delirium, realizing that the two men she had tried to love in her life had used her and completely failed her.

As had society—which at the time ignored the realities of women's lives and allowed unsafe abortions and domestic violence to silently flourish in U.S. society. But the silence would soon end.

Perhaps you know women like Gerri. Many of us have, or have heard of, the sad and frightening stories such as these from the "bad old days" full of the pain, maiming, and deaths of sisters, mothers, grandmothers, cousins, friends, and neighbors during the years of unsafe and self-induced abortion. When Ms. Magazine published the now-iconic and explicit photo of Gerri as she was found in the motel, I remember clearly that I was taken aback by the grainy image of a woman on her stomach, with her legs under her chest, her face pressed against the carpet and bloody towels between her legs, nude, alone—and lifeless. (Warning: graphic photo.)

I remember that I cried. A lot. And became angry as I felt the horror and the chills of such an event and that we lived in a world that allowed this. And like many, this image of a young dead woman lying in her blood in a motel room was part of my awakening and growth as a young feminist determined to work on behalf of women rights and women's lives.

But Gerri was so much more than the horrific way she died. In death, she became a symbol for the struggle and necessity for safe and legal abortion. But in life, she was a remarkable, loving, and strong woman.

When her older sister Leona Gordon saw the photo in Ms., she recognized Gerri and was determined to have her story told. The 1995 movie "Leona's Sister Gerri" is the result. The images and photos of a smiling, happy, and hopeful young Gerri are equally compelling and heart-breaking as those who love her talk about the real and vivacious person in the famous and shocking photo.

Today, June 8th, is the 43rd anniversary of Gerri's death; she would have been 72 years old this year if the bigotry and ignorance of the anti-abortion laws and attitudes of her time had not abandoned her and left her to die. As we note the advances of the anti-choice movement both domestically and internationally, it appears our world today is attempting to go back to those times.

See and know Gerri Santoro's story to remember and to ensure that it does not. Her life and her death may come to haunt you also.

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  • choice-joyce

    Thanks Marcy, for remembering Gerri Santoro, and helping to give her back her humanity and dignity – ripped away from her by the inhumane laws of the day against women. Heartbreaking! Can't believe so many people are trying to take us back to those nightmare days.

  • http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/comment/reply/3611 invalid-0

    Marcy–I can remember, too, how profoundly this photo affected me. It has burned in my heart throughout a lifetime of working to help create a world in which women are treated with humanity. Thank you for sharing about Gerri’s life. This story reminds me, once again, that abortion is just ONE of women’s reproductive experiences. We have allowed it to be separated through fear and political prejudice and thus allowed it to be treated as a political football. There are no “sides” to abortion any more than there are to infertility, childbirth, miscarriage, adoption, or still birth. Each of these is unique to the woman and the circumstance. Separating these experiences is just one more attempt to pit one woman against another–to define who are the good ones and the bad ones. We must not allow anyone else to set our agendas or define what is important to us. We must give up our secrets and join hands to demand a world on our own terms.

  • invalid-0

    is my mom. Thank you for remembering.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you,Joannie, for writing. Please know..and I believe that you do..that many women and men still remember your mother and we mourn her death as we also remember her life. I trust that you know that her memory is very precious to many of us.

    Please take care…my thoughts are with you and your family.

    Always,Marcy Bloom

  • invalid-0

    Thaks you, Joyce, for remembering that Gerri’s story is truly all about her life,dignity, and humanity. It’s tragic that, more than 40 years later, we still have to be writing about, and working against, the sexist and horrific laws and attitudes that killed Gerri. Such is our world….and Gerri’s sad story inspires us to keep up this good work.

    Always,
    Marcy Bloom

  • invalid-0

    Ruth, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. The many facets of the reproductive justice prism reminds us that ALL of women’s reproductive rights deserve equal respect and attention. I completely agree that separating these discussions and issues has hurt women and seriously damaged our movement.

    Women deserve access to the full spectrum of repoductive choices and to deny otherwise is to deny the full worth, value,and humanity of women. This is one of the key lessons of Gerri’s unnecessary death that we must never forget.

    Always,
    Marcy Bloom

  • http://fayettevillewomansclinic,com invalid-0

    What a powerful and moving story leona presented of her sister. I am only 3 months younger than Gerri, and as a medical student and resident in the 1960′s I saw many Gerri’s, but living Gerri’s since I personally never saw a girl or woman die as a result of an ileegal abortion. But I knew the stories and I saw the horror on their faces when they received the news of a disasterous pregnancy. A few days ago, I posted a diary to daily kos, why I provide abortions, describing my own experiences with these young women back i the days before Roe. I remember. I don’t need to look at Gerri’s picture again.

  • invalid-0

    Thaks you, Dr. Harrison, for your commitment to quality and safe abortion care so that we may never see any more tragedies such as Gerri’s.

    But I fear for the women of the US..and for women around the world. Legal abortion is still not considered a human right everywhere and our speaking out must continue.

    Even as we see the liberalization of abortion achieved in April in Mexico City, our own US Supteme Court turned its back on women’s lives a week before in their shocking and patroinzing decision saying that women should be protected from abortion. It is ILLEGAL abortion that women must be protected from..so we must keep up this work…

    Thank you for being there for so many years, Dr. Harrison…and for preventing more otucomes like Gerri’s…

    Always,
    Marcy Bloom

  • invalid-0

    The film, Leona’s Sister, Gerri is a moving and heartbreaking film – and filled, indeed, with Gerri’s humanity and warmth. I saw it years ago – after the photo had made an indelible print on my consciousness, as well. I urge everyone reading this to get a copy and show it, again and again, to remind people of the “bad old days” we are hurtling back to – unless women (and men, too) raise such a cry and ruckus of anger and determination from below, demonstrating that we will not accept the dictates of the religious right and this fascist-tending administration.

    Yes, abortion needs to be put in the context of all women’s reproductive health needs. But without safe, legal and accessible abortion – even if we were to have available, safe birth control and science-based sex education – women will be forced to become mothers against their will. In other words, enslaved to their biology and unable to function fully as equals in society.

    Thank you, Marcy, for bringing Gerri’s story to us.