The “Intimate Wars” of the Indomitable Merle Hoffman


There are many incredible stories about leaders in the women’s rights movement. This is one of them.

Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom is a complex story that is moving, sobering, and should not be missed.

The eloquent and passionate Merle Hoffman has written an exciting, blunt, and raw feminist memoir about the amazing life she has led. I have known her for many years and this book does capture her essence and her being; Merle really comes alive on these pages as she speaks from her heart and from the frontlines. Her honest autobiography discusses her life and times as a recognized writer and journalist, a committed and generous activist, an ambitious entrepreneur, and a visionary women’s health and abortion rights pioneer.

In so many ways, Merle was ahead of her time.

Her powerful story is full of her childhood and adult events and reflections:

  • growing up as an only child in 1950s middle-class Philadelphia and becoming painfully aware of the oppressive gender restrictions of that era;
  • her budding career as a talented classical pianist that she ultimately decided not to pursue;
  • her numerous relationships and encounters with some of the most influential political figures of our time, including her important relationship with her mentor who eventually became her husband;
  • her significant girl/woman warrior identity and fantasies that shaped and guided her life;
  • decades of the exhausting, devastating, and often deadly abortion wars, including the domestic terrorism against clinics and providers,  that both emboldened her and threatened to destroy her;
  • the exciting 1971 founding of Choices in Queens, NY, one of the first, most comprehensive, and ground-breaking women’s health clinics in the country that institutionalized quality abortion care and emphasized  Patient Power as its foundation for how women should be treated and empowered ,and also ultimately became a flashpoint of controversy;
  • her passionate leadership as a powerful women’s rights advocate and pro-choice spokesperson for women’ s human rights, dignity, justice,  strength, and access to safe and respectful abortion care;
  • the myriad of personal and professional struggles, attacks, and accusations that plagued her for years and could have ended her trail-blazing work if not for Merle’s total force, strength, and dedication;  and
  • the numerous controversies  and core philosophy surrounding her life and work, including issues of heartache, loss, love, truth, growth, finding oneself, self-reflection, feminism, the ongoing war against women, the scars of battle, finding peace, and, at the age of 58, motherhood.  

Merle speaks passionately and articulately of her life, a mixture of what Thomas Merton’s teachings describe as an active life and a contemplative one. Merle has demonstrated how to successfully live and participate in both as she has striven to speak to truth, transgressed multiple boundaries, and worked to change the world. She describes her complex journey and difficult path that ultimately led to her understanding, dedication, and passion to feminist principles, the value and worth of women’s lives, choices, and moral agency, and the fundamental position of reproductive rights and feminism in women’s equality and place in the world. These strong beliefs came to define her and years ago she took on issues with which our embattled pro-choice/women’s rights movement is still struggling and defining. 

Merle eloquently describes battles, confrontations, and debates with the anti-choice movement as power struggles of words and actions that continue to this day. She declares: 

“Two sides emerged, as if they were mutually exclusive. There was either the ‘right to life’ or the ‘right to choose.’   Women couldn’t help but internalize these narrow ways of seeing the issue and themselves accordingly. Abortion was a woman’s right, both legally, with the passage of Roe vs. Wade, and as a matter of biology, equality, and justice. But each woman’s acceptance of her natural right was challenged by a Greek chorus screaming ‘murderer’ at her for exercising that power…

“The growing political debate on abortion in the seventies took this reduction of women’s self-identity even further by positioning the woman and fetus as adversaries. There was no way that one could advocate for both: if you believed in the right to life of the fetus, then the woman, by definition had to come second. And if you believed in a woman’s right to choose, the fetus took second place.”

Merle further questions: “Who holds the power to decide whether a fetus comes to term? Who has the power to decide whether a woman should give birth, how many children she should have, what constitutes a ‘good’ mother? … Ironically the New Right and Moral Majority were as in touch with the fact that abortion empowers women as women’s rights activists. The antis clearly understood that to keep women in the traditional roles of wife and mother, and thus to prevent what they feared would be wholesale societal upheaval, they had to remove a woman’s power to choose.”  By so doing, they were removing her ability to choose the destiny of her pregnancy-and, ultimately, her life.

She posits: “Why a woman makes a decision to have an abortion is not the deciding issue. She is making the choice that is right for her, and that is what matters. At its core, the issue is about separating the chooser from the choice.”

Merle also asserts: “If the personal is indeed the political, as the feminist slogan goes, then abortion is the ultimate political act. It is not politics, but necessity that drives women’s choices, necessity that forms the political and theoretical foundation for the right to choose. To withhold that right for any reason is to deny women a piece of their humanity.

“In the late seventies, the pro-choice movement faced the same political question it faces today. How can we create a new narrative in which choice and reproductive freedom are the theory, and abortion is the practice? How can we transcend limiting narratives and start to identify with all women struggling to make choices, defending them rather than resisting that power through guilt and denial? How do we create a world where women can have abortions without apology?”

Merle is not afraid (as I indicated, I have known her for many years, and frankly, she rarely appears afraid of anything) to take on the hard and difficult questions about abortion rights, safe abortion care, the ongoing and increasing stigma and demonization surrounding abortion, the moral foundation of women, and the reality of abortion that are all still being asked, questioned, discussed, and debated.  

When she describes the pro-choice movement as marching “then, as it does now, under the banner of choice, of human and civil rights, that is always more nuanced than the pure white banner of ‘innocence’ and ‘life’ carried by our opponents. But attempting to simplify the issue, refusing to look at the consequences or true nature of abortion–the blood, the observable parts of the fetus, the irrevocable endings, the power of deciding whether or not to bring a new life into the world–reduces our capacity to register the depth of this issue and disrespects the profound political and social struggle women’s choices engender in our society.” This has perpetuated the deep-seated stigma that women often feel to this day about abortion and she posits that by “putting women in a defensive position,” by “denying the truth,” this “also perpetuates the shame, embarrassment, and ambivalence that the antis want women to feel.”

And they often continue to feel to this day. This simplification also seriously harms the world-wide movement for choice, equality, respect, dignity, and true reproductive justice for women and girls everywhere.

I asked Merle why she wrote her powerful book of personal revelations and social justice truths at this time in her life of dedication to passionate work and her response was also powerful.  This is what she told me.

“This book was written as gift of myself for my daughter-who will only know and share a part of my life…and by extension for all of our daughters who will inherit our struggle. It was written when I was in deep mourning and had lost so many people I loved…I needed to reflect on not only their loss but what they gave me. I wrote in the preface that I wanted to give birth to myself-and in so many ways I have done so-the book was a kind of reckoning for me-a deep self-analysis. And back to Socrates-that the unexamined life is not worth living. I knew that other people would be examining mine and I thought my own perspective would be important.

“And then there are the lessons for those of us who want to change the world from what it is to what it should be-the price that has to be paid-the fear of doing it and the courage it creates. I wanted to tell my truth before someone else would tell it for me-and say it was mine!”

Intimate Wars is indeed Merle’s voice as it captures her life of truth and power, of courage and loss, of love and ferocity, and of fighting for what one passionately and eloquently believes in. It is a beautiful gift for Sasha, Merle’s dynamic young daughter…and now it is a gift for the entire world.

Intimate Wars will take its much-deserved prominent place in my extensive library of feminist frontlines, analysis, history, politics, philosophy, and life. It will be published on January 12th, 2012, ten days before the Roe vs. Wade Day commemoration of 38 years of legal abortion on January 22nd and can be preordered at www.intimatewars.com.  

To arrange an interview, contact Elizabeth Koke, Feminist Press Publicity, @ ekoke@gc.cuny.edu or (212)817-7928. 

Merle Hoffman is available to discuss her exciting and sobering story. Her book is important to behold…as is she.  She is expected to be on tour in January and February of 2012. The following are the events lined up so far:

11/12/11 Atlanta~ National Women’s Studies Association Conference with Loretta Ross

1/12/12 NYC~ Barnes & Noble at 86th & Lexington with Jennifer Baumgardner

1/17/12 Washington, DC~ National Press Club

1/17/12 Washington, DC~ Politics & Prose

TBA Durham, North Carolina

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