The Woman in the Photo

June 8th marks the 43rd Anniversary of Gerri Santoro’s death. Her image became iconic for the abortion rights movement, but not many who know about her death are familiar with her life.

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.