Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case on abortion rights, died Feb. 18 at the age of 69. In 2016, Gaye LeBaron wrote this column recalling the time during the late 1980s and early 1990s when McCorvey lived in Sonoma County.
Local history has discernible boundaries, usually city limits or county lines. But not always. Bits and pieces of a hometown’s past can turn up in unexpected places.
I am just back from a customary summer week in Ashland, Oregon, immersed in the world of Shakespeare and the thought-provoking creativity of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolution,” a cycle of new plays based on “moments of change” in modern United States history.
Thus far, the triumph of the cycle has been Robert Schenkkan’s play about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s. “All the Way,” commissioned by OSF and Berkeley Rep, went, literally, all the way to Broadway and won the 2014 Tony for best play and another for the LBJ actor, Bryan Cranston. It has recently become an HBO film.
This year’s production promises to go as far. And it was where I stumbled upon a slice of Sonoma County’s modern history. The play is titled, simply, “Roe” as in Roe v. Wade, the historic Supreme Court case of 1973 that is the cornerstone of the pro-choice movement.
The ”heroines” of the play are Norma McCorvey, a Dallas lesbian bartender who, by happenstance, came to the attention of an ambitious young lawyer named Sarah Weddington, who was seeking a client for a test case on abortion rights.
McCorvey — pseudonym Jane Roe, a name chosen by Weddington in place of the customary “Jane Doe — wandered into the attorney’s sphere when she sought to arrange adoption for the child she wanted to abort but could not, according to Texas law.
If this sounds grim – well, it is, of course. But not always.
Through a series of flashbacks to the many conflicting phases of Jane Roe’s adventurous life, the audience is invited to be amazed, aghast, even amused; and to both laugh and cry as McCorvey’s improbable story unfolds.
In 1989-90 McCorvey lived in Forestville. Her Sonoma County sojourn was brief and, understandably, not part of playwright Lisa Loomer’s script, although it fits neatly into what Loomer might call McCorvey’s “Allred Period.”
It was after she had revealed that she was Roe and been recruited for a series of appearances for the pro-choice effort engineered by the high-profile Los Angeles attorney, Gloria Allred.
McCorvey’s revelation that she was Jane Roe had made her a target of anti-abortion activists in Dallas and sent her into hiding. It was Allred who coaxed her into the national spotlight.
You might say that Sonoma County served as a “proving ground.”
The file folder with McCorvey’s name on it in The Press Democrat’s archive tells us she arrived in Sonoma County with her partner in June of ’89. In late September, she surfaced publicly, speaking to 800 students at Sonoma State, urging them, according to Press Democrat reporter Bleys Rose’s account, to familiarize themselves with women’s issues.
Next, she sat down at Adel’s coffee shop in Santa Rosa for an interview with then-PD reporter and columnist, Susan Swartz.