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Jewesses with Attitude

Celebrating Ruth Proskauer Smith, an unheralded champion of women's and human rights

Ruth Proskauer Smith, a longtime women's and human rights activist, passed away last Friday at the impressive age of 102. Smith co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, which later became the National Abortion Rights Action League and is today known as NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Smith was born into a life of privilege and politics; her father Joseph Meyer Proskauer was a New York State Supreme Court Judge and a close associate of Governor Al Smith. Her mother, Alice Naumburg Proskauer, was an activist in the right-to-die movement who founded the Euthanasia Society of America, a cause that Smith would later take on herself.

After graduating from Radcliffe, marrying, and getting divorced, Smith became involved in the reproductive rights movement as a fieldworker for Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts in the 1940s. She later became the executive secretary of that organization, and helped lead the fight to legalize contraceptives in Massachusetts, a state dominated by the interests of the Catholic Church. After losing that battle, Smith met Margaret Sanger, who introduced her to the radical concept of abortion rights as a vital part of reproductive health. Returning to her home state of New York in 1953, she directed family planning services at Mount Sinai Hospital, an experience that opened her eyes to the direct impact class had on abortion access.

In 1969, Smith co-founded NARAL. Four year later, the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States, in no small part thanks to the dedication of groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Smith remained active in NARAL's New York chapter, and continued to advocate for the "right-to-die," contributing greatly to pro-euthanasia campaigns in the 1990s. Even as a centenarian, Smith worked, teaching other senior citizens about the Supreme Court as part of the City University of New York's Quest program (a job that was described quite charmingly in a New York Times profile in 2008).

I had never heard of Smith before this morning. I am always fascinated by the stories of dedicated activists like her, who lack the fame of a Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, but whose contributions to social justice are incalculable. As a post-Roe abortion rights activist who often feels like we are facing an uphill battle, I cannot imagine the perseverance and strength required of activists in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Historian Ian Robert Dowbiggin, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, described Smith as a "flinty and abrasive character" who "has been written out of the struggle." Smith's abrasiveness, however, seems to have been matched by her energy and dedication to the cause of reproductive freedom. NARAL Pro-Choice New York President Kelli Conlin said of Smith, "It took real courage to be on the front lines of these kinds of issues. We have what we have today as far as women's autonomy and independence thanks to Ruth Proskauer Smith."

Check out the video below to hear Smith tell her story in her own words.

How to cite this page

Kadar, Emily. "Celebrating Ruth Proskauer Smith, an unheralded champion of women's and human rights." 28 January 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 27, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/ruth-proskauer-smith>.

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