Brand building through storytelling

The day Sherri Finkbine changed history

On August 5, 1962, not long before my thirteenth birthday, two women captured the attention of a world where women went all but ignored. They were as different from each other as two women could be, and only on the nightly news could they ever have appeared together.

One had been in the spotlight ever since I could remember–the impossibly gorgeous Marilyn Monroe, found dead that day of an overdose after a headline-making tailspin that cost her both a husband, Arthur Miller, and a job (she’d just been fired from Something’s Got to Give).

The second woman, Sherri Finkbine of Arizona, had a husband, four children and pert good looks worthy of a shampoo commercial. Unusually for that era, she also had a career: hosting the local franchise of Romper Room, a TV nursery school where, as Miss Sherri, she drilled children on the Pledge of Allegiance and the rules of good behaviour. Romper Room had been her only brush with fame until her fifth pregnancy plunged her into crisis. Sherri had taken 36 pills that European women used to treat morning sickness. Her husband had brought them back from his travels, and at the time she didn’t ask what was in them. Then news broke that thousands of European babies were being born without arms and legs because their mothers had taken thalidomide. Sherry realized she had taken it, too.

I had heard a lot about thalidomide. My mother and her friends had been asking one another, “What if you were pregnant with one of those babies?” For Sherri Finkbine this was not a hypothetical question. She knew she couldn’t raise a profoundly disabled child in addition to the four she had. Her doctor recommended a quiet therapeutic abortion to protect her mental health. A local hospital was on board. But Sherri didn’t keep quiet. Determined to alert other women to the danger they might be facing, she shared her story with a reporter, trusting she could remain anonymous. When her identity slipped out, controversy flared and the hospital reneged. After exhausting her options for an abortion in the U.S., she and her husband flew to Sweden for the procedure. The press followed them to the airport where someone snapped a photo that appeared everywhere on August 5. I must have seen it but Marilyn pushed Sherri out of my mind.

That summer I could still be persuaded to accompany my mother to the town swimming pool, where she would spread her towel on a scrubby hillock that rang with the clamour of transistor radios. She wasn’t much of a swimmer, nor did she socialize with the other parents. I picture her in one of those matronly skirted swimsuits, knees hugged to her chest as if for protection. This is how I found her after my swim on what must have been August 5. Her eyes gleamed with tears as she told me what she’d overheard on someone’s radio: “Marilyn Monroe is dead.”

All year I had been fighting my mother’s view of me as a child, but in that moment I had to wonder if womanhood was worth claiming. Marilyn radiated the allure that women were supposed to want. Yet she felt alone, and aloneness shadowed every line of an extraordinary interview with Marilyn that had just appeared in Life. “I never quite understood it–this sex symbol,” she said. “That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing.”

I remember the outpouring of grief for Marilyn: so young, so gifted, such a waste. For Sherri Finkbine I remember only murmured sympathy, always tinged with the fearful awareness that the agonizing choice she had made could face any pregnant woman. You didn’t hear much about abortion then, but every woman knew of someone–an aunt, a neighbour, a friend–who had risked her life to have one or died in the process. By fighting for her right to choose, Sherri Finkbine showed the world that a woman who seeks an abortion is not a cowed, nameless victim but someone they might know–or become. While Marilyn was destroyed by the cultural obsessions she embodied, Sherri was changing the world (although 11 more years would pass before Roe v. Wade expanded abortion rights in the U.S.). At almost-13, I didn’t understand what I was witnessing. I remembered Marilyn. I forgot about Sherri.

Almost 50 years later, Sherri Finkbine is on my mind as never before. I think of her with each new attack on abortion rights, each law designed to shame and intimidate women in the guise of enlightening them. Women like Carolyn Jones of Texas, which has just enacted the most barbaric in a wave of ultrasound laws. When Jones learned that she was carrying a child with catastrophic disabilities, she chose abortion with deep regret that turned to horror at an ordeal that involved penetration by a vaginal probe while a reluctant but powerless doctor reeled off every detail of the defects she already knew too well. She writes in The Texas Observer, “I closed my eyes and waited for it to end, as one waits for the car to stop rolling at the end of a terrible accident.”

Carolyn Jones had very much wanted the child she could not bear. So had Sherri Finkbine.

Yesterday I found that photo snapped of Sherri and her husband at the airport. Her Jackie coif looks tousled, her face crumpled in exhaustion. One hand covers her mouth, as if she’s struggling for composure. At 30, she hadn’t planned to lead a crusade. She couldn’t have foreseen the price: her job lost, her home staked out by the press for close to two weeks, her family vilified and threatened (one wacko vowed to cut off her children’s arms and legs). She must have been longing for the madness to end. She’s now 79. And it’s still not over.

Click here to read my previous post on abortion, inspired by a stunning film about the dangers women face when they cannot end a pregnancy safely. For a contemporary take on Sherri Finkbine, here’s a story in Life that I recall reading in 1962.Scroll to page 32.

Posted by Rona

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