WHAM! (Women's Health Action and Mobilization) Records
Language of Materials
The Women's Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) Records contain organizing records, videos, photographs, and ephemera related to WHAM!'s support of women's health and access to abortion. The collection contains documentation from individual members of the group and records related to WHAM!'s collaboration with other organizations, particularly ACT UP and mainstream women's organizations, including Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the National Organization for Women. The collection, however, does not contain central administrative records of the organization, such as minutes or official correspondence. Instead, the collection reflects the decentralized and grassroots nature of WHAM!, which did not follow a hierarchical leadership structure, but rotated responsibilities of record keeping between weekly facilitators.
Women's Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) was founded in 1989 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services of Missouri, which granted states more power to restrict women's access to abortion. WHAM! began as a direct action committee of the Reproductive Rights Coalition (RRC), and later became an independent organization following the dissolution of the RRC. WHAM! emerged at a moment when abortion became one of the most prominent, controversial, and polarizing issues in American life, and many women felt that the Webster decision was emblematic of a larger, serious threat to the protections of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Operation Rescue was shutting down women's clinics, budget cuts in New York City threatened to close community family planning clinics, and Supreme Court decisions, including the 1991 "Gag" rule, were generating what WHAM felt to be a crisis in women's health. While several national organizations -- like the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood -- were doing abortions rights work on the legislative and legal fronts, WHAM felt that a stronger response was needed in light of increasingly organized and high-profile anti-abortion activism of the religious right. Drawing on the influence of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), WHAM! focused on direct action that specifically targeted officials and institutions who controlled public policy and programs, and relied on the use of media-centered actions, civil disobedience, and phone zap campaigns. WHAM! became known for its high-visibility, aggressive actions aimed at leaders and institutions that controlled policy around women's health issues, including the Centers for Disease Control, the Catholic Church, the U.S. Supreme Court, and elected officials. While one of WHAM!'s primary goals was absolute access to abortion on demand, also advocated for reproductive rights broadly to include access to health care generally and the right to feed, clothe, and educate families regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation. This broad set of concerns was reflected by one of WHAM!'s early and most notorious actions, in conjunction with ACT UP: the Stop the Church demonstration at St. Patrick's Cathderal in December, 1989, to protest John Cardinal O'Connor's positions on abortion, AIDS, and homosexuality. Over 5,000 people demonstrated outside while protestors disrupted the homily inside the church. This joint demonstration, as activist and journalist Esther Kaplan wrote, "testified to the creative strength of a coalition built around sexual and reproductive freedom." This action was emblematic of WHAM!'s ongoing attacks on the Catholic Church, and as the song and chant sheets in the collection testify, they coined a number of slogans aimed at the church, including, "Pray, you'll need it/ Your cause will be defeated," and "Four, Six, Eight, Ten/Why are all your leaders men?"
Over the years, in conjunction with other groups like the Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue and the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force, WHAM! developed a model set of practices for protecting access to women's clinics targeted by anti-abortion groups. A WHAM! committee, the New York Clinic Defense Task Force, eventually developed into a separate organization to focus solely on this ongoing, weekly task. Another key group that developed within WHAM!'s clinic defense activities was the Church Ladies for Choice, a group of (mostly) gay men dressed in church lady drag, replete with flower-print polyester frocks and sensible shoes who, in their words, "reverse the venom of anti-abortion terrorists with raucous safe sex fun," entertaining clinic defenders with reworked hymns and standards, including "This Womb is My Womb," "Every Sperm is Sacred," and "God is a Lesbian" to the tune of "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
The core of WHAM!'s activity revolved around high-visibility, aggressive direct actions, often conducted through a joint WHAM-ACT UP affinity group called Action Tours. WHAM! joined with ACT UP and NOW to protest the nomination of David Souter to the U.S. Supreme Court, and one WHAM! member, along with eleven ACT UP members, got national attention for their civil disobedience inside Congress. And in one of their most publicized actions, they "gagged" the Statue of Liberty to protest the so-called "gag rule" that prevented federally funded health clinics from counseling abortion. WHAM! members dropped a banner that read "Abortion is Health Care/ Health Care is a Right" over the statue's pedestal and obscured her face with another banner reading "No Choice/No Liberty." WHAM! again joined with ACT UP to occupy the offices of the Centers for Disease Control in New York to demand that the official definition of AIDS be expanded to include infections specific to women and IV drug users. While the abortion debate raged across the country in the early nineties, it also sparked debate within the women's movement. The constant attacks on clinics, and the ongoing legal battle over the definition of abortion put activists in what many felt was a narrowing, reactive position that threatened to drain energy from the movement over time. Many WHAM! members wanted to adopt a more proactive approach to women's health issues and to connect more effectively with the issues of race and class that shaped access to health care, but it was unclear if the organization could sustain wide-ranging work on a variety of issues when it had been most effective in honing techniques around public awareness and clinic defense. In response to criticisms that the group attracted primarily white activists, WHAM! began conducting "Resisting Racism" workshops in 1992 and 1993.
Materials in Boxes 1-4 may have been arranged chronologically or alphabetically within each document type by Tamiment archivists, and audiovisual items in Box 5 have been assigned a unique number based on format and arranded by item number
Other materials in collection have been maintained in the order in which they were received by the library. These materials are grouped in boxes by donor or accretion, and have not been arranged by an archivist.
Scope and Content Note
The Women's Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) Records contain organizing records, videos, photographs, and ephemera related to WHAM!'s support of women's health and access to abortion. The collection contains documentation from individual members of the group and records related to WHAM!'s collaboration with other organizations, particularly ACT UP and mainstream women's organizations, including Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the National Organization for Women. The collection, however, does not contain central administrative records of the organization, such as minutes or official correspondence. Instead, the collection reflects the decentralized and grassroots nature of WHAM!, which did not follow a hierarchical leadership structure, but rotated responsibilities of record keeping between weekly facilitators. Individual members maintained detailed records of the actions they were involved in planning. This recordkeeping strategy reflects WHAM!'s practice of allowing any member to propose actions at weekly meetings and form a working groups.
Organizing materials in this collection include letters received by and written by WHAM! members, including letters of protest written to a variety of elected officials and companies, letters of inquiry from women across the country, and correspondence with other women's organizations, as well as limited amount of internal documents between members about issues facing the organization. They include an extensive amount of materials related to individual WHAM! actions and campaigns, including the protests against the 1991 "Gag Rule," Tax the Church campaign against John Cardinal O'Connor, clinic defense activities with the New York City Clinic Defense Task Force, and activities of several of its working groups. Research materials consist of clippings, articles, and other background material on issues of concern to WHAM members, particularly abortion and other women's health issues. They include copies of clippings and ephemera about the actions of WHAM! and associated organizations, particularly ACT UP.
Audiovisual materials in this collection document WHAM! and ACT UP events and demonstrations, including an extensive series of video tapes of WHAM!'s Resisting Racism workshops. Other materials include abortion-related news clips recorded by WHAM! members, and answering machine tapes documenting incoming calls to WHAM!. A few published videos related to women's health and clinic defense are also included.
Subsequent accretions added to the collection between 1998 and 2014 contain files maintained by individual WHAM! members. These materials relate predominantly to WHAM! direct actions and campaigns, which include flyers, leaflets, clippings, letters, reports, and photographs. Some other files include treasurer's files and early organizing records, which were maintained by individual members of the organization.
Materials added to the collection in 2017 consist of ephemera, photographs, and videos related to the Women's Health Action and Mobilization between 1996 and 2016. A large portion of these materials relate to the WHAM! group Church Ladies for Choice, and include photo albums, videos of songs and protests, flyers, and song books used in their demonstrations. Other materials from this accretion include flyers, articles, business cards, protest songs related to women's reproductive rights generally (1996-2016). Several items relate to other social justice causes including Black Lives Matter and HIV/AIDS activism. These materials also include several collected items related to the Catholic Church including a signed copy of the book "No Turning Back: Two Nuns' Battle with the Vatican over Women's Right to Choose," a collector's issue of the comic book "The Flying Nun," and a boxing nun hand puppet.
Conditions Governing Access
Donor permission is required for access. Please contact Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive, email@example.com.
Conditions Governing Use
Copyright (and related rights to publicity and privacy) to materials in this collection created by WHAM! (Women's Health Action and Mobilization) was not transferred to New York University. Permission to use materials must be secured from the copyright holder.
Published citations should take the following form:
Identification of item, date; WHAM! (Women's Health Action and Mobilization) Records; TAM 162; box number; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
The bulk of the WHAM! Records were donated by Elizabeth Meixell in 1993, with additional deposits in 1998 and 2004. Additional records were donated by WHAM! members Tracy Morgan, Stacey Mink in 1994, Erica Blitz in 1995, Shannon Cain in 2004, Karen Ramspacher in 2004, Neil De Mause and Mindy Nass in 2004, Elizabeth Meixell in 2007, Joshua Masur in 2010 and Mark Jocquinot in an unknown year. In 2012, Marsha Clark made a donation of materials that comprise Boxes 27 and 28, as well as the buttons in Box 29. In 2014, Elizabeth Meixell made an additional donation of materials that comprise Boxes 29-32, as well as the "microbicides" banner in Box 28. In 2017 Elizabeth Meixell sent an additional three boxes materials and an oversize poster documenting Church Ladies for Choice demonstrations and recent WHAM! protests. The accession numbers associated with these gifts are 2007.008, 2008.017, 2012.079, 2014.012, and 2017.038. In 2012, Marsha Clark made a donation of materials that comprise Boxes 27 and 28, as well as the buttons in Box 29. The accession number associated with this gift is 2012.079.
In 2014, Elizabeth Meixell made an additional donation of materials that comprise Boxes 29-32, as well as the "microbicides" banner in Box 28. The accession number associated with this gift is 2014.012.
In 2017 Elizabeth Meixell sent an additional three boxes materials and an oversize poster documenting Church Ladies for Choice demonstrations and recent WHAM! protests. The accession number associated with this gift is 2017.038
Audiovisual Access Policies and Procedures
Access to audiovisual materials in this collection is available through digitized access copies. Researchers may view an item's original container, but the media themselves are not available for playback because of preservation concerns. Materials that have already been digitized are noted in the collection's finding aid and can be requested in our reading room. Materials not yet digitized will need to have access copies made before they can be used. To request an access copy, or if you are unsure if an item has been digitized, please contact [repository contact information] with the collection name, collection number, and a description of the item(s) requested. A staff member will respond to you with further information.
Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements
Advance notice is required for the use of computer records. Original physical digital media is restricted. Born-digital materials have not been transferred and may not be available to researchers. Researchers may request access copies. To request that material be transferred, or if you are unsure if material has been transferred, please contact [repository contact information] with the collection name, collection number, and a description of the item(s) requested. A staff member will respond to you with further information.
Duplicative materials were removed from the 2014 accession, as was an inflatable nun and a New York City t-shirt.
About this Guide
Processing Information note
Materials from the 2012 and 2014 donations were rehoused in archival boxes and loose materials were placed in archival folders. Photographs from the 2014 donation were also removed from their original housing in photo books or envelopes and placed in archival folders, and loose photographs were housed in mylar.
Two boxes found in the repository from the 2007 donation were added to the collection in 2014 as Boxes 33 and 34.
In 2017 three boxes of videos, photo albums, and WHAM organizing materials were added to the collection as boxes 35-37. At the time of accessioning these materials were described at the collection level and listed at the end of the existing inventory.