Dead-of-the-night emergency phone calls were nothing new for the Nashville, Tennessee household of surgeon Dorothy Brown. But her daughter, Lola, remembers one particular woman who showed up at their home, which also housed her mother’s medical office, sometime between two and three in the morning.
“‘Who is it?’ [A shaky woman’s voice asked]: ‘Is Dr. Brown here? I’ve got snakes in my stomach, and I don’t know what to do about them.’” Lola Brown believes she was not much older than 10 when she spoke to the frantic woman. She can date it approximately because such nocturnal visitations of women — distraught, determined, sometimes delusional, often pregnant — increased after 1967. That year, her mother, Tennessee’s first Black woman lawmaker, proposed reforming the state’s abortion ban.
It was a courageous move for Brown, who was hypervisible and vulnerable as the only African American female in the statehouse and part of the first cohort of Black legislators to win statewide office since Reconstruction. She also was one of several Black state legislators, including New York’s Percy Sutton and Wisconsin’s Lloyd Barbee, to push abortion law change before Roe v. Wade in 1973.