Charlotte's Web

At the Routh Street Women's Clinic, Charlotte Taft created a controversial feminist enclave and waged war with anti-abortion zealots. Then she questioned her movement's gospeland it all fell apart

From the beginning, Charlotte put in place at Routh Street a revolutionary vision for the way she wanted things done.

Like every good feminist, she spent a lot of time thinking about power: how to share it rather than abuse it, how to lead by example rather than fear. She believed the white male patriarchy kept information scarce, people small, and profits in the hands of a few.

In her feminist utopia, there would be no rigid linear hierarchy. She wanted the geometry of Routh Street to be more of a circle, where decisions would be made by as large a consensus as possible, where administrators and staff would be partners in creating policy. Charlotte wanted everything to be shared--authority, feelings, even money. What better way to empower her all-female staff than to pay them well for their work?

Charlotte felt the standard corporate mantra--that you left your personal feelings at home--was a lie. If women--who are socialized to be more emotional than men--had problems which affected their work, why not deal with them honestly, rather than pretending they didn't exist? "My feminist ideals fueled my desire to create a completely different kind of workplace," says Charlotte. "A place where women would act out of integrity and risk being emotionally honest with each other."

Charlotte's brand of feminism fit hand-in-glove with her own personal psychology. She was a people-pleaser who did not wish to offend, a Pollyanna whose "good girl" image mandated that she be unerringly fair. Even Charlotte admits she had a hard time being "the Daddy boss."

"I needed to learn how to deal with conflict better. I could say, 'come with me and see this great vision.' What I couldn't say was 'you're screwing up.'" She was always searching for a softer way to manage conflict. The "heads-will-roll" approach of many corporate managers was antithetical to her evolving style.

Charlotte's feminist vision was by no means limited to her staff. "The concept of women being partners in their health care was very important to me," says Charlotte.

Since abortion was an elective procedure, the need for information was critical--both ethically and legally. Rather than have her patients sign off on some boilerplate consent form, Charlotte drafted one which broke down all possible risks. Infection. Incomplete abortion. Excessive bleeding. Blood clotting. Perforation of the uterus. Internal damage which could result in the inability to get pregnant in the future. Death.

Yet Charlotte was certain that abortion also had a big emotional component. "It's a planned crisis," she says. "Not only do you pay for it, but you have to make an appointment." Although most women who presented themselves for an abortion were resolutely committed to their decision, many were still troubled by their choice, emotionally conflicted by the social mores which decree it legal, but immoral. "Abortion holds every contradiction that there is for us," says Charlotte. "Life and death, birth and destruction, beginnings and endings, good and bad. Then we superimpose on it law and medicine and politics."

For Charlotte, this crisis could be a healing experience or a damaging one, depending on the systems put in place to deal with it. Most clinics did little counseling, just stayed with the fundamentals of informed consent. A few did some emotional handholding, allowing women to have their feelings--their anger or sadness. Only Routh Street made the attempt to resolve those feelings beforehand--so a woman could leave the experience without feeling torn apart.

Although treating the emotions has never been part of the traditional medical model--and individual counseling was expensive--Charlotte convinced herself that Dr. Braun believed in it, as she did. A short, slender 61-year-old with Coke-bottle-thick glasses, Dr. Braun is a man of few words. Yet he once told Charlotte that he always knew when a woman had been through an abortion. He would take her medical history--ask her how many times she had been pregnant, how many children she had. When the numbers didn't match, she would bow her head in shame. "That women have shame about abortions didn't feel right to him," says Charlotte. "He knew that was the piece we were working on."

Of course, there was no room for Dr. Braun in Charlotte's feminist enclave. He was the medical, they were management, kept separate and apart by corporate bylaws, by the comfort in keeping things distant--not to mention their different sex. Dr. Braun adored Charlotte, but he didn't really understand her. And Charlotte didn't want to be adored. She wanted to be effective--to transform your life, if only you'd let her.

Dr. Braun came into the clinic on Wednesdays and alternate Saturdays, performed his abortions and left. He attended stockholders meetings, but didn't put himself on the board of directors--not even after he bought out Dr. Glick and became 90 percent owner. "I was not much involved in the clinic except for the medical," he admits. "Making sure that the patient received the best care possible." If he held any reservations about the counseling program that Charlotte had instituted, he didn't express them. He preferred to let others do his talking for him. Yet even his lawyer and board chairman, Scott Hudson, had every intention of "letting Charlotte be Charlotte. "

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