It was the spring of 1970 and war was rampant in south-east Asia. Capt Susan Struck of the US air force was serving in Vietnam as a nurse.
She had asked to be sent.
She was the only female service member on base, 25 years old, sweet-faced and string-bean skinny. One day, she recalls, she was walking down a dirt road, when she had a dizzy spell, and sat down. “I just knew I was pregnant,” said Struck. “And I said – ‘Shit’.”
Air force rules then were as clear as they were coercive: face immediate discharge unless the pregnancy was terminated. Keep your job or keep the pregnancy.
So Struck went to bed resolute: she would take early RR to terminate the pregnancy, probably in Japan. “The sooner the better,” she figured.
“But that night I had a dream,” recalled Struck, now aged 75, speaking in a joint interview with the Guardian and WNYC in the city of Sierra Vista, Arizona, some 50 years later.
She dreamed about the fetus, and being called “Mommy”, and the next morning she says: “I sat up in bed, and I said, ‘No way. No way are they going to do this. Susan Struck is not going to fall for this crap.’”
Her defiance against the air force would lead to a legal fight that could have become the signature abortion case taken up by the supreme court rather than 1973’s Roe v Wade – and in fact Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would become Struck’s lawyer, thought it was a superior case.
Illegal abortions were common, and dangerous.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill in 1960, and many officials stopped enforcing Comstock laws. However, contraceptives were still illegal. This supreme court case ruled Comstock laws unconstitutional, because married women had a right to privacy.
This crucial supreme court case provided women the constitutional right to obtain an abortion before a fetus is “viable”, or can live outside the womb. It was based in part on the privacy arguments of Griswold.
This supreme court case tightened abortion access after Roe, finding states’ had a “compelling interest” in protecting life, and could restrict abortion if it did not place “undue burden” on women’s constitutional rights.
This supreme court case found a Texas law requiring doctors to have difficult to obtain hospital access was unconstitutional. The court took up a nearly identical Louisiana case this session, called June Medical Services LLC v Gee.
Today, Struck sees herself as an independent outsider. She fought for women’s rights in the military, but is a self-identified “Trumpster” who gets most of her news from Fox and its ultra-right cousin America One News Network.
She believes abortions should be available with some limitations, and taxpayer money should not pay for them. Struck never looked into Roe v Wade, “I don’t have any feelings on that case,” she said. “That’s after my little girl was born.”
Susan Struck, 75, is seen in a playground at Veterans Memorial Park in her hometown in Sierra Vista, Arizona on 6 November 2019. Photograph: Noemí González/The Guardian
Nevertheless, liberal legal scholars believe her case has renewed resonance, with the conservative supreme court poised to take up its first abortion case. It shows the breadth of control the state wielded over women’s personal reproductive health, scholars argue. It also spotlights a largely forgotten episode from the previous century: thousands of women were cast out of the US military services for choosing motherhood.
Struck hid the pregnancy for seven and a half months.
One day, a charge nurse pulled Struck into her office where she was working in the US air force hospital in Cam Ranh Bay. Are you pregnant? Yes, Struck said. She guessed her patients had felt her belly brush up against them while she worked and had said something.
The air force put Struck on the first transport out of Vietnam. She was sent back to the states, to Washington, where the discharge notices started coming – seven in total.
But struck was not intimidated. “Rather than simply accept the end of her chosen career, she did the American thing, which was to go to court with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to fend off the discharge,” said Neil Siegel, a Duke University law professor who studied Struck’s case.
Her future attorney would become one of the best recognized names in American law – supreme court justice Ginsburg – who was heading the Women’s Rights Project at the time. Ginsberg believed Struck’s case was powerful because it showed reproductive rights are interconnected – if government could compel pregnancy, as many states limiting abortion access do today, it could also compel abortion.
“One thing that conspicuously distinguishes women from men is that only women become pregnant,” Ginsburg said at her confirmation hearings in 1993. “And if you subject a woman to disadvantageous treatment on the basis of her pregnant status, which was what was happening to Captain Struck, you would be denying her equal treatment under the law.
“It was her right to decide either way, her right to decide whether or not to bear a child,” Ginsburg said. “In this case, it was her case for childbirth. The government was inhibiting that choice. It came at the price of remaining in the service.”
At least 4,041 pregnant air force women lost their jobs from 1969-1971, the government said in a brief to the supreme court for Struck’s case. A bill to provide reparations to these women cites a higher number – at least 7,000 women military-wide. But with the regulation in effect from 1951 across all branches of the military, there may have been many more. It is further unclear how many women had an abortion out of fear.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977. Photograph: Bettmann Archive
“This is pre-Roe, where abortion was illegal in most circumstances around the country,” said Siegel. “The way abortion divides parties and people today, was not the way it divided the political parties and people back then, that there’s been a real change over time.”
More than 50 years ago, Struck was a young, unmarried nursing graduate who cast her first vote for John F Kennedy. A career in the air force seemed like a way to escape the domestic expectations of a Catholic upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky.
She left Louisville a 23-year-old virgin, and headed to sunny Tucson, Arizona. There, she bought her first car, a brand new 1967 Camaro, and drove around the desert listening to Glen Campbell’s Gentle on My Mind.
She never made any bones about liking sex. She once told a Catholic priest she would not stop having sex, and if she said she would in confession it would be a lie to God. “He was quite taken aback,” she said.
In Vietnam, when she discovered she was pregnant, air force regulations would have allowed an abortion. But in a country where she had to ask bewildered F-4 pilots to buy her tampons from bigger bases, the procedure was unobtainable.
Struck joked she evaded detection because her fetus lay sideways. The only prenatal care she had was a quick trip to Hong Kong, where a doctor said, “everything was OK”.
In 1970, Hawaii was the only state where a civilian woman could legally obtain an abortion for any reason. The landmark supreme court decision Roe v Wade, which provided a constitutional right to choose, had yet to be decided. But women could obtain abortions on military bases.
Combat helicopters during Operation Pershing, a search and destroy mission on the Bong Son Plain and An Lao Valley of South Vietnam, during the Vietnam war. Photograph: Patrick Christain/Getty Images
Struck, though, wanted to keep her pregnancy, and she knew her future would be in court.
She planned to use vacation time to give birth. Then she would give the baby up for adoption as soon as it was born. She wanted an open adoption, and started writing siblings to see if anyone would take her baby.
“It would break my heart more … if I was not able to have any kind of influence with her in her life, and not give her love, and not let her know that her real mother loved her very, very much,” said Struck. “This was something that had to be done for the sake of women in the military.”
Just a few months later, Struck gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Tanya.
Her siblings were unable to raise another child, but close friends in Nebraska – also air force – agreed to take Tanya. Fifty years later, those parting moments still turn Struck upside down.
“Hurt like hell,” she said, before a long pause. “While I was there, wouldn’t let anybody else hold her but me … When I got out the car, I gave her to one of her adoptive brothers to hold. When I set off I said, ‘I’ll see you baby-san,’ because that’s what I was calling her, baby-san, and I cried all the way into the airport, all the way on to the plane, all the way to St Louis,” where she met her brother Jimmy.
“I cried all the way.”
‘This case has loss potential for the government’
Struck was two years into her fight in 1972, and the tide was turning on abortion politics. That year, 130,000 women tried to end their own pregnancies. Thirty-nine died. Physicians and clergy publicly lined up to flout abortion bans. More states legalized or decriminalized abortion, and Struck’s case started to look like a loser for the government.
“Susan brought her case into federal district court, she lost there,” Ginsburg said at an event this September at the University of Arkansas. “Then it went to the court of appeals, she lost again, but there was a very good dissenting opinion. And then I wrote a petition to the supreme court to hear her case, the supreme court said, ‘Yes, we’ll take it.’”
Tanya was a toddler then, and Struck’s career was suffering. She was stationed in frigid Minot, North Dakota, and kept receiving discharge notices.
The government’s top attorney, the US solicitor general, Erwin Griswold, told military top brass, “This case has loss potential for the government,” according to Ginsburg. “‘You should waive Captain Struck’s discharge and then change the rule prospectively so pregnancy is no longer an automatic discharge.’ And the air force did.”
By this point, the damage to Struck’s life was done. She went on to specialize in pediatric nursing, a long way off from combat nursing. Her career was hampered by press coverage of her case. And her relationship with Tanya was a struggle.
Struck shows her daughter Tanya Marie’s birth certificate alongside a photo of when Tanya turned five in 1975. Photograph: Noemí González/The Guardian
“There were times she would ask me. She would say, ‘Why did you give me away?’ And I said, I didn’t give you away. I gave you to,” Struck said. “She finally got that … after growing up.”
Struck got married after her case, had her tubes tied and then got a divorce. “I did things backwards,” she said. She would marry twice more, lastly to a “west Texas cowboy” named Roy who introduced her to horses.
These days Struck lives in Arizona in a place called Double Adobe, a desert crossroads with a church and a school in a rattlesnake-beset hinterland on the edge of the US-Mexico border, a couple of hours’ drive south-east of Tucson. She met the Guardian in the nearest city, Sierra Vista (population around 42,000).
She lives on 40 acres with four dogs, four cats and a horse named Thunder, half a mile from her nearest neighbor. She is a great-grandmother of seven.
Fifty years after Struck made her decision to fight the military to be able to keep her baby and her job, women are still seeking legal protections in the workplace. House Democrats introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which requires “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant employees. It never made it out of committee.
Alana Casanova-Burgess is a producer for WNYC’s On The Media.
Listen to Susan Struck interviewed on WNYC’s On the Media radio show and podcast, which this week is examining reproductive rights in the Trump era