Gail Johnston ‘84 on covering Roe v. Wade at Bates in the 1980s

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Christina Leonard, Executive Managing Editor

Whilst digging through decades of The Bates Student’s reporting on abortion – one name caught my interest. Three articles are written in a row by former Editor-in-Chief Gail Johnston ’84. So, I decided to track her down in hopes of a first-hand account. Lucky for me, Johnston responded and agreed to chat.

Johnston joined The Student a few weeks into her first year. She lucked into writing the lead story for that year’s first issue, “and the rest was history,” Johnston said.

Johnston continued reporting for The Student until she graduated from Bates, serving as the editor-in-chief her senior year. After that, she ended up working at a few daily papers in Rhode Island and New Jersey before heading to law school. Today, Johnston is a litigator at a major law firm in New York City.

She recalls her time at Bates and as part of The Student very fondly. With almost 40 years between us, Johnston shared just how drastically different her experience was to mine, especially with regard to working on the paper.

Today, The Student is primarily a digital publication with a weekly newsletter emailed to the Bates and local community each Wednesday during the school year and supplemented with almost daily social media updates. Our production process is relatively quick – once an article is written, it’s copy-edited, uploaded to WordPress, then added to our Mailchimp newsletter, and once all articles are ready to go, we hit send.

In the early 80s, The Student was printed weekly and delivered to the student mailboxes in Chase Hall each Friday. Production, however, was not as simple. With only one typewriter in the newsroom, laying out an issue didn’t just involve uploading the articles to our website.

Johnston explained that staff wrote their articles on their own IBM Selectric typewriters and physical copies would then be typeset by a local printing shop. On Thursdays starting from around 7:00 p.m., the staff would gather to manually layout the paper using hot wax. At 4:00 a.m. the next morning, somebody would drive the paper to the nearby newspaper that would print the issue for The Student.

“There was one night where we [lost] the headline and that involved people going through garbage cans looking for the headline because we had no choice, we had to find it,” she remarked, laughing.  

The Student was really the primary means of news and communication to the student body at the time. “In a lot of ways we had less competition because there wasn’t social media. If something happened, you had two choices, either word of mouth, or wait until Friday when The Bates Student came out,” Johnston explained.

Despite the almost 40 years gap since she was a Batesie working on The Student, Johnston believes some things remain exactly the same.

“You read [my old] articles and what people were saying is actually the same thing that you’re hearing today,” she said. “Politics hasn’t changed. The political arguments and the philosophical arguments haven’t changed. But for young women what they thought was a constitutional right is no longer.”

A decade after Roe v. Wade was ratified, Johnston was a junior at Bates. “Ten years in the life of a college student is a very long time, so something that happened ten years ago, you’re eight, ten or eleven years old, which meant that for your entire life, when abortion could have been an issue, it was a constitutional right,” she said. “So even though it wasn’t that long before, I think it was just an accepted right, that it was an option if it was necessary.”

In her 1982 article, “Special Report: Abortion at Bates… The Decision Reaches 20 Women a Year Here,” Johnston interviewed a student who had had two abortions. Presenting a peer’s reality showed that these decisions were impacting her local community, bringing the theory, philosophy and politics home. “I think that’s what makes it much more powerful,” she said.

Following the June 24th overturning of Roe v. Wade, Johnston “cannot imagine what young women are going through right now when a month ago they knew they had certain rights and now they do not.” Additionally, she noted that “[woman’s] rights are so dependent on where they are physically in the country, and whether or not they have the economic ability to travel somewhere else if they need to.”

Because of this, Johnston emphasized the importance of focusing on politics at a state level, “what will need to happen for the people that want [Roe v. Wade] to come back, [they] will really need to focus on politics themselves.” We hear in her words that times have changed but the sentiments toward autonomy, personal choice and the right to speak out have not.