Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Roe V. Roe (1973)

Mar 03, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


    If one were to name a Supreme Court ruling, chances are the answer would be Roe v. Wade. However, if questioned as to the identity of the anonymous plaintiff, many would draw a blank. The flesh-and-blood Roe, Norma McCorvey, was as complicated as her judicial namesake.

    The woman in the eye of the storm of the abortion controversy was Norma Nelson; though her life was far from normal, she was, brought up on the wrong side of the Texas tracks. Mother dearest, who she described as, “My mom, she was a two-faced bitch,” was an abusive alcoholic whose marriage to husband, Olin, ended in divorce. While Mildred raised her daughter as a Jehovah Witness, Norma raised hell. At age ten, she landed in a reform school for juvenile delinquents for robbing a local gas station. She recalled the time in the state institution as the best years of her childhood. 

     Education ended in the ninth grade, and at age sixteen, Norma married Elwood “Woody” McCorvey, a customer at the restaurant where she worked as a roller-waitress. After announcing she was pregnant, Woody, under the assumption he was unable to father a baby, assumed Norma had cheated. She recalled her husband, “hit me, from the kitchenette into the dining room.” Mildred tricked Norma into signing over parental rights to her granddaughter when she discovered her daughter’s lesbian leanings. In a life where every day was a duke-out, Norma turned to alcohol, sex, and drugs. A second pregnancy ended in a 1967 adoption, though her third was what led to her rendezvous with history.

    Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, two lawyers in search of a plaintiff, met Norma at Colombo, a Dallas pizza parlor: their goal was to take the abortion issue before the Supreme Court. Roe was Norma’s pseudonym to protect her privacy; Wade was the Dallas County district attorney who had been the DA in the case against Jack Ruby. The high bench’s decision came too late to terminate Norma’s pregnancy. In the ensuing years, images from both sides of the debate proliferated: of posters displaying mangled fetuses, of a woman standing outside the White House with a message to the president: Bush Get Out of Mine. The pro-choice movement embodied the slogan, “It’s time for the rosaries to get off our ovaries.” 

     Lost in the firestorm was Norma who had moved in with her long-time lover, Connie Gonzalez. After coming out with her sexual orientation, she also outed herself as the woman behind the historic ruling. Norma reveled in the media blitz led by attorney Gloria Allred. The accidental activist became the centerpiece of a Washington abortion rights rally that included 300,000 protestors.  Norma shared a platform with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Glenn Close. She was also the target of egg-throwing strangers who spat on her while shrieking, “baby-killer!” One night, shotgun blasts shattered the windows of her home. Bullets riddled her blue car-that she called the Roe-mobile. Mildred’s take on her daughter, “She was a die-hard whore.” 

      The poster woman for abortion jumped ship after the pro-life group, Operation Rescue, recruited Norma to their cause. The Reverend Phillip Benham, in a televised appearance, baptized her in a swimming pool. She testified before the Senate, “I am dedicated to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.” Norma’s conversion to Roman Catholicism entailed renouncing her lesbianism, a move Connie did not appreciate.

     Life for Norma McCorvey was a constant tug of war: between attraction to men and women, switching from pro-choice to pro-life. Given her internal struggles, her encapsulated biography could be described as Roe v. Roe.