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Another Senate Speech, Another Time

By John Lindstrom
Posted: December 13, 2013 2:45 PM

Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) brought the Senate to a stunned silence when during the debate on legislation to bar automatic insurance coverage for abortions she revealed that as a college student she had been raped.

Her emotional address gained recognition nationwide, though it failed to sway votes away from approving the proposal.

It also brought to mind a similar dramatic speech in the Senate 44 years before.

N. Lorraine Beebe was elected to the Senate as a Republican from Dearborn in the 1966 election, which had been a Republican landslide year.

She was 56 at the time. Born Lorraine Boekeloo in Kalamazoo and a graduate of Western Michigan University, she had worked in the recreation department in Kalamazoo in the mid-1930s, before moving to Dearborn in 1937. There she worked for the city in recreation as well, and met her future husband, Leo Beebe, who worked for Ford. The couple had two children, and by the time she was elected had divorced.

In the mid-1950s she became active in politics, playing a leading role in the Southeast Michigan committee working for former President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 re-election. When the Senate still had two-year terms she ran for and lost the GOP nomination in 1964.

But she won election in 1966. She was the only woman in the Senate, and as such felt she represented not just the Dearborn area but all Michigan women.

The 1960s was the era when women’s rights, including the right to control reproduction, ignited. “The Feminine Mystique” was widely read and debated. Birth control pills were developed. The papal encyclical banning birth control for practicing Roman Catholics was issued. And across the nation many states opened debate on whether abortion should be made legal.

During one such debate in the Michigan Senate, Ms. Beebe staggered the members when she revealed that in 1948 she had had an abortion, and outlined the difficulties she had faced seeking the procedure which was, of course, illegal. In a Gongwer News Service story at the time, she said she made the speech when she had “come face to face with my conscience.”

She had the abortion, she said, after she had suffered five miscarriages before.

Her speech generated headlines across the state and nation. However, like Ms. Whitmer, her speech failed to convince her fellow lawmakers to change the law. When the proposal was defeated on 16-17 vote, Ms. Beebe wept. (A petition initiative to legalize abortion that she helped lead failed in the state in 1972, but two months later the U.S. Supreme Court permitted abortions under Roe v. Wade).

The speech also changed her life. She became a leading state and national spokesperson for women’s rights and abortion rights. But at a cost. Her life was threatened numerous times. Her house was firebombed.

Her speech and her position also played a role in her defeat in 1970, though by how much is questionable. She swamped her Republican opponent in the primary election, but then lost decisively (though not by a landslide) to Democrat Dave Plawecki in the general election (Mr. Plawecki died earlier this year). Despite Governor William Milliken winning election to a full term that year, it was generally a Democratic year.

But Ms. Beebe’s loss meant the two parties split the chamber 19-19. And Mr. Plawecki said later that while important, worker rights was as much a leading issue in heavily unionized Dearborn in 1970 as was abortion.

In the 1970s, Ms. Beebe was named to numerous federal and state commissions on issues of mental health, criminal justice, American Indians and women. She served on the Michigan Women’s Commission. Later that decade she moved to Portage. While now best known for her stand on abortion rights, Ms. Beebe also led efforts to have sex education in schools, tougher laws against drunken driving and improvements in women’s prisons.

She also remained active politically, nominated by the Republicans to run against then Secretary of State Richard Austin in 1974.

In 1980 she was active in the independent presidential campaign of Illinois U.S. Rep. John Anderson and was considered for his vice-presidential pick.

Ms. Beebe died in 2005 at age 95.

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