Grandma’s Matrilineal Road Trip – A Conversation Across Generations

“Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion in this town?”
—Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin), Grandma

“My favorite part of Grandma was the way in which it treated Sage’s abortion as a logical, con­scientious decision,” says social justice advocate Meghan Smith, recent nominee for the WIN Young Women of Achievement award. “I’m so accustomed to the media portraying abortion as a dif­ficult decision and treating abortion as a punishment or consequence for other things.”

When was the last time you saw the abortion experience normalized in movies? At the local multiplex? Better yet, when was the last time you saw multi­generational mainstream movie stars organize an abortion for one of their own? And in a comedy? “It was alternately poignant and funny as hell,” is Catholics for Choice board member Janet Gallagher’s verdict. “I loved the realistic portrayal of family tensions and mutual incomprehension among women of such different generations.”

The setup in Grandma is straightfor­ward: Sage (Julia Garner) is a young woman who wants an abortion but doesn’t have the money. Preferring not to involve her mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), she appeals to her take-charge grandmother Elle (Lily Tomlin), a sup­porter of legalization from the pre-Roe era. Timing is not Sage’s strong suit here: In a device to set the story in motion, Elle has just cut up her credit cards, making a whimsical mobile of the pieces. These two must set out to find the nec­essary funds. The movie is a chronicle of their road trip.

Even though it isn’t a plot point, Smith was immediately aware of the limitations of that very road trip, and she’s not talking about the deplorable state of Elle’s vehicle. “In Massachusetts, where I live, minors need parental consent or a judicial bypass in order to access abor­tion care, and so Sage’s journey would have been even harder here,” she says. “And I was reminded of antichoice pro­posals that have popped up several times at the federal level, which would have prevented Elle from being able to help Sage if they had crossed state lines.”

Meghan Smith is communications director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

Meghan Smith is communications director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

Janet Gallagher, JD, is a former administrative law judge at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and was director of both the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project and the Hampshire College Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program.

Janet Gallagher, JD, is a former administrative law judge at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and was director of both the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project and the Hampshire College Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program.

For activists of Elle’s generation, this increasingly limited access to legal abor­tion is unthinkable. Janet Gallagher observes, “The segment I found most moving was the Lily Tomlin character driving to a building she assumes will still house a women’s health center providing abortion at a lower cost. When they get there, the center has been replaced by a café serving pretentious coffee…. The clinic has been gentrified out.” (Elle responds by throwing a fit at the coffee shop—hilarious if it weren’t so impotent.)

“What struck me was the difficulty of sustaining the alternative, communal and nonprofit resources we created in the 1960s and ’70s—clinics, bookstores, food co-ops—that allowed many of us to pour time and energy into the move­ments of that era,” Gallagher says. Before our eyes, Elle gets a comprehensive edu­cation in just how unsustainable these resources have proved.

Unlike Elle, Gallagher came to the prochoice cause reluctantly. “As a Cath­olic just recently out of the novitiate, I was conflicted about abortion,” she explains. “Discussion in my conscious­ness-raising group led me to realize that my Quaker/pacifist sisters felt very ­differently.”

Gallagher became involved in repro­ductive rights specifically to support access to legal abortion. “When the Hyde Amendment cut off Medicaid funding for abortion in 1976, my social justice values and respect for the con­sciences of other women led me into activism,” she recalls.

Decades later, women face the same issues. “I kept thinking about the clients with whom I work on the hotline for my local abortion fund,” says Meghan Smith. “Sage’s struggle to find enough cash to cover her abortion therefore rang very true to me. I was also reminded of friends in high school who had to travel across the state line to get to the closest Planned Parenthood for basic well-woman visits but who paid in cash because they were afraid of their parents finding out. Or who tried to buy birth control pills from friends because they couldn’t get to a clinic or didn’t want it showing up on insurance.”

“Meghan and other younger activists’ work on setting up local abortion funds seems a new version of that direct-ser­vice model offered by volunteers at the Women’s Health & Abortion Project in the early 1970s,” Gallagher adds. “Once New York legalized (about three years pre-Roe), women from all over the country headed here in desperation. Vol­unteers would pick them up at the air­port and arrange places for them to stay. I remember out-of-towners in sleeping bags on the living room floor of a Brooklyn commune. It was like a dif­ferent kind of underground railway.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And where is the unsuspecting Judy while her mother and daughter take to the road in Elle’s rickety car? At the office, putting in the long, family-­unfriendly hours mandatory for main­taining a contemporary working life. Judy belongs to the generation for whom the choice of having both career and children was the liberating promise of the second wave’s reproductive rights struggle. We didn’t anticipate that rights hard won need harder defense. Indeed, in the heady days of expanding options, we presumed that the abortion issue was settled and we could move on.

In truth, women in Judy’s position are exhausted to the bone by the double-shift demands of work and home.

Marcia Gay Harden (L), Lily Tomlin (C) and Julia Garner (R) star in Grandma (2015).

Marcia Gay Harden (L), Lily Tomlin (C) and Julia Garner (R) star in Grandma (2015).

Janet Gallagher is acutely aware of the stakes: “Perhaps Judy’s frenetic pursuit of her career represents a reaction against the economic insecurity embodied by her mother,” she suggests. “Elle’s eco­nomic situation, her inability to give her granddaughter the money she needs for an abortion, reflect the costs paid now by aging activists for the assumption that we would transform reality and not need to concentrate on individual economic security.”

“I was ready for the film to treat Sage’s abortion as a [negative] conse­quence of Judy’s focus on her career,” says Meghan Smith. Introduced late in the film, Judy is set up for judgment as a villain. It doesn’t happen. As Smith notes, “The sweetness of Judy’s appear­ance at the clinic, her support in the end, the way in which Sage’s abortion actually brought the family closer together…. These all seemed more real­istic and complicated and important than the tired ‘abortion as a punish­ment’ tropes that I’ve seen in other media portrayals.”

Are there any men in Grandma? Fit­tingly, Sage’s boyfriend puts in an appear­ance: a loser-in-training—where do we find these creatures? And why? He’s no more prepared for parenthood than she is. Neither, alas, is he prepared to take any responsibility, which affords Elle an opportunity to put him straight in a few (wish-fulfilling?) moves. “Meeting Sage’s boyfriend was only affirmation of the appropriateness of Sage’s decision,” Smith notes approvingly. “Not a mechanism to shame her for having sex in the first place.”

And, famously, there’s Sam Elliott’s cameo. The saddest chapter of this odyssey is a conscience-searing rebuke to those of us who, back in the day and irrespective of whether we shared chil­dren, excoriated the men who tried to be in our lives for the systemic sins of the patriarchy. (Every revolution has its vic­tims?) Elliott’s character, angry still, remarks to Elle, “I thought you came to offer amends.” To the movie’s credit, this leftover business is not resolved.

What next?

Sage has her abortion with the support of both mother and grandmother. A truce is established between the generations. “The moment when Sage realizes that her mother, in fact, wants to help—and has had her own struggles—is a beautiful depiction of the ways in which women my age can sometimes forget that our mothers had to navigate careers, families and policies and climates that weren’t neces­sarily friendly,” says Smith.

Elle is perhaps a little less alone than when we met at the start of this eventful day, for all that she’s shown on her own in the film’s final images. All three have earned our respect and affection. It’s the happy ending that’s available, and we are invited to agree that it’s enough for now.

But, for us, there’s more to the story: “The Elle generation has to rejoin the political, leg­islative battle for abortion access and funding,” says Janet Gallagher. “We also need to join our younger sisters in organizing and funding local abortion funds that will serve low-income women.”

From her perspective as a Millennial, Meghan Smith agrees, “I thought of Grandma as portraying two important challenges facing my generation: the challenge of abortion access and the challenge of relating to, and learning from, our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations.”

“When Sage asks her grandmother for financial help, we could look at it as simply a fact of the current state of abor­tion access for young women,” she con­cludes. “That the film mostly seems to stick to this view is a sad, but to me, accu­rate commentary on the political battles that my generation will have to fight—and is fighting.”

Forty years later. Just ask “Grandma.”

Ruth Riddick led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.

Let us know what you think.

Email your letter to the editor to conscience@CatholicsforChoice.org