Barbara Ann Santee was born an activist. Sometimes controversial and considered ahead of her time, this TU sociology alumna (BA ’69, MS ’71) dedicated her life to fighting for reproductive justice for women. For decades, she transformed traditionally taboo topics like abortion, AIDS and HIV prevention, LGBTQ+ equality and civil rights into open and honest dialogue. After her death on Nov. 7, 2018, Santee donated her comprehensive writings to TU’s women’s and gender studies program.
“It’s going to be a tremendous resource for our students and faculty,” said Wellspring Associate Professor of History Jan Wilson. “I don’t think there is full recognition of how difficult it was to fight the battles that Barbara fought, particularly before the legalization of abortion in 1973, and she continued that fight to ensure the rights that women do have were not further eroded.”
Late into the night, a young Santee slept on the booths at her mother’s bar in Tulsa. Santee was 1 when her father abandoned the family, and she was forced to grow up quickly. Her childhood was stunted by becoming the caretaker for her brother and alcoholic mother. Long-time friend Arlene Johnson said Santee came “from total poverty and an abusive childhood with incest and neglect.”
At 18, Santee had an unwanted pregnancy, and although abortion was illegal, she had “what we would consider today a ‘back-alley’ abortion,” Wilson explained. Nearly dying from the procedure, she was hospitalized.
“They put a sign around her neck that said ‘incomplete abortion,’” Wilson added. “And they wheeled her down the hallway in front of a group of nuns. With the looks they gave her of condemnation and judgment, Barbara said, ‘I never felt more alone and more ashamed.’” But shame would never consume Santee. Instead, she used her story to build an international advocacy platform for women’s rights.
Advocating around the world
After graduating from TU and receiving a second master’s degree from the University of Michigan Center for Population Planning in public health and family planning, Santee landed an internship with the United Nations. They sent her to the Latin American headquarters in Santiago, Chile, for two years. Working at the Center for Latin American Demography, Santee continued population research and reproductive advocacy.
In the fall of 1973, Santee moved to New York City to begin studying for her doctorate, receiving her degree in socio-medical sciences at Columbia University. She became the director of evaluation for International Planned Parenthood Federation, western hemisphere. She traveled and conducted research in family planning clinics throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Using her own personal story, she connected to women around the world.
“Nobody wants to acknowledge that they have had an abortion, even though it is a common experience. At a time before it was even legal, Barbara spoke about it candidly,” Wilson said. “Even today it is taboo, and most women aren’t willing to do this.”
Santee had no qualms speaking her truth, and in 1984, she wrote Trespasses, the first theatrical work in the country to openly address incest as a serious social problem. When recounting her play, Santee noted, “My story added to the voices of hundreds and thousands of other survivors who found the courage to share their stories and opened the door for people to speak publicly about their abuse. It led to the current environment where the male victims of priests and other religious figures have the courage to tell what happened to them.”
From plays like Voices and Trespasses to countless short stories and poetry, Santee was a prolific writer. McFarlin Chair of English Dennis Denisoff remarked, “She was able to combine her creative spirit with her political intellect and create works that are both moving but also really engaged in their political moment. I am excited to give our women’s and gender studies students a chance to interact with her material.”
Women’s rights advocacy back home
In 1989, Santee returned home to Tulsa, and immediately, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work. “I was managing the Oklahoma campaign for choice,” Johnson said. “Barbara called me one day out of the blue. She didn’t even know me. She started telling me her background, and I almost fell out of my chair. I said, ‘Barbara get into this office immediately! I am going to put you to work.’ We were fast friends ever since then.”
Santee also returned to the halls of TU as the associate director of the Center for Health Policy Research. In her spare time, she was a founding member of several organizations including the Oklahoma Progressive Alliance, Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, Tulsa Reproductive Health Coalition, Oklahoma Reproductive Health Coalition, Tulsa Women and Children’s Committee of the Tulsa AIDS Coalition and the Tulsa Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition.
Just a spoonful
Spoons are the No.1 utensil used worldwide by women. “Whether they are feeding themselves or children, whether they are caring for the sick, whether they are stirring a pot, it’s spoons that have been a common experience for women regardless of where they are and their place in history,” Wilson explained.
For this reason, Santee collected spoons from all of her travels, and she included them in her donation to TU. Looking past cultural differences, she recognized the universal parallels of the female experience, and for her, unity was worth celebrating.
Once again, Santee returns to TU in her writings, and her words will live on through the curious minds of students. “I have lived an extraordinary life where I started out as a simple Oklahoma country girl who grew up in a three-room tarpaper shack, but I had the great good luck to be able to travel the world,” Santee said. “It seems I have come full circle and ended back at the place I love, amongst the people I love. I’m so happy to be home.”