Few who came after the early suffragists better demonstrate the fighting spirit exhibited by those early warriors than Nellie Jane Gray. Inspired by the women’s suffrage movement, Nellie left an enduring legacy in our world as a champion of women’s rights. Like the suffragists, she understood that being pro-woman means being pro-life and that women’s rights begin in the womb.
Nellie was born June 25, 1924, in Big Spring, TX, the daughter of a mechanic and a homemaker. After high school, she worked as a secretary for a year to raise money for college, then enrolled at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman’s University) in 1941. After World War II broke out, she joined the Women’s Army Corps. She finished college after the war using the G.I. Bill, and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s in economics. She received a law degree in 1959 by enrolling in Georgetown University at night and subsequently worked for the U.S. Department of State.
A long-time Democrat, Nellie was appalled by the 1973 Supreme Court decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that allowed abortion on demand at all stages of life. In her Washington home, she organized with fellow pro-life activists to mark the first dark anniversary of Roe and commemorate the thousands (now millions) of lives taken by abortion. They decided to follow the examples of the suffragists and early civil rights activists that made their voices heard by marching on Washington.
The original 1974 March for Life drew about 20,000 people and was supposed to be a one-time event. Nellie told the Religion News Service, “We just thought we were going to march one time and Congress would certainly pay attention to 20,000 people coming in the middle of winter to tell them to overturn Roe v. Wade.” When it became clear that the first March was only one of many battles to overturn Roe, March for Life was incorporated as a non-profit, non-sectarian organization. Nellie quit her job to work as the full-time volunteer president of the organization and principal organizer of the now-annual demonstration.
Since 1974, neither treacherous blizzards nor government shutdowns have stopped the March for Life from taking place in our nation’s capital. The original gathering has since inspired hundreds of marches around the rest of the country and the world, from Chicago, IL to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and San Francisco, CA to Zagreb, Croatia. These marches have brought out millions of people with a shared goal - to protest abortion and to celebrate the right to life. Even presidents have even addressed the masses and Popes have sent envoys and shared their support.
Nellie passed away in 2012, but she will always be remembered for her unwavering commitment to the pro-life movement and “no exceptions, no compromise” stance on the taking of innocent human life. She was also optimistic about the strength of the pro-life movement, saying, “We will be here until we overturn Roe v. Wade, and believe me, we are going to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
As the March for Life’s first full-time employee and current president, it is such an honor to fill the big shoes Nellie left behind. Our founder’s vision of building a pro-life culture in America mirrors the sacrifices and valor of the suffragists. The theme for the 47th March for Life, “Life Empowers: Pro-Life is Pro-Woman,” fittingly pays tribute to these women and to Nellie as we continue their fight for equality for the unborn. With our allies, we are looking to make abortion on demand unthinkable and to remove the stain it brings not only to our country but to all of humanity.