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Obituary of Mary Jane Underwood: Public health nurse and abortion rights advocate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 28, 2012 - Mary Jane Underwood believed that a baby is a person with legal rights. It was the other part of the equation that often caused a firestorm.

“One becomes a person at birth, not before,” she wrote in 1999. “Before birth there is no baby, no infant, no person.” It was a belief that Mrs. Underwood, a former public health nurse who became an abortion counselor, had espoused most of her almost-96 years.

“Mary Jane was quiet,” said her husband, W. Murray Underwood, laughing at the suggestion that her bearing may have been due to shyness.  “She took it very matter-of-factly that some people disagreed with our opinions.”

Mrs. Underwood died Friday at Green Park Senior Living Community in St. Louis. She had been in declining health for some time, her husband said.

She had lived in Kirkwood for more than 40 years before moving to Crestview Senior Living in Crestwood about four years ago.

A streetcar named …

It was always “their” opinion and it was usually a liberal one. She and her husband had been a team for 66 years. 

As a young chemical engineer, Murray Underwood made his long commute by subway and streetcar from the north side of Chicago to the south side each day. He often noticed a young woman whom he could tell was a public health nurse by her uniform, black leather bag and badge. 

“She was not a Hollywood beauty,” he said, “but there was something about her that was extraordinarily attractive.”

He remembers the day she sat next to him on the streetcar: Feb. 21, 1946. Two months later, on April 28, they were married. She became a full-time homemaker for a time. He went to work for Monsanto in Springfield, Mass. and she returned to work in the emergency room of a local hospital.  She later served as head of a cancer clinic in Springfield.

After Monsanto transferred him to St. Louis in 1963, Mrs. Underwood ran the office of Dr. Charles Miller. She returned to public health nursing in St. Louis County, where she worked with Ellen Brasuna, a fellow nurse and a member of the Ethical Society of Saint Louis.

We worked together going into homes and children’s clinics,” Brasuna said. “She was very friendly and had a good sense of humor.” 

Her demeanor often stood her in good stead, but she had little tolerance for injustice in any form.

Social justice: In tandem

During a car trip to Chicago with Mrs. Underwood at the wheel, so the family story goes, Murray and Mary Jane pulled into a hotel drive-through to inquire about a room with little hope of getting one. They had just seen the car ahead pull away. The attendant assured them that a room was available, admitting she had told the other family that the hotel was full because they were African Americans. 

“Well, phooey on you,” Mrs. Underwood said, as she, too, drove away.

She and her husband were environmentalists, members of the Democratic Party who canvassed on behalf of their candidates and they twice traveled to El Salvador to monitor elections. The couple fought the banning of certain books in schools through their affiliation with the Missouri Coalition Against Censorship. 

Mrs. Underwood led their efforts as peace activists through her membership in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The organization was formed to seek peaceful means to world disarmament, women’s rights and racial and economic justice.

They were staunch supporters of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. He served on the board from the mid-‘60s until last year.

“Mary Jane was a strong member and clearly a remarkable woman,” said Brenda Jones, executive director of ACLU-EM. “She was on a personal crusade to make the world more fair.”

When a letter writer to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch criticized the ACLU in 1998, Mrs. Underwood took the critic to task for his claims of “offended sensibilities.”

“The ACLU really does take only important cases,” she responded. “With all due respect, offended sensibilities don't qualify.”

The two were unequivocal proponents of abortion rights. 

“She felt very strongly that people should have a right to a proper abortion by a good doctor in a hospital,” Murray Underwood said. 

They petitioned state legislators to change abortion laws and participated in vigils hosted by the Freedom of Choice Council of Greater St. Louis. Mrs. Underwood’s last job was at the much-picketed Reproductive Health Services in the Central West End, once Missouri’s largest abortion provider.

“She was happy to work as a counselor in an abortion clinic when it became legal,” her husband said.

It’s where she was working when she suffered a stroke in 1981. It ended her career as a nurse and destroyed her deftness as a seamstress who could make her children’s coats and her husband’s neckties; it did nothing to dampen her activism. 

“The great thing about Mary Jane was that she was always bright and cheerful and engaged,” Jones said. 

A time for devotion

Mary Jane Andrews was the only daughter and eldest child of Alfred Allen Andrews and Mary Clark Andrews. She was born Dec. 5, 1916, in the family’s farmhouse in McHenry County, Ill. A broken arm ended her father’s farming days when she was about 10. They moved to Ottawa, Ill. where her father became an insurance broker and a Democratic committeeman.

She graduated as a registered nurse from Northwestern School of Nursing and attended graduate school at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to become a public health nurse. A year out of school, she became the nurse on the Santa Fe Railroad, treating passengers who fell ill on the run between Chicago and Los Angeles.

When her husband retired from Monsanto in 1978, she accompanied him to Algeria, where he was a dean at a technical college.  They returned to the United States a year later and he became professor at Washington University.

Shortly after moving to St. Louis, the Underwoods searched for a church to attend. They were vacillating between a Unitarian Church and the Ethical Society, an organization they had first deemed “a little far out.” A tragedy sealed the decision. 

When their 22-year-old daughter, Mary Anne, and her boyfriend were killed during a robbery in East St. Louis, the Underwoods needed help in getting her body released. Their call to the Unitarian Church went unreturned for a month; the Ethical Society responded in 20 minutes.

“They took care of everything,” he said. “That made us devoted members.”

Mrs. Underwood’s services were held at the Ethical Society Tuesday afternoon. She donated her body to Washington University School of Medicine.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Underwood was preceded in death by her parents and a brother, John Ogden Andrews.

In addition to her husband, William Murray Underwood, her survivors include three children, Alice Virginia Nissen of Houston, William Allen (Marianna) Underwood of Conroe, Tex., and Jonathan Murray Underwood of Overland, Mo.; a brother, Asa Clark Andrews of Maple Park, Ill.; four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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