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An Unsung Hero Finds New Cause for Change

March 31, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Around here, we like our social causes with celebrities attached. Your Jane Fondas, your Elizabeth Taylors, your Charlton Hestons--enlist one of them and you've got it made, attention-wise.

All too often, though, the real heroes toil in obscurity.

You've probably never heard of Robin Schneider, though she has been instrumental in orchestrating the abortion rights movement in Southern California for most of the last decade.

Working for the California Abortion Rights Action League since 1985, Schneider has worked to elect legislators who believe in a woman's right to choose, and has even been credited with helping make the California Legislature safe for pro-choice Republicans.

But even the most die-hard activist needs a break. Today, after 15 years of political organizing on issues as diverse as breaking down the sex barriers in children's baseball and oil drilling at UCLA, the soft-spoken 32-year-old Schneider is calling it quits.

She won't be trading in her long hours and low pay for a fancy job with good perks, though. Instead, she'll be moving to Thailand, where she will work long hours for low pay, teaching English for a year or two in a provincial capital near the border of Laos and Cambodia.

"I have always felt that national and international service are a great way to grow," says Schneider. "Teaching is a good thing to know, a big change from what I'm doing now. I wanted to go to a developing country and I have been fascinated by countries with traditions other than the Judeo-Christian ones. . . . And Thailand is warm."

Schneider's low-key, personable style has won her the respect of conservatives and liberals.

"She has an unusually savvy capacity to understand politics and to know when and how to have an impact," says Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Brentwood).

"I just don't know what we'll do without her," says actress and CARAL board member Polly Bergen, who says Schneider is "as powerful and productive" as nationally known feminists Faye Wattleton, Kate Michaelman and Gloria Steinem.

Bergen, who has often told the story of her own illegal abortion, has known Schneider since 1989, after a phone call out of the blue.

"This young woman says, 'My name is Robin Schneider and I've heard your personal story about abortion. There is a woman running in northern San Diego County, and we have about 24 hours left to try to push her over the top. She is in trouble right now, and if we could somehow get $3,500, we could make a very big impact and perhaps get her elected.'

"I said, 'Elected to what?'

"She said, 'She is a Republican lady . . .'

"And I said, ' Excuuuse me? '

" '. . . running in a district a Democrat never has and never will win, and she is running on a pro-choice platform against a Republican who is violently anti-choice. A Republican is going to win no matter what.' "

In a matter of hours, Bergen raised $6,000 for the candidate she'd never heard of, a nurse named Tricia Hunter.

Says Hunter: "I got checks from Henry Mancini and Judith Krantz! I didn't want to cash them! We had no idea where they were coming from." She squeaked to victory by 197 votes.

"By marshaling money, volunteers and media attention, Robin helped turn an impossible race into victory and demonstrated that pro-choice was a viable (Republican) position," Friedman said.

Adds Bergen: "Robin is truly an unsung hero."

The child of apolitical parents, Schneider can't say why, exactly, she gravitated to activism.

"My parents were divorced, and I lived most of the time with my father," she says during a conversation at a Santa Monica restaurant. "I guess I didn't have a mother around to teach me what it meant to be female."

When she was in junior high, in New Jersey, she led a fight to allow girls to play in Little League. CBS Radio broadcast a story on the issue, and an activist was born.

A year in Kenya as a high school exchange student was a radicalizing experience. "You see how unequal things are when you live in a place like that," she says.

On the night of her high school prom, while other students danced, she canvassed door-to-door for a political campaign.

Around the same time, she became pregnant and had an abortion.

"I wasn't at all ready to be a parent," she says. "I had always known that my mother and stepmother had gotten married because they were pregnant, and I just felt that it was really important that women be able to make choices without having to risk their lives."

She put off college to work in Washington, helped found one of New Jersey's first shelters for battered women and attended the Midwest Academy, a Chicago school for community organizers.

A couple of years after her abortion, Ronald Reagan became President, and, she says, "I could see this was going to be a right that needed defending." So she became active in the abortion-rights movement.

"I'm a feminist political hack," she says with a smile after ticking off the causes she's devoted half a life to.

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