Saturday, September 23, 2023 Sep 23, 2023
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SOCIAL ACTIVIST Gertrude Shelburne

By Rod Davis |

The newly married and immaculately pedigreed Mrs. Shelburne (her father was an Aldredge, her mother, a Munger) didn’t really look like the kind of woman to get mixed up with a gang of smugglers in the 1930s, but under the circumstances there wasn’t much choice. The infamous federal anti-smut law known as the Comstock Act, later repealed, declared contraceptive devices to be obscene materials; therefore their transportation through the mail was illegal. So if an unlikely group of Dallas socialites drawn into the fledgling movement known as the Planned Parenthood Federation wanted to make diaphragms or condoms available to poor, mostly black women, they had to break the law. Week after week, empty shipping boxes from the Dallas-owned Ripley shirt company were sent to New York, then returned full-not with cotton, size 16-33, but with plastic or latex, one size fits all. Often as not, the boxes had been packed by Margaret Sanger, the New York birth control pioneer, whose visits to Planned Parenthood board meetings in Dallas always packed the ballroom at the old Baker Hotel.

Mrs. Shelburne was always present because, from 1933 until her stroke last year, she was always on the board. So great was her influence that Planned Parenthood of Dallas’ new annual achievement award carries her name, and one of its seven birth control clinics is named after her late physician husband, Samuel.

Her first name is Gertrude, but for most of her life, and in every media clip spanning her long involvement in Dallas civic and philanthropic groups from the 1930s until the 1970s, she is Mrs. Samuel Shelburne. It was the way proper women in Dallas society were identified. But Gertrude Shelburne never let propriety get in her way.

If she is known today as one of the early defenders of birth control counseling in Dallas, she is also acknowledged as a prototype of the activist blue-blooded volunteer. As former Mayor Annette Strauss once told her, “You are a ’have been. ” You have been president of everything.” Among other prestigious posts, Gertrude Shelburne served as president of the Junior League, director of the Woman’s Club and a director of the YWCA. She helped set up the Dallas Council of Social Agencies, a precursor to various community service groups and, in the 1950s, became one of the first two women to serve on a Dallas County grand jury. In her spare time, she was into music-as president, during the 1950s, of both the Dallas Symphony League and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, on whose executive committee she served for nearly two decades. Of all her volunteer efforts, the symphony was her favorite endeavor, and she is proudest of a single feat: “We kept it going.”

She kept something else going, too. At 84, a wheelchair may limit Shelburne’s movements, but not the movement she joined at 26. “You don’t realize what we have been through to get to this point,” she reflects. “But we’re still having the same battles. I thought we had won with Roe vs. Wade, but we have to fight it over and over.”