CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She grew up with 10 siblings in a devout and strict Catholic home. She went to Catholic schools. Religion was an integral fact of her life.
Today, she credits that Catholic foundation for the analytical thinking that allowed her to question doctrine and spearhead such women's health services as birth control and abortion.
Nancy Tolliver, 70, a pioneer activist for women's reproductive health in West Virginia, retired Dec. 31 from the work that has driven her for nearly half a century.
As an obstetrical nurse, she saw heart-wrenching repercussions of teenage pregnancy that changed the direction of her career.
A fierce advocate of sex education, childbirth education and breastfeeding, she helped organize the Le Leche League here and was a founder and first director of the Women's Health Center.
She retired as director of the West Virginia Perinatal Partnership, a policy-making organization headed now by her daughter, Amy.
"I was born in Mason City, Iowa, one of 11 children in a very Catholic family. My father was in the meat business. We traveled a lot. We would get all the kids in a car and go off to the West, seven children and my parents making that trip across country in a Studebaker.
"When I was about 10, we moved to Turkey for two years. My father was on contract to the U.S. government to help Turkey set up slaughterhouses and packing plants and to develop health policy for meat production. This travel gave me a first-hand view of unbelievable poverty and oppression of women.
"All of my education was Catholic. In St. Joe, Mo., where we lived when I was a teenager, I attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a French order of nuns. It was a fabulous education. What I am most thankful for in my life are the people who influenced me to do what I'm doing.
"I had a scholarship to college. That summer, I was working in a Catholic hospital. My aunt, a nurse, was visiting when one of the kids in the family hurt their foot. I was soaking it in a pan of salt water. She said, 'Nancy, you ought to go into nursing.'
"Then, I was working in the hospital one day and the mother superior asked me to meet with her. She said, 'Nancy, I think you need to go into nursing. I've arranged for you to go to Oklahoma City. I've talked to your parents, and if you agree, your dad will take you in two weeks.'
"Off to Oklahoma I went. That's where I met my husband, Frank, who grew up in Mullens. My husband got the job in West Virginia working for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation as a psychologist.
"I went to Ohio Valley General Hospital for my psychiatric nursing training. I started working at CAMC as an obstetrical nurse and in the family planning clinic.
"Birth control had just been FDA-approved, so everyone was talking about the pill. In the clinic, I was exposed to the good part of obstetric nursing and the tragedies. And the tragedies seemed to be occurring frequently.
"Adolescent girls would be crying, and here they would have this little baby to take home, and often the parents took that baby and raised it.
"Those experiences touched me. I started asking myself, 'How do I personally control my own reproductive system if I want to have a career and still be a mother?' I was starting to have a little divide between what my church was teaching me and what I was feeling.
"As I got more involved in reproductive issues, I became more passionate about it. In planning sessions, I suddenly realized I was surrounded by a huge number of women who were Catholic. They were recognizing the importance of a woman being able to make decisions about having a baby.
"My passions are totally women's health. The first thing I got interested in was childbirth education and breastfeeding. As I had my own children, there was very little help on what childbirth was and how to manage it.
"I taught childbirth education to couples in the Charleston area for about seven years, four nights a week in a number of places. Thomas Hospital gave me their whole physical therapy room. I trained other nurses to teach childbirth education. We taught thousands of women and their husbands.
"I told Dr. Stabins I wanted to nurse my second baby. He handed me the Le Leche League book, 'The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.' He said it would tell me everything. That was another person who had a tremendous influence on the direction I went in.