Anne Nicol Gaylor, a pioneering Madison businesswoman and abortion rights activist who was the principal founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest group of atheists and agnostics, died Sunday at Agrace HospiceCare in Fitchburg. She was 88.

The cause of death was complications from a fall. She had suffered a slight skull fracture, and there was some bleeding in the brain and heart arrhythmia, said her daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor.

For decades, the elder Gaylor was the face and sometimes biting voice of the foundation, a Madison-based group that is one of the country’s most determined proponents of the separation between church and state.

She also co-founded and led the Women’s Medical Fund, a Madison nonprofit that helps poor women pay for abortions.

Those twin topics — atheism and abortion — defined her public life, turning her into one of Madison’s most controversial public figures and a person of national prominence.

“She was one of the great ones in the women’s movement,” said Robin Morgan, a former editor-in-chief of Ms. magazine. “Her integrity was always bracing, inspiring, magnificent. I will miss her on this planet.”

Gaylor’s prominence led her to be a hero to some, a subject of scorn to others.

She became a constant target of hate mail and death threats, none of which seemed to deter her. Though soft-voiced and physically slight, she could deliver a lacerating sound bite, giving as good as she got.

She called abortion “a blessing” and the Bible “a grim fairy tale.” She coined the phrase “Nothing fails like prayer.”

“She was firm in her beliefs and never afraid to express herself,” said state Sen. Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat who called her one of the leading activists of her time.

In person, Gaylor often surprised people because her unassuming manner belied her toughness.

“Because of people’s stereotypes of feminists and atheists, they’d imagine a battle-ax,” her daughter said. “Of course, it was no surprise to us. She was always unfailingly loving and supportive to her family and colleagues.”

Over the years, Gaylor promoted her views and those of other self-described “freethinkers” — atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists — on national TV talk shows, including ones hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Tom Snyder, Phil Donahue and Larry King.

After the taping of one TV show in Philadelphia, a female audience member rushed Gaylor from behind and got her in a choke hold, announcing plans to drive the devil out of her. Gaylor’s husband, Paul, broke the woman’s grip.

A native of Tomah, Gaylor earned an English degree from UW-Madison. She started Madison’s first temporary office help service and, later, with a partner, the city’s first private employment agency for people seeking permanent jobs.

For three years in the 1960s, she and her husband, who died in 2011, owned and ran the weekly Middleton Times-Tribune.

“It was not a good fit,” Gaylor recently said of her newspaper years. “I’m ultra-liberal, and Middleton was very conservative. I like to write and sound off, but my views were met with stunned silence.”

The mother of four children, she was active early on in the women’s movement and was vice president for many years of the central region of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

She came to see religion as the root cause of much of the opposition to her advocacy efforts.

Register for more free articles
Stay logged in to skip the surveys

That led her to create the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 1976 with the assistance of her daughter and the late John Sontarck. It has about 23,000 dues-paying members.

Earlier this year, the foundation opened a multimillion-dollar addition to its Downtown headquarters to house a growing staff of 17.

In an interview last year, Gaylor said she considers the foundation’s thriving existence her greatest legacy.

“I’m absolutely delighted that when people have a complaint about a church, they have an actual place to go for action,” she said.

Asked about the organization’s in-your-face name, Gaylor said, “I’ve never liked euphemisms. If you have something to say, say it.”

The foundation has racked up countless wins in and out of courthouses.

Among its early victories, it got UW-Madison to end the use of invocations and benedictions at its commencements, a practice that began with the university’s founding in 1849.

Recently, it has aggressively taken on a federal law that allows clergy members to receive tax-exempt housing allowances.

Gaylor stepped down as president in 2004, turning over the reins to her daughter and son-in-law.

During her retirement years, she continued to run the Women’s Medical Fund, which she co-founded in 1976 with Bob West, a UW-Madison chemistry professor, and his wife, Margaret.

The fund has raised and spent millions to help low-income women pay for more than 20,000 abortions.

In a 2010 article on the fund, leaders of both Pro-Life Wisconsin and Wisconsin Right to Life railed against Gaylor.

“It’s a stark example of misguided compassion that serves as discrimination of the worst kind,” said Peggy Hamill, then the state director of Pro-Life Wisconsin.

Gaylor was unapologetic.

“In the kind of world I want to live in, all children would be wanted,” she said.

For decades, Gaylor operated the fund from her dining room table, taking calls on her home phone from women in desperate situations.

“She answered the phone herself for years and spoke to every woman,” said state Rep. Lisa Subeck, a Madison Democrat. “To me, that really speaks volumes. She realized that having access to health care was more than just whether it was legal or not, it meant having the financial means to access it.”

Gaylor’s body will be cremated. She requested no memorial service, her daughter said.

She said her mother chose the words that will appear on her tombstone: “Feminist. Activist. Freethinker.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

Subscribe to our Politics email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.