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Women Have Been Fighting Misinformation and Oppression of Their Bodies for Decades

A new collection provides firsthand accounts of women fighting for control of their own bodies and health.

As a young girl I often heard my mom whispering about “woman problems.” The barely audible phrase sounded mysterious, and the fact that she would not explain what it meant made it all the more alluring.

Years later, I was disappointed to learn that this all-purpose euphemism covered everything from breast cancer to stillbirths. But thankfully, the women’s health movement was in full flower by then and I had Our Bodies, Ourselves and other resources at my disposal.

Voices of the Women’s Health Movement trumpets the 40-year history of that movement. Although editor Barbara Seaman died in 2008, Laura Eldridge and Seven Stories Press are to be commended for pulling together a nearly 900 page celebration of feminist activism and advocacy. Eldridge calls the books “gloriously disorganized,” and they are. Entries are repetitive, seem arbitrarily placed, and sometimes contradict one another. What’s more, hard as it is to imagine anything being left out of tomes of this size, the volumes pay scant attention to numerous themes: The impact of environmental contamination; anti-abortion violence; transgender health; the spike in Caesarian sections; and the link between poverty and illness, among them.

That said, the 200 entries—perfect for a lecture-driven introductory women’s studies class—not only reflect on the history of U.S. feminism, but also zero in on the challenge of eradicating sexism within the medical community.  Most of the essays were previously published and the book includes work by such luminaries as Charon Asetoyer, Phyllis Chesler, Angela Davis, Betty Dodson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Germaine Greer, Shere Hite, Susie Orbach, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Alix Kates Shulman. In addition, numerous interviews with women’s health pioneers introduce women, and a handful of men, who have taken incredible risks to push for better access to healthcare both domestically and throughout the world.

The now-classic Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers , first published in 1973, opens the collection.  In it, authors Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English slam the misogynist church-state collusion that began in the 15 th century and took aim at female medics. “The present system was born in and shaped by the competition between male and female healers,” they conclude. “The witch was an empiricist: She relied on her senses rather than on faith or doctrine, she believed in trial and error, cause and effect. Her attitude was not religiously passive, but actively inquiring. She trusted her ability to find ways to deal with disease, pregnancy, and childbirth—whether through medications or charms. In short, her magic was the science of the times.”

Flash forward to the early 1900s when 15,000 women a year were dying from septic abortions and activists like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger were risking imprisonment for promoting birth control. Seaman and coauthor Susan F. Wood credit “advances in public health, increases in scientific and clinical knowledge, and improved access to care” for distinct “waves” of advocacy. The first, they write, was spearheaded by wealthy progressives, the second by feminist activists; the latter receives the lion’s share of attention in Voices.  

Book One chronicles Senate hearings on the birth control pill, held in 1970, that set the movement into motion. Much like hearings convened by Darrell Issa in February 2012—they included no women. Activist Alive Wolfson, who went on to create the National Women’s Health Network in 1975, found this enraging and disrupted the hearing, demanding to know why no women were testifying. As TV cameras rolled, Wolfson’s dissent got onto the nightly news and seemingly overnight, the feminist women’s health movement was launched. By 1971 self-help gynecology was prompting women to study their anatomy and grassroots movements were clamoring for better access to birth control and the legalization of abortion. The first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves , published as a pamphlet in 1973, was quickly expanded and by 1979 had become a widely relied upon medical reference.

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