News & Politics

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 15th 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.

The accounts of this time are exhilarating and readers will feel the heady optimism of the era. Accounts from the late Dr. Helen Rodrigues-Trias, founder of the now-defunct Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, and Bylle Avery, founder of the National Black Women’s Health Project, offer insight into the ways race, class, and gender collided in the 1960s and 70s— and beyond.

Avery’s account about founding the NBWHP is instructive. “If you just say ‘women’ the assumption is white women,” she told interviewer Tania Ketenjian. “I understood that Black women needed to come together to decide what our health issues were. We could look at health statistics and see what we were dying from, but more important to me was what we were living with.” This focus has propelled the Project to address diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension—as well as reproduction--since its founding in 1980.

But while history is a central component of Voices, personal accounts tie the personal to the political.  

Audrey Flack’s The Madonna’s Tears for a Crack in My Heart, recounts what it was like to raise an autistic child in the 1970s. The hauntingly beautiful essay channels rage at mother-blaming theories that treated middle-an-upper-class women as negligent if they were employed after a child’s birth. Her love for Melissa, and her fury at the few options she had to choose from, makes this one of the volumes’ standouts.

Likewise, Laura Yaeger’s Having Anne.  In this searing entry, Yaeger writes about going off lithium when she became pregnant. Her husband, terrified that she’d have a manic episode while he was at work, hired a “nanny” to watch Laura during his absence. As the three adults navigate this uncharted terrain, Yaeger chronicles, with humor and pathos, their nine-month journey.

Other essays look at everything from eating disorders, to rape, to the use of the now-discredited drug, Diethylstilbestrol, DES, for women at risk of miscarriage, to violence against women, plastic surgery, and end-of-life concerns. Debates over contentious issues—for example, whether it is ever okay for feminist groups to accept money from pharmaceutical companies or corporations—are aired, but remain unresolved.

In addition, the volumes highlight how much is left undone. “In the United States, our crumbling health system has created a world where very few, regardless of sex or gender, can receive adequate healthcare and drug companies have worked hard to see that those who do are full of dubious, long-term drugs,” Eldridge concludes. “Hysterectomies are still performed too frequently, despite strong evidence that unnecessary gynecological surgery shortens the lifespan. The right to a safe abortion, of course, continues to suffer constant assault. The rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people continue to be abused and curtailed.”

Reading Eldridge’s words, it is hard not to become depressed, for despite 40-plus years of grassroots activism, there are still a huge number of frontline battles waiting to be fought. So let’s stew for a bit, and then turn our dejection into a fierce, well-thought-out struggle to win the world we want.  For as the World Social Forums continue to remind us: Another world is possible.          

Voices of the Women’s Health Movement, Edited by Barbara Seaman with Laura Eldridge, Seven Stories Press, 2012, Volume One: 448 pages, $21.95; Volume Two, 384 pages, $19.95.