Archive for the ‘American Culture’ Category

February 26, 2013

Women’s History Makers: “Our Bodies, Ourselves”

Boston Women s Health Book Collective MAKERS

Makers: Women Who Make America,” the PBS/AOL documentary, debuts tonight on PBS at 8 p.m. (check local listings). If you’re on Twitter, join the discussion during the broadcast at #MAKERSchat.

Narrated by Meryl Streep, the film covers the last 50 years of the women’s movement — the accomplishments and setbacks that followed the publication of “The Feminine Mystique.”

“Most of us have seen the old television commercials before, those 1950s ads that marketed products by telling women how stupid and disappointing they were. So, in the beginning, this program feels like old news (one generation has seen it all before, and the other doesn’t care), but the narrative quickly comes together and still has the power to astound,” writes Anita Gates in The New York Times.

Extended Interviews Online
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” founders Judy Norsigian and Miriam Hawley were interviewed for Makers about the medical and social conditions that prompted a group of women to research, publish and distribute their own findings on women’s health and sexuality. Their interviews are available online.

“You have to understand that back in the late 60s, 98 percent of OB-GYNS were male. About 90 percent of all physicians were male. There was a tremendous amount of condescencion and paternalism,” says Norsigian, who is also executive director of the organization Our Bodies Ourselves.

“I remember one doctor saying to me, dear dear, you’re a smart intelligent woman — you ought to have more children,” says Hawley, later noting, “I kept saying we’re going to sell a million copies. And people kept laughing till we did.”

Produced by filmmakers Dyllan McGee, Betsy West and Peter Kunhardt, the Makers website proclaims to have the largest video collection of women’s stories. It is quite a mix. Browse through the offerings and you’ll find author Alice Walker, food pioneer Alice Waters, racecar driver Danica Patrick, artist/architect May Lin, comic creator Cathy Guisewite, actress Rita Moreno, former college president Ruth Simmons, and coal miner Barbara Burns, who fought sexual harassment in the workplace.

And, of course, Gloria Steinem.

And, suprisingly, Phyllis Schlafly.

Women’s Health Activism
Some of our colleagues in health activism are featured, including Susan Love, who discusses innovative breast cancer research as well as her own coming out story:   “Living out loud really allows you to be who are and to get into the work you need to do as opposed to spending a lot of time trying to protect yourself.”

Byllye Avery, founder of the Black Women’s Health Project (now the Black Women’s Health Imperative) and co-founder of Raising Women’s Voices, discusses access to abortion and opening a women’s health clinic in Florida — and working to “de-medicalize” the interior with shag carpeting, posters on the ceiling, and pot holders on the stirrups (to eliminate the chill). She also addresses the importance of community and self-care on multiple levels.

“Once you can get the emotional stuff straight, then you can start talking about the body,” says Avery. “Because if I’m worrying about someone coming home and beating me, I’m hardly thinking about I haven’t had a pap smear in five years.”

Sharing personal stories, Avery reminisces about her late husband, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1970. Before his death, he recommended “The Feminine Mystique,” which he thought she would appreciate.

“I hated that I didn’t read it before he died so we could have had some discussions, ’cause I could have confronted him about the dishes,” she said.

New Voices, New Issues
Makers.com is a historian’s treasure trove, yet it also covers history in the making with the inclusion of younger women like media creator Tavi Gevinson, editor of Rookie magazine (Gevinson praised the new “Our Bodies, Ourselves“), feminist organizer Shelby Knox, and youth organizer Maritza Alarcón, whose energy about her work is infectious.

The Makers blog has pulled together quotes around timely themes, such as “5 Views on Job Flexibility” and “5 Views on Women in Film– Past, Present and Future.”

One of Norsigian’s online interview segments addresses finding support, and she concludes with this advice:

“Don’t go it alone, if possible. Get in place the kinds of friends and families around you that will make it possible to be a good parent, a good co-worker, and to contribute to the community around you. I think it’s important that we find space to be part of a larger community, that we don’t just see ourselves as part of a nuclear family.”

Updated to reflect that the OBOS interviews are available online and not in the film itself.


February 29, 2012

Gabby Sidibe on What’s Missing From Movies, Plus Organizations Making a Difference

During the Oscars on Sunday night, a video montage featured a number of famous actors speaking about the power of movies. Gabourey Sidibe, a break-out star who was nominated in 2010 for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “Precious,” shared something quite personal:

The way I watch movies, I’m really searching for myself, because I don’t get to see enough of myself and I don’t — I kind of don’t get to like myself enough.

But if I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.

Gabby Sidibe at Academy Awards in 2010In that short statement, Sidibe (left, at the Academy Awards in 2010) revealed a great deal about representation and identity in Hollywood, which rarely includes women who don’t match a young, thin and white ideal. When young (and old) women don’t see themselves in popular culture — the lingua franca of our times — they receive the message that their lives are not as important or worthy of inclusion.

A number of organizations have been working to counter this message by focusing on girls’ inner beauty, smarts and talent. New Moon Girls Media, which publishes New Moon magazine and runs a moderated online community for girls, has launched Yes, I’m Beautiful!, a YouTube project that asks, “Why are you beautiful? What is true beauty? What would you say to someone who isn’t sure about her/his beauty?”

No matter what your age you can send your “Yes, I’m Beautiful” video to: beautynewmoon AT gmail.com. It’s a nice counterpoint to stories about young girls turning to YouTube to ask for public comment on whether they’re ugly.

Hardy Girls, Healthy Women is offering a free webinar in March and April to introduce its girl-driven media activism site, Powered By Girl (PBG), and will offer tips on using social media for youth activism.

As Rachel pointed out yesterday, the National Eating Disorders Association has launched Proud2BMe, which includes the Stamp Out Bodysnarking project to reduce bullying based on one’s appearance.

Later today, Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, will officially launch the Born This Way Foundation at a celebrity-filled event at Harvard University. The foundation will support programs and initiatives that empower youth — focusing on issues of self-confidence, well-being, anti-bullying, mentoring and career development.

Hollywood embraces diversity at a glacial pace. Fortunately these groups are ahead of the times.


December 21, 2011

The Health Cost of Black Women’s Hair Products

by Kat Friedrich

There is a striking lack of mainstream news coverage of the health hazards posed by beauty products, such as hair relaxers and skin lighteners, that are commonly used by black women. African-American women spend more on beauty products than white women do, but far too little research has looked at how women use these products.

So when the New York City-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice set out to survey African, African-American, and Latina women this year to find out how they use beauty products and what they know about them, it was an important step toward increasing awareness of a long-standing women’s health issue.

“We noticed that groups conducting surveys around this have focused on middle-class white women,” Ogonnaya Dotson-Newman, campaign director for WE ACT in Harlem, told The Uptowner. “But there is a whole area of hair products that you wouldn’t know about unless you live in certain urban areas.”

Rochelle RitchieStraight hair has often — and unfairly — been an occupational requirement for black women. TV journalism is one of the most problematic fields (see the Maynard Institute’s historical view of “good hair” on the TV news). Reporter Rochelle Ritchie’s 2010 story (right) about going natural with her hair — and doing so publicly — made headlines and is included in the Body Image chapter in the new “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

Keonte Coleman, an assistant journalism professor at Bennett College, has more on Ritchie’s backstory and decision to cut her hair on TV, and the standards to which black women in professional media positions are often held.

“Maybe there aren’t any guidelines preventing natural hairstyles, but there is a culture in place that fosters the need for black women to look like their white counterparts,” writes Coleman.

The ingredients of hair relaxers, which many black women use to straighten their curls, are anything but relaxing. Almost all of the samples of currently available hair relaxers tested by Environmental Working Group (EWG) were ranked highly toxic, although limited information was available. Allergic reactions, hormone disruption, immune system toxicity and organ toxicity were four of the main risks.

In contrast, hair straighteners, which are more commonly used by white women, have generally been considered to be relatively safer. EWG’s website shows most of these products are medium-risk with the highest concerns being allergic reactions, immune toxicity and hormone disruption. These risks are similar to those of the hair polishers which are used by women of color.

That was the thinking, at least, until 2010, when concern about formaldehyde in Brazilian keratin hair straighteners made headlines after salon workers in Oregon and internationally complained of breathing problems and eye irritation. Formaldehyde is an industrial chemical that can cause a host of health problems, including an increased risk of cancer.

In response, the FDA this year sent a warning letter to the makers of the hair straightening product Brazilian Blowout, which was found to contain formaldehyde even though it was labeled “formaldehyde free.” (The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics provides a timeline and status update since complaints were first lodged.)

It’s interesting that the formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowout drew criticism from the FDA, while the many ingredients in hair relaxers African-American women use have remained under the radar. These relaxers, as well as costly hair extensions, have been on the market for a long time.

Yumna Mohamed, reporting for The Uptowner, summarized some of the research on black women’s hair products:

While hair dyes, bleaches and relaxers have already been linked to skin problems (including rashes, burns, itching and hair loss), a number of national studies are being conducted to determine whether women of color face higher risks of breast and lung cancer from beauty product exposure.

Dr. Mary Beth Terry, a Columbia University epidemiologist, published a study in May in the Journal of Immigration and Minority Health showing that African-American and African-Caribbean women were more likely to be exposed to hormonally-active chemicals in hair products than white women, and used them more often.

“These products are often used daily and over the course of many years,” Terry says. “A number of these commonly-used products contain endocrine disruptors and placenta, and exposure to these could cause women to be more susceptible to hormone-sensitive diseases such as aggressive breast cancer.”

WE ACT expects to release its survey findings in January. It will use the information to lobby the cosmetics industry and advise women about the dangers in hair products.


Kat Friedrich is an environmental journalist whose work focuses on urban communities. She lives in Boston, uses Twitter, and blogs at Science Is Everyone’s Story.


November 12, 2010

Judy Norsigian Joins the “The Body” Discussion at the Chicago Humanities Festival

The Chicago Humanities Festival continues tonight with Our Bodies Ourselves Executive Director Judy Norsigian, who will give the Doris Conant Lecture on Women and Culture at 6 p.m. at the Francis W. Parker School (2233 N Clark Street).

Here’s the summary of her talk, which will include discussion of reproductive technologies and cosmetic surgeries:

In her current advocacy efforts, Norsigian seeks to help women navigate the intersections of technology and health to better understand controversies surrounding genetics research, medications, fertility, and other areas that affect women’s health. She discusses the pros and cons of selected technological breakthroughs in the field of women’s health and how the complexities of our modern healthcare system sometimes mitigate against the use of established best practices.

Matti Bunzl, professor of anthropology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been blogging about the process of putting together the 2010 Chicago Humanities Festival and the threads that connect the speakers to this year’s theme: The Body.

With more than 90 related programs taking place over a two-week period, the festival invited authors, choreographers, economists, athletes, spoken-word artists, philosophers and neuroscientists to weigh in on the body politic, the body as machine, and the body and soul.

Here Bunzl explains how he and his colleague Rebecca Stumpf, a primatologist, came up with the idea of inviting Judy to take part:

A couple of years ago, Becky and I were having lunch – and as we were telling each other about our respective research, we realized that, our different methodologies notwithstanding, we were ultimately interested in very similar questions. I had undertaken work on lesbians and gays in an effort to understand contemporary transformations of human sexuality. Becky, too, was interested in the topic. In particular, she was trying to reconstruct the gender dynamics in the evolution of human sexuality. In the field, Becky had paid particular attention to female chimps, observing their mate choices and trying to ascertain whether they had sexual agency. Ultimately, we both tried to understand what is and isn’t “natural” when it comes to sexuality.

Here is the beauty of being an academic: as we were talking, we both had the same thought – why don’t we teach a course together? And that’s what we did.

We have now taught Sex in Nature and Culture twice [...]  Becky and I were teaching our course this past spring when the possibility arose of inviting Judy Norsigian to the CHF. I mentioned it in class, and Becky’s eyes immediately lit up. To her, Our Bodies Ourselves is a key reference point and one that had a direct impact on her own decision to pursue research with implications for women’s health issues.

Read his previous posts about  author and Colby College English professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, who spoke last weekend on “A Life in Two Genders,” and Ania Loomba, a University of Pennsylvania English professor and leading Shakespeare expert who focuses on race and colonialism. Loomba is scheduled to speak on Saturday afternoon about “Shakespeare and the Black Body.”

Earlier on Saturday, there’s a panel on “Reproductive Rights: Politics and Ethics in the Abortion Debate,” featuring Yale Law School professor Reva Siegel, who will first discuss her book “Before Roe v. Wade,” an analysis of arguments that influenced the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision.

The Chicago Humanities Festival line-up has been especially impressive this year. Columnist Dan Savage is on tonight, after Judy’s talk. Other speakers include performance artist Sarah Jones; author Leslie Marmon Silko; science writer Rebecca Skloot (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks“); disability rights activist and playwright Susan Nussbaum; and Northwestern professor Alice Dreger, who is discussing “The Intersex Body” on Sunday.

If you want to learn one awesome new thing today about bodies, read Dreger’s response to a 15-year-old girl worried about the size of her clit. Brilliant.

Hope to see you tonight!


August 2, 2010

Selling Out Medicine: An Up-Close Look at the Pharmaceutical Industry’s Influence on Medical Research

Boston Review recently produced a special issue entitled “Big Pharma, Bad Medicine” — and it is well worth reading.

Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and author of “The Truth About Drug Companies,” wrote the lead article — to which many other academics, health writers and industry representatives responded.

Angell’s opening critique of the cozy relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and medical research institutions is devastating. Summarinzing an argument she made in her book — and in many prominent op-edsinterviews and in a NEJM editorial, “Is Academic Medicine for Sale?” — Angell outlines the steps through which big pharma influences, and in many cases controls, the entire process of medical research — from clinical trials of new drugs to continuing education of doctors.

By putting profit before public good, big pharma’s power distorts the medical mission of many universities:

Academic medical centers are charged with educating the next generation of doctors, conducting scientifically important research, and taking care of the sickest and neediest patients. That’s what justifies their tax-exempt status. In contrast, drug companies — like other investor-owned businesses — are charged with increasing the value of their shareholders’ stock. That is their fiduciary responsibility, and they would be remiss if they didn’t uphold it. All their other activities are means to that end. The companies are supposed to develop profitable drugs, not necessarily important or innovative ones, and paradoxically enough, the most profitable drugs are the least innovative. Nor do drug companies aim to educate doctors, except as a means to the primary end of selling drugs. Drug companies don’t have education budgets; they have marketing budgets from which their ostensibly educational activities are funded.

This profound difference in missions is often deliberately obscured — by drug companies because it’s good public relations to portray themselves as research and educational institutions, and by academics because it means they don’t have to face up to what’s really going on.

Angell’s most pointed criticism is not at the drug companies, however, who, apologists could argue, are just trying to do right by their investors. Rather, she is most bothered by the complicity of the academic institutions. Angell ultimately recommends three specific reforms:

First, members of medical school faculties who conduct clinical trials should not accept any payments from drug companies except research support, and that support should have no strings attached. In particular, drug companies should have no control over the design, interpretation, and publication of research results. Medical schools and teaching hospitals should rigorously enforce this rule and should not themselves enter into deals with companies whose products are being studied by members of their faculty.

Second, doctors should not accept gifts from drug companies, even small ones, and they should pay for their own meetings and continuing education. Other professions pay their own way, and there is no reason for the medical profession to be different in this regard.

Finally, academic medical centers that patent discoveries should put them in the public domain or license them inexpensively and non-exclusively.

Several of the respondents in the Boston Review pick up on one of Angell’s points and pursue it with more depth. In  ”The Case of H1N1,” Howard Brody, director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at University of Texas and author of “Hooked: Ethics, the Medical Profession and the Pharmaceutical Industry,” explains how the pharmaceutical company Roche was able to obscure negative or neutral research on the drug Tamiflu while public health agencies around the world stockpiled large supplies. Later, the research in support of Tamiflu was found to be unconvincing.

David Bollier, author of “Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own” and co-editor of Onthecommons.org, takes Angell’s recommendations a step further with his call to “Restore Medicine to the Commons“:

Understanding academic medicine as a commons helps us appreciate more clearly why it is so important to protect the non-market paradigm of research, education, and clinical care. In this mode, medicine harnesses the power of the scientific method through a transparent, ethical, merit-based process. It mobilizes community judgment and ethical scrutiny. It is insulated from the corrupting influences and self-dealing associated with an unregulated market economy.

Unfortunately, we have not been attentive to the value of academic medicine as a commons. We are suffering mightily as a result.

Suzanne Gordon, author of “When Chicken Soup Isn’t Enough: Stories of Nurses Standing Up for Themselves, Their Patients and Their Profession,” reminds us: “Don’t Forget Nurses.” She notes that nurse-practioners, who prescribe a great deal of medicine, have not been overlooked by the pharmaceutical industry, even if they are often forgotten in this type of discussion:

Today nurses no longer have to beg to get noticed. Like medical conferences, nursing conferences are now heavily supported by pharmaceutical and medical-equipment companies, which, like the corporations advertising on public television and radio, demand more and more of the spotlight. Nurses, like physicians, are flown to exotic spots and showered with so-called educational presentations. When I mentioned this phenomenon to a very respected nurse-academic, I expected her to share my concern. Her response: “It’s about time we got ours.”

Perhaps the most poignant — and funny — response comes from Adriane Fugh-Berman, associate professor of physiology and family medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center and director of Pharmedout.org. To show how continuing medical education (CME) is, in Angell’s words, “marketing masquerading as education,” Fugh-Berman creates a fictional scenario:

The gurgles and rumbles of an empty stomach are called, in medical-speak, borborygmi (it is one of the few onomatopoeic medical words). Let’s imagine that a company is developing a drug that prevents borborygmi. The first step would be to encourage people to take the disease state seriously. Marketing messages developed while the drug is still undergoing testing might include:

• While the occasional growling stomach is not a cause for concern, regular episodes could indicate the presence of CLASS (Chronic Loud Atypical Stomach Sounds).

• CLASS is not always benign. The distinction between normal stomach rumbling and a symptom of a serious disease can only be made by a physician.

• CLASS sufferers may limit their travel, work, and recreational activities out of embarrassment; some may become reclusive, fearing social stigmatization.

• CLASS can lead to overeating and obesity because sufferers may eat constantly to prevent audible stomach rumbling.

A pharmaceutical company may then begin to recruit physicians to act as mouthpieces for specific marketing messages …

Fugh-Berman continues the story all the way to the point where other companies are attempting to create “me-too” drugs that piggy-back on the original company’s success.

Angell, in her response to the responders, notes that Fugh Berman’s scenario “would be hilarious if it were an exaggeration, but it’s not. Drug companies frequently engage in such campaigns to prepare the way for a new drug or a new use for an old one. One example was the creation of an epidemic of ‘social anxiety disorder,’ formerly known as shyness, and the marketing of Paxil to treat it.”

*In related news, Harvard Medical School just last week announced new restrictions on relationships between its 11,000 faculty members and pharmaceutical and medical device makers. Here’s a summary of the changes.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Plus: Drugs, of course, can’t solve everything. Writing in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande explores (in a very humanizing and moving way) how our healthcare system, which can do a great job of prolonging life, is often at a loss when it comes to care for the dying.

“People have concerns besides simply prolonging their lives. Surveys of patients with terminal illness find that their top priorities include, in addition to avoiding suffering, being with family, having the touch of others, being mentally aware, and not becoming a burden to others,” writes Gawande. “Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars.”


June 17, 2010

The Politics of Fathering

Nancy Chodorow’s “The Reproduction of Mothering” was an instant feminist classic when it was published in 1978. One of the most visionary conclusions was her call for men to take an equal role in the caretaking of children. If they don’t, she argued, women would grow up with a distorted perspective on their own relationships with men.

More than 30 years later, Chodorow’s call appears as challenging as ever — at least in the United States, where parental leave is still unpaid (putting us behind 177 nations, including Haiti and Afghanistan, that provide all women, and in some cases men, income and time off after the birth of a child) and only 12 weeks long, which discourages even willing men from taking over child-rearing duties.

Four years before the publication of Chodorow’s landmark text, however, Sweden had already become the first country to replace maternal leave with parental leave, and Sweden has continued to break new ground by spurring a revolution in male attitudes toward and male participation in childcare. Katrin Bennhold of The New York Times writes:

85 percent of Swedish fathers take parental leave. Those who don’t face questions from family, friends and colleagues. As other countries still tinker with maternity leave and women’s rights, Sweden may be a glimpse of the future.

In this land of Viking lore, men are at the heart of the gender-equality debate. The ponytailed center-right finance minister calls himself a feminist, ads for cleaning products rarely feature women as homemakers, and preschools vet books for gender stereotypes in animal characters. For nearly four decades, governments of all political hues have legislated to give women equal rights at work — and men equal rights at home.

Swedish mothers still take more time off with children — almost four times as much. And some who thought they wanted their men to help raise baby now find themselves coveting more time at home.

But laws reserving at least two months of the generously paid, 13-month parental leave exclusively for fathers — a quota that could well double after the September election — have set off profound social change.

Bennhold goes on to describe the positive effects of this change, such as a lowering of divorce rates and an increase in shared custody when a divorce does occur. It has undeniably transformed what it means to be a man.

Birgitta Ohlsson, European affairs minister, puts it in the terms of an old feminist maxim: “Now men can have it all — a successful career and being a responsible daddy. It’s a new kind of manly. It’s more wholesome.”

For more on how father’s leave in Sweden came to be so popular, read this side piece on politician Bengt Westerberg, who in the 1990s “championed the introduction of the first dedicated father month — 30 days of paid parental leave that could not be transferred to the mother — to encourage reluctant men like himself to do their bit and overhaul Swedish society in the process.”

Despite the fact that Sweden and other countries are far ahead of the United States when it comes to supporting fair and equitable childcare, it’s important to remember that progressives in the United States have been fighting for some form of paid parental leave for almost 100 years.

Yes, 100 years. As Sharon Lerner reminds us in the Washington Post:

As far back as 1919, when the Model T was switching from a crank to an electric starter, the U.S. government came close to signing on to an International Labor Organization agreement, supported by 33 countries, that said women workers should receive cash benefits in addition to job-protected leave for 12 weeks in the period surrounding childbirth. That same year, Julia Lathrop, the chief of the Labor Department’s children’s bureau, issued a report on international maternity leave policy in which she decried the United States as “one of the few great countries which as yet have no system of State or national assistance in maternity.” She had recently returned from Europe, where Germany and France had paid-leave laws that had been in place for decades.

The entire article is a very enlightening history lesson — revealing the twisted politics that have held back justice and common sense for far too long. For more on that subject, check out Lerner’s new book, “The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation.”


March 31, 2010

Reproductive Health: The Facts on Health Care Reform, Georgia and Lilith Fair (Yes, All of the Above)

Putting HCR in Context: The Guttmacher Institute looks at the pros and cons of health care reform as it relates to reproductive health, including sex education, Medicaid expansion and funding for public health programs.

The research institute notes that insurance companies not only would have to “jump through numerous, unprecedented hoops to estimate the cost of abortion coverage and ensure that the abortion payments never mix with other funds,” but “they also are likely to face extensive public scrutiny and protest around their action.”

All told, according to an analysis by George Washington University’s Sara Rosenbaum, “the more logical response” for private insurers marketing plans within the exchanges — and eventually in the broader market as well — “would be not to sell products that cover abortion services.”

Plus: Drawing from its Congressional record, NARAL flags Republicans who have voted against reproductive rights and who also warned HRC would lead to government intrusion on private medical decisions.

Lasting ConsequencesKatha Pollitt talks with Carol Joffe, author of “Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us,” about the effect of HRC on women’s reproductive rights and health. Joffe discusses the good, the bad and the ugly — which refers to the marginalization of abortion.

President Obama and Democratic Congresswomen repeatedly said, “This is a health care bill, not an abortion bill.” I understand why they said it. They felt this was the only way to get the bill through and perhaps they were right. But abortion is health care! One out of three women has an abortion during her reproductive years. One of the best ways to reduce the stigma around abortion is to normalize the procedure within mainstream health care settings. The mantra “this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill” reinforces exactly the opposite message.

Plus: In a separate piece written earlier this month, Katha Pollitt offers concrete suggestions on how the Democratic Party and the Obama administration can repay supporters of women’s rights for cooperating on HRC, including taking steps to improve maternal care and outcomes, and full funding for Title X and the Violence Against Women Act. I love the ending:

Speaking of violence against women, Dems, would you look in the effing mirror? New York’s Hiram Monserrate and David Paterson? Scott Lee Cohen in Illinois? That these men and others like them could get as far as they did says the culture of the party is tone-deaf when it comes to abuse and its warning signs. The only way to detoxify politics of tolerance for violence is to have lots more women in office. If India can pass a law requiring Parliament to be one-third women, surely the Democratic Party can figure out how to achieve equal numbers of women here. Pro-choice women. Feminist women.

Start by backing the grassroots campaign of former teacher and county commissioner Connie Saltonstall, who has announced her intention to challenge Bart Stupak in the August primary. “He has a right to his personal, religious views,” says Saltonstall, “but to deprive his constituents of needed healthcare reform because of those views is reprehensible.” Now there’s a woman with gumption and a gift for stating things clearly.

In Other News …

Revisions to On-Air Abortion Language: NPR reporters will no longer use the terms pro-choice and pro-life to describe both sides of the abortion rights debate. Instead, according to an internal memo:

On the air, we should use “abortion rights supporter(s)/advocate(s)” and “abortion rights opponent(s)” or derivations thereof (for example: “advocates of abortion rights”). It is acceptable to use the phrase “anti-abortion”, but do not use the term “pro-abortion rights”.

Digital News will continue to use the AP style book for online content, which mirrors the revised NPR policy.

Do not use “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in copy except when used in the name of a group. Of course, when the terms are used in an actuality they should remain.” [An actuality is a clip of tape of someone talking. So if a source uses those terms, NPR will not edit them out.]

Georgia Senate Passes Abortion Bill: The latest assault on women’s reproductive health in Georgia is SB 529, a Senate bill that makes it possible to bring criminal charges against doctors, boyfriends, pimps and even parents if they encourage a woman to have an abortion. The bill’s supporters frame it as a way to protect women — especially women of color — but women’s health advocates say the true motivation is to criminalize abortion.

“This bill was created under the false assumption that abortion doctors solicit women of color, particularly, black women,” said Democratic State Sen. Donzella James. “This bill calls into question all who make a deeply private and personal medical decision. Every woman, regardless of ethnic background, should have the ability to make personal decisions. Not the people in this room. It is between, she, her family and God.”

Heidi Williamson of Sister Song has more. “Publicly, white Republican men claim to care about pregnant black women who are allegedly being targeted by the abortion industry. Privately, those same men scramble to ‘opt Georgia out’ of national healthcare reform and find the perfect wedge issue for the mid-term elections to build the Republican base in African-American communities,” she writes.

We previously discussed an anti-abortion billboard campaign in Georgia targeting black women  that proclaims black children are an endangered species. Women’s eNews reports that the campaign may soon go national. For more on the difference in abortion rates among women, see this Guttmacher Institute policy report, which notes that black and Hispanic women have higher abortion rates than white women because they have higher rates of unintended pregnancy.

What’s Up With Lilith Fair?: After announcing that it would donate a dollar from every ticket sold to a women’s organization in each of the 36 host cities, Lilith Fair is coming under fire for including organizations that don’t support a full range of reproductive services.

Apparently, the only vetting Lilith did was to look online for women-focused organizations with federal tax ID numbers. Jessica Hopper interviewed Nettwerk CEO and Lilith cofounder Terry McBride about the selection process and received a less-than-informed response.

“The seeding at the start was done with a basic digital search in each market of woman’s charities,” he said. “It’s not perfect. Nor could it be, as we simply don’t have the local expertise even within our own city of Vancouver.”

Really? Lilith couldn’t have contacted local women’s health advocates, or put a few interns on the project? Perhaps the festival should include a booth for organizers on research skills.

There’s always a chance for improvement. Facebook fans will vote on the selected organizations, and the top three vote-getters in each city will be forwarded to Lilith founders — Sarah McLachlan, Terry McBride, Dan Fraser and Marty Diamond — who will hand pick the winners. And organizations not currently featured can self-submit for consideration. Read more at the Chicago Reader.


July 1, 2009

List of Comparative Effectiveness Research Priorities Released

We’ve mentioned in previous posts that comparative effectiveness research (research that directly compares the effectiveness of different treatments for the same illness) received funding in the stimulus bill, and that the Institute of Medicine was gathering public input in order to inform a report providing specific recommendations to Congress for prioritizing the expenditure of the funds. On Tuesday, the IOM released that report, “Initial National Priorities for Comparative Effectiveness Research“, which includes a list of 100 top topics (out of 1,268 unique suggestions) that the authoring committee believes should be prioritized for funding.

The committee writes that the list of priorities was determined not just by which conditions affect the largest number of people, but with balance in mind. The full report notes that rare diseases and conditions that disproportionately affect specific segments of the population were also considered. They also explain that while comparative effectiveness research often focuses on comparing drug A to drug B, the committee felt it was important to include a diversity of interventions and different types of therapies, and they also considered where the gaps are in existing research.

The priority list includes several childbirth related topics, including this: “Compare the effectiveness of birthing care in freestanding birth centers and usual care of childbearing women at low and moderate risk.” The report doesn’t specify what “usual care” is, so we can only assume that it means birth in a hospital with an ob/gyn. The list also doesn’t include details on how the effectiveness of birthing care will be judged, but we’ll certainly keep an eye out for more information!

Several other topics that are at least partially specific to women’s health made it into the top 25 priorities (the list of 100 was further broken down into quartiles). They include:

  • Genetic and biomarker testing and usual care in preventing and treating breast, colorectal, prostate, lung, and ovarian cancer, and possibly other clinical conditions for which promising biomarkers exist.
  • Interventions to reduce health disparities in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, musculoskeletal diseases, and birth outcomes.
  • Clinical interventions (e.g., prenatal care, nutritional counseling, smoking cessation, substance abuse treatment, and combinations of these interventions) to reduce incidences of infant mortality, pre-term births, and low birth rates, especially among African American women.
  • Innovative strategies for preventing unintended pregnancies (e.g., over-the-counter access to oral contraceptives or other hormonal methods, expanding access to long-acting methods for young women, providing contraceptive methods at public clinics, pharmacies, or other locations).

Other relevant topics include comparison of weight-bearing exercises and bisphosophonates for preventing fractures in older women with osteoporosis, film screen or digital mammography and mammography plus MRI for breast cancer screening in high risk women, outcomes with and without the use of obstetric ultrasound in normal pregnancies, and “strategies for promoting breastfeeding among low-income African American women.”


June 15, 2009

Double Dose: NOW to Elect New President; Celebrity Weight Battles & Alternative “Lessons From the Fat-O-Sphere”; “Nurse Jackie” Appalls Some Nurses; Barbara Ehrenreich on the Invisible Poor …

NOW’s Future: The 2009 National NOW Conference kicks off June 19 in Indianapolis. At issue is who will replace current NOW President Kim Gandy, who is stepping down after eight years: Latifa Lyles, a 33-year-old black woman who has been one of Gandy’s three vice presidents, or Terry O’Neill, 56, a white activist who was NOW’s vice president for membership from 2001 to 2005.

Feministing’s Jessica Valenti is quoted in this Associated Press story on the election and NOW’s generational divide.

Plus: I don’t think I’ve linked yet to Katha Pollitt’s excellent piece in The Nation on feminism’s false waves. It begins:

Can we please stop talking about feminism as if it is mothers and daughters fighting about clothes? Second wave: you’re going out in that? Third wave: just drink your herbal tea and leave me alone! Media commentators love to reduce everything about women to catfights about sex, so it’s not surprising that this belittling and historically inaccurate way of looking at the women’s movement — angry prudes versus drunken sluts — has recently taken on new life, including among feminists.

Losing Celebrity Weight Battles: When famous dieters like Kirstie Alley or Oprah Winfrey talk about being “disgusted” with their bodies, the comments have an effect beyond selling magazines.

“Kirstie looks the same as me, to the inch, height and weight,” Emily Schaibly Greene, 29, recently told The New York Times. “It took me a long time to get there, but I’m feeling good with how I look. But it’s difficult to keep liking the way I look when I’m reading that it’s gross.”

Lesley Kinzel, who writes for the blog Fatshionista, said, “When you have famous people turning their weight tribulations into mass-media extravaganzas, they’re contributing to a culture where passing comments on strangers’ bodies is considered O.K.”

lessons_from_the_fatospherePlus: Nia Vardalos, who rose to fame after starring in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” says her recent weight loss is all people want to talk about these days, pushing aside her personal and professional achievements. Her column is awesome.

And if you haven’t yet boughtLessons From the Fat-O-Sphere,” go. Author Kate Harding – founder of Shapely Prose and contributor to Broadsheet — is still on the book tour this month and is looking forward to speaking at colleges in the fall. 

Summer Reading List: From Women’s eNews: From sensational memoirs to serious sociology, check out what women are writing about and the prizes they’ve been snapping up so far in 2009. Sarah Seltzer has the goods.

Women’s Health Clinic to Close: The University of Chicago Medical Center is closing its women’s health clinic, an essential community health resource, at the end of the month. Ironically, this is being done under the Medical Center’s Urban Health Initiative; U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush has called for a congressional investigation into whether the Medical Center has engaged in “patient dumping” by steering the poor to other health facilities.

“Medical center executives have said the steep downturn in the economy has forced them to trim $100 million from the hospital’s budget to maintain running a prestigious hospital, research center and medical school. They also have said the Women’s Health Center, which cares for thousands of Medicaid patients, is a money loser,” reported the Chicago Tribune last month, in a story on protests against the closing.

Plus: While looking up information about the closing, I came across a 2008 New York Times story on Michelle Obama, who at that time was on leave from her job as vice president of community affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Stories like this made me wonder what she could/would have done about the closing:

When the human papillomavirus vaccine, which can prevent cervical cancer, became available, researchers proposed approaching local school principals about enlisting black teenage girls as research subjects.

Obama stopped that. The prospect of white doctors performing a trial with black teenage girls summoned the specter of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment of the mid-20th century, when white doctors let hundreds of black men go untreated to study the disease.

Too Poor to Make the News: Over on The New York Times op-ed page, Barbara Ehrenreich has written the first in a series on how the recession affects people who don’t neatly fit the downwardly mobile narrative: the already poor.

“This demographic, the working poor, have already been living in an economic depression of their own,” writes Ehrenreich. “From their point of view ‘the economy,’ as a shared condition, is a fiction.” She continues:

The deprivations of the formerly affluent Nouveau Poor are real enough, but the situation of the already poor suggests that they do not necessarily presage a greener, more harmonious future with a flatter distribution of wealth. There are no data yet on the effects of the recession on measures of inequality, but historically the effect of downturns is to increase, not decrease, class polarization.

The recession of the ’80s transformed the working class into the working poor, as manufacturing jobs fled to the third world, forcing American workers into the low-paying service and retail sector. The current recession is knocking the working poor down another notch — from low-wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all. Comfortable people have long imagined that American poverty is far more luxurious than the third world variety, but the difference is rapidly narrowing.

Edie Falco as Nurse JackieHealth Care & the Arts: NPR interviews Anna Deveare Smith about her show “Let Me Down Easy,” which is based on interviews with doctors and patients (previously discussed here). Her newest role: artist in residence at the Center for American Progress, which Smith will use as a perch for studying changes in Washington. Smith also plays a doctor in the new Showtime series “Nurse Jackie.”

Speaking of “Nurse Jackie,” David Bauder of the Associated Press notes that the ethically challenged nurse at the head of the show (wonderfully played by Edie Falco) has appalled some nurses — but is that a bad thing for Showtime? Well, no.

Apologies from California: I meant to post this next one when it first came out, but I still think it’s amusing — San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford would like you to know California is really, really sorry about the whole Prop 8 thing.

Meanwhile, tony Greenwich, Conn., has become wedding central for same-sex New York couples who no longer have to drive as far as Massachussetts. California sure could have used money spent on wedding bliss.


March 20, 2009

Uncovered: Quilts That Say More Than Sleep Well

quilters_homeHere’s a story I meant to mention last week — the Washington Post covers the steamy side of quilting.

Yep. The March/April issue of Quilter’s Home magazine is wrapped up in plastic like Playboy and JoAnn Fabric and Crafts has refused to sell it.

So what’s inside? Monica Hesse has the goods:

Flip past the ads for stencil companies and portable ironing tables to Page 24. Behold, seven straight pages of shocking quilts. We’re talking fabric phalluses. Gun-toting Jesuses. A newborn peering out from his mother’s lady parts (constructed out of lots of soft, embroidered orange cloth).

Some of the images are disturbing — and moving — like quilter Gwen Magee’s “Southern Heritage/Southern Shame,” which depicts five lynching victims hanging in front of a Confederate flag.

Others are whimsical. Consider “Helping Hands,” a Charlottesville quilter’s ode to Viagra. The work was inspired by a present from a friend: “A fat quarter of fabrics with all these itty-bitty penises and sperm,” says Mary Beth Bellah, describing the pile of remnants with delight.

The finished product is asymmetrical and somewhat abstract: dozens of little blue pills spiraling out from a central hand. It’s nothing like what you could buy in Amish country, although it does seem appropriate as a wedding quilt. Bellah considers herself an artist and has displayed her quilts in private shows. At a recent show in a hospital, “Helping Hands” ended up stashed in a closet after a few complaints.

Of course quilting had always been tied with social and political history. Rarely, though, do we hear of quilters making waves.

I appreciated the quotes featured at the end. While these works would hardly be considered “daring” if created using another artistic medium, in the world of quilting, they’re unsettling, and the quilters know their potential impact:

Magee says that the contrast between her soft fabrics and her harsh social messages is exactly what makes her work effective. She did see a letter from one guy protesting her quilts, asking, “Who would want to cuddle under such a thing?” “He had no concept that this wasn’t that kind of quilt,” Magee says.

You can see a close-up of  “Helping Hands,” the ode to Viagra, at Mary Beth Bellah’s website, where she writes: “I personally think the topic is ideal for a hospital setting and someday hope it finds a permanent home in an ED specialist’s office or clinic.”


February 5, 2009

Yes Means Yes: Q&A With Lisa Jervis & Brad Perry

Today we’re pleased to present an interview with two outstanding contributors to “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape,” a collection of essays recently published by Seal Press.

Lisa Jervis, the founding editor and publisher of Bitch magazine, and Brad Perry, sexual violence prevention coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, take on popular perceptions of rape and what needs to be done to transform regressive attitudes toward sexual violence — in both the media and among young men.

In “An Old Enemy in a New Outfit: How Date Rape Became Gray Rape and Why it Matters,” Jervis deconstructs the latest blame-the-victim terminology. Perry’s essay, “Hooking Up With Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn) About Sexuality, and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Program Can Benefit Everyone Involved,” revisits advice Perry received as a teenager and the more enlightened strategies he has encountered in his work.

Ultimately, they grapple with how to create an atmosphere for a healthy and empowering sexual experience for both women and men.

Please add your thoughts on the discussion, or your questions for Lisa or Brad, in the comments. And don’t miss the next stop on the “Yes Means Yes” virtual book tour: a live chat on Feb. 9 at Shakesville with co-editor Jaclyn Friedman.

Our Bodies, Our Blog: What is the allure of so-called “gray rape” for anti-feminists? How does it help serve a conservative agenda?

Lisa Jervis: The construct of gray rape does two things: it minimizes rape, seeks to make it seem like less of a big deal — if it was a “gray area,” can it really be that bad? — and it also justifies victim-blaming and its close friend, slut-shaming. This actually serves anti-feminists in two really different ways, though they’re both pretty much classics of sexism and misogyny.

The minimizing encourages an attitude of, “What are all those angry women complaining about now?”; and almost every feminist issue has been minimized at some point over the history of the struggle for gender equality.

The victim-blaming part is even more disturbing, as it updates and revitalizes one of the biggest obstacles to transforming rape culture. And it’s particularly insidious because of how it cultivates self-doubt and self-blame even more than previous victim-blaming discourses have. And, especially when paired with slut-shaming — which makes women and girls feel bad about the existence of a strong sex drive and any entitlement they might feel to (gasp!) satisfy their desires — it serves as an attempt to keep a tight cultural lid on women’s sexuality. It’s an updated and vastly more complex version of “good girls don’t.”

OBOB: Brad, how has the notion of “gray rape” complicated your teachings?

Brad Perry: In my experience, the attitude about acquaintance rape (which is what the term “gray rape” is usually referring to) amongst most policy makers, many students, and a good chunk of the general public has not changed drastically since it first entered the public’s awareness 20 years ago. There has been some progress in getting people to understand that usurping another person’s sexual autonomy is rape under any circumstances, but old mindsets die hard.

In that context, the gray rape thing just seems like more of the same but with a new name — as Lisa eloquently discusses in her essay. The only way my work has been complicated by the notion of “gray rape” is that now people have a convenient label. I don’t think it’s necessarily changed many people’s minds on whether or not to take acquaintance rape seriously — the people who are going to deny it are usually going to find a reason to do so until something happens to change their mind — but it has given those folks some hip new contemporary language to dismiss acquaintance rape.

We’re a country found by patriarchal religious fanatics who were (among other things) obsessed with denying human sexuality, so it’s not at all surprising to me that we keep revisiting the issue of social control over women’s sexualities. That’s not too say I think we should throw our hands up and say, “Oh, well” — in order to remember how much history we have to overcome so that we don’t lose our minds trying to make progress.

Read the rest of this entry »


January 3, 2009

Double Dose: More Proof Virginity Pledges Don’t Work; Genetic Testing and Ambiguity; Cut Health Care Costs, Not Care; The Year in Medicine …

Well, it Wasn’t All Bad: “Although the number of uninsured and the cost of coverage have ballooned under his watch, President Bush leaves office with a health care legacy in bricks and mortar: he has doubled federal financing for community health centers, enabling the creation or expansion of 1,297 clinics in medically underserved areas,” reports The New York Times. Kevin Sack writes:

For those in poor urban neighborhoods and isolated rural areas, including Indian reservations, the clinics are often the only dependable providers of basic services like prenatal care, childhood immunizations, asthma treatments, cancer screenings and tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

As a crucial component of the health safety net, they are lauded as a cost-effective alternative to hospital emergency rooms, where the uninsured and underinsured often seek care.

Despite the clinics’ unprecedented growth, wide swaths of the country remain without access to affordable primary care. The recession has only magnified the need as hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance along with their jobs.

In response, Democrats on Capitol Hill are proposing even more significant increases, making the centers a likely feature of any health care deal struck by Congress and the Obama administration.

(Another) Survey Says: Abstinence Pledges Ineffective: “The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a ‘virginity pledge,’ but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers,” reports the Washington Post.

“Taking a pledge doesn’t seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior,” Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose report appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, told WaPo. “But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking.”

Abortion Battle Brewing in South Carolina: “Abortion foes in the Legislature have sown the seeds of what could develop into another battle over regulating abortion in South Carolina,” reports The State. “Seven S.C. House lawmakers have prefiled a bill that would require women seeking abortions to be given a list of clinics and other facilities that provide free ultrasounds. That list could include pregnancy crisis centers — many run by antiabortion groups — that actively discourage abortion and encourage women to choose other alternatives.”

Genetic Testing and Ambiguity: “‘Information is power,’ has become a common mantra. But for many people seeking answers through genetic testing, all the DNA probing ends in this twist: Less certainty, not more,” begins this NPR report. The story focuses on Nashville novelist Susan Gregg Gilmore, who sought testing for mutations in the genes BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, which are associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Cut Costs, Not Care: The L.A. Times has published the first installment of an ongoing feature on reducing health care costs. Part one covers drugs, doctor visits, surgery, flexible spending accounts, preventive care and insurance. Scroll down for links to online resources.

The Year in Medicine A-Z: Time magazine offers its annual alphabetical roundup of health stories and breakthroughs that made the news. (Ed. note – reading through it all requires clicking through 37 pages. “Single page” feature, anyone?)

Don’t Blink: Via Feminist Peace Network: “As we come to the final stretch of 2008, plagued as we are with the usual collection of horrors–Gaza burning, Tennessee buried in toxic ash, women and children being raped and killed in the Congo, and on and on, I’m sure y’all were just as relieved as I was to know that the FDA is considering approval of a glaucoma drug for eyelash enhancement, an idiocy I would have previously thought would be confined to the cable shopping networks.”

Missing on TV: GLBTQ Women: “Though 2008 comes to a close with word of possible new queer female characters on the horizon in the coming year, the prospects for lesbians and bisexual women on television over the last twelve months have been somewhat grim,” writes Karman Kregloe at AfterEllen.com. “This has been particularly true for lesbians, whose numbers on scripted network television have now dwindled to zero.”

Deep Thoughts for the New Year: “As the country plunges into recession, will financial hardship demote the pursuit of physical perfection?” asks The New York Times. A classic response:

“There comes a point when you are putting too much time and money into your vanity,” said Peri Basel, a practice consultant in Chappaqua, N.Y., who advises cosmetic doctors on marketing strategies. “For me, the vanity issue is: Where does it stop? If you are going for buttock implants, do you really need that?”


November 6, 2008

What Are You Doing Now That the Election is Over?

Now that the election is over, are you feeling a little blue (and not just because of the passage of California’s Proposition 8)?

After months of obsessing over tracking polls and following up-to-the-second campaign news round the clock, much of the nation seems to be going through a withdrawal of sorts. New York Times health writer Tara Parker-Pope points to several news stories about our collective crash, some of which include suggestions from psychologists on how to bounce back and re-focus.

Of course, there are still many important issues that demand our attention. Elissa Epel, an associate professor in the psychiatry department at UCSF, tells the San Francisco Chronicle that we are likely to continue intense discussions, though perhaps on different terms: “People will be less plugged into the political pundits each day. They will start to pay attention to neglected longer-term issues – how to survive the recession, how to take of their family and health better. We may notice we are in one of the most stressful eras in recent history.”

Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo offers suggestions for new topics to obsess over if you’re still glued to your computer screen. The list also includes social networks to join and cool games to play, if you’re looking to take a vacation from the news.


September 23, 2008

The Best and Worst Moments in Women’s Health: What’s Your Take?

The publication of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” made Health magazine’s list of best and worst moments in women’s health — as one of the best moments, of course.

Here’s what Stephanie Dolgoff wrote:

Women finally get straight talk about their bodies
If you need to know something about your body, what do you do? Look it up, of course. But before 1970 there weren’t any good resources. That year a group of Boston women published a stapled-together booklet — the precursor to Our Bodies, Ourselves — and fueled the burgeoning idea that women should be full participants in their medical care. Three years later, the radical publication (which discussed such issues as sexuality and birth control) was beefed up and released by Simon & Schuster. It’s now in its eighth edition.

Very cool.

Other standouts: After realizing that what works for white men doesn’t necessarily work for the rest of us, the National Institutes of Health in 1993 started including more women and minorities in clinical trials. And tubal litigation is now a real option. Dolgoff describes when it wasn’t:

Until 1969, a woman couldn’t elect to have her tubes tied unless she fit a formula — her age multiplied by the number of children she’d delivered had to equal 120 or more. (What that means: If you were 30 years old, you would have to have had four kids before a doctor would have agreed that you’d done your share of “women’s work” and sterilized you, unless another pregnancy would have posed a health risk.)

Though the list is supposed to cover “highs and lows in the last 20 years of female wellness,” a number of “best moments” are from older decades — in the case of the tampon’s development in 1929, much older. And some might be remembered more as milestones in popular culture that led to a greater acceptance of women’s health issues: Judy Blume novels (swoon); Edith Bunker going through menopause on “All in the Family” in 1972 — or to a greater respect for women’s physical abilities: U.S. women winning the World Cup in soccer in 1999 and Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”

On the more medical side, there are a couple of items that deserve a closer look — such as the FDA in 1960 declaring birth control pills safe for women. It’s great that we have the pill, but it took the work of health activists like Barbara Seaman to improve their safety.

The FDA’s approval of Gardasil, the first vaccine introduced to prevent cervical cancer, also deserves an asterisk. While Gardasil’s approval was met with great fanfare, the distribution and cost has come under scrutiny, and researchers have raised doubts, most notably in the New England Journal of Medicine, about whether Gardasil and another vaccine, Cervarix, will ultimately reduce rates of cervical cancer (read the articles here and here).

Dolgoff nailed the “seven lows in women’s health.” The list includes the refusal of pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception (Plan B), forced sterilization of women of color, and the Virginia Slims campaign — “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” — that co-opted feminism in the name of promoting lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.

My only question is: Why only seven? Many other “worst” moments come to mind, including misinformation about hormone replacement therapy and the Global Gag Rule.

So readers, what other best or worst moments would you add to the list?


August 20, 2008

Census Bureau Releases New Report on American Women’s Fertility

On Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau released a new report, Fertility of American Women: 2006 [PDF], using data from the annual American Community Survey and biannual Current Population Survey. Between these two data-gathering efforts, women ages 15-44 were asked how many children they had ever had and the date of birth of their last child, and women 15-50 years of age were asked if they had given birth to any children in the previous 12 months.

The result is a document full of tidbits, trivia and tables on women’s childbearing in the United States. Among the findings:

  • 20% of women aged 40 to 44 years had not had children, compared with 10% thirty years ago
  • Women in that age group have an average of 1.9 children each
  • Women with graduate or professional degrees averaged more children than those without such degrees
  • Of women who had given birth in the previous year:

  • 36% were separated, divorced, widowed, or never married; the rest of the women were married or unmarried and living with a partner
  • 20% were foreign-born
  • 57% were in the labor force, although nearly 7% were unemployed
  • 25.2% were living below the poverty line, and another 21% were at less than 200% of poverty, although only 6.4% were receiving public assistance
  • The report describes geographic differences in the findings. For example, when looking at the national average, women receiving public assistance had a higher fertility rate than those not receiving assistance. I expect that this is a headline you’ll see across the media and blogosphere, despite the disclaimer that “There is no implied causality between fertility rates and receipt of public assistance, as we do not know specifically when the women had a birth or when they began and ended their receipt of public assistance.”

    What you likely won’t hear is that in 33 states there was no statistically significant difference between those receiving and not receiving assistance, and in seven states women receiving public assistance were less likely than others to have given birth in the previous twelve months. Figure 5 of the report also reveals a geographic clustering of more women than average living below the poverty line throughout the southern United States.