Archive for the ‘Feminism & Gender’ Category

October 27, 2011

Susan Love on the Impact of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and Why Breast Cancer Should Focus on Breasts

Susan Love, the well-known breast cancer researcher and women’s health advocate, was a 23-year-old medical student when the first edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was published, but the book’s impact was instant and permanent.

“It completely revolutionized how I and really the whole world looked at women’s health,” she said during an exclusive web-only interview with NBC Nightly News, which earlier this week broadcast a report on the 40th anniversary of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and the new 2011 edition. (Also see the web-only interview with OBOS co-founder Judy Norsigian.)

Women were treated as “small men who have babies,” says Love, noting there was no effort made to understand how women’s bodies or brains might be different than men’s. “Men were the model, and women were sort of this extra thing.”

“Our Bodies, Ourselves” put forth the radical notion that women are worthy of study. Love recalls seeing the map of the cervix in the first edition of and thinking, “It was amazing, it was a miraculous thing! Who knew what was in there?”

Fast forward 40 years, and Love is still considering the differences between women and men in her medical research. While most of the medical community studying breast cancer is focused on cancer cells, Love focuses on the breast itself.

“Believe it or not, all these years after ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,’ we know all the molecular biology of breast cancer. But we still don’t know how many holes are in the nipple that milk comes out of,” said Love. “We still don’t know the anatomy of the breast. We still don’t know what the breast is doing when it’s not making milk. So we still need ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ in our lives.”

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October 1, 2011

The flood of relief I felt at that moment, and the power that came from the sense of not being alone, really did change my life …

by Ruth Bell Alexander

In late 1969, a couple of months away from delivering my first baby (my son, who is now 41), I was 25 years old, living out in the country suburbs of Boston 3,000 miles away from my family, with a husband who went off to Cambridge every weekday for work.

It was a pretty lonely existence. I knew almost no one. But when my husband came home one day and told me he had met some people at work who knew about a women’s group that was starting, my life began to change. They were offering a class after hours at MIT about women’s issues. I remember the class being called Women and Their Bodies, but that’s with 42 years hindsight, so I may be wrong about the original title.

I do remember with startling clarity that although I knew only one person there, and even she I knew only barely, the roomful of women I walked into was very welcoming. The “class” was presented in a series of lectures about topics that ranged from women’s “roles,” to women’s work, health, legal issues pertaining to women, etc. — one topic per week for 12 weeks.

Each week had a “presenter,” and everyone in the room was invited to ask questions, offer comments, and discuss the issue at hand. I remember the Pregnancy class most clearly of course, and most specifically I remember raising my hand, with some trepidation, to ask about nightmares. During my pregnancy I had been having troubling nightmares, one of the issues that led me to brave the New England winter nights to drive 20 miles into Cambridge for the class. So I raised my hand and asked, “Has anyone experienced nightmares during pregnancy?”

Remembering this brings tears to my eyes even now at age 67, because my question was met with such loving responses that I felt embraced by the warmth and power of the experience and a deep connection to every woman in that room. No one patted me on the head and told me not to worry, as my doctor had done. No one scoffed at me. Instead, they listened and they responded from their hearts. And several of them had nightmares during their pregnancies, and they told me it was a fairly common experience for pregnant women to have strange dreams.

The flood of relief I felt at that moment, and the power that came from the sense of not being alone, really did change my life. The course ended after my baby was born, but I remember being at the last class when anyone there who wanted to participate in the writing of the lecture series into a book was invited to come to the next meeting.

I did show up at that next meeting and I have been involved with the OBOS collective since then. Happy 40th Anniversary, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

Do you remember when you first read “Our Bodies, Ourselves”? Take part in OBOS’s 40th anniversary by sharing how “Our Bodies, Ourselves” made a difference in your life. View more stories and submit your own.

September 29, 2011

2011 Women’s Health Hero: Mavi Kalem Expects Turkish “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to Spark Reform

As part of its 40th anniversary celebration, Our Bodies Ourselves is honoring its global partners who have adapted the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” book for their own communities. Twenty-four groups have been inducted into the Women’s Health Heroes Hall of Fame, joining dozens of advocates working to advance the health and human rights of women and girls. In this blog series, we’ll introduce you to some of the global partners attending OBOS’s anniversary symposium.

Gamze Karadagby Gamze Karadağ
OBOS Project Coordinator, Turkey

I’m a 29-year-old feminist from Turkey. It is hard to be a feminist in Turkey, as I know it is in many countries.

When you state that you’re a feminist, people judge your appearance and question whether you hate men. They speculate about your sexuality, asking if you are a lesbian and why feminists are so “offensive.” Pity we have to encounter such prejudices.

In Turkey, women who call themselves feminist have increased in number in the past few decades, but they are still a very small group. Of course, there are many women who, though they fear being associated with the term and the clichéd prejudices, are still interested in feminist issues.

Many women go about their daily routines giving little thought to obtaining information about their rights, health and body. At the same time, they have difficulty finding sources of information if the need arises. So feminism remains not well understood.

Also, there are some separation points in the women’s movement, including ethnicity, religion and sexual identity, that make moving forward with common goals more difficult. Groups tend to focus on specific concerns, such as legal regulations and violence against women, instead of women’s health and broader political issues. In addition, women’s issues are pushed to the side in Turkey’s political institutions.

I got involved in the women’s health movement when I started working at Mavi Kalem as a volunteer. We were organizing health programs and implementing house visits. At the end, my teammates mentioned the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” book and the possibility of starting that project. It was a brilliant experience to be part of such a project as a health trainer, and with OBOS I started specializing on women’s health rights.

Being a part of this project, I learned a lot — especially about myself, my body, feminism and women’s solidarity. My commitment to finding solutions to problems affecting women in Turkey increased when working on “Bedenlerimiz Biziz,” the Turkish version of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (read more about the book in progress).

Now we are developing educational modules on women’s health based on “Bedenlerimiz Biziz,” and we are working on women’s health and women’s rights education. In these times, coming together with women are the moments I enjoy in life. The experiences give me energy and hope.

We expect to complete the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” project by the end of 2011. When “Bedenlerimiz Biziz” emerges, we believe many women will take steps to improve their lives. We also believe that this book’s arrival will create an opportunity for reform around the politics of women’s health and the feminist movement in Turkey.

A native of Çanakkale in Turkey, Gamze Karadağ is the general coordinator of Mavi Kalem. She organizes its volunteer and field teams, conducts health trainings for women in local communities, factories, and shelters, and contributes to its monthly women’s health magazine, Zuhre.

September 19, 2011

2011 Women’s Health Hero: Shokado Women’s Bookstore Shows Language is Power

As part of its 40th anniversary celebration, Our Bodies Ourselves is honoring its global partners who have adapted the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” book for their own communities. Twenty-four groups have been inducted into the Women’s Health Heroes Hall of Fame, joining dozens of advocates working to advance the health and human rights of women and girls. In this blog series, we’ll introduce you to some of the global partners attending OBOS’s anniversary symposium.

by Kathy Davis

My first face-to-face contact with the women from Shokado bookstore responsible for the Japanese adaptation of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was at a Crossing Borders with OBOS conference in the Netherlands in 2001.

Three women entered the room, and I vividly remember the one in the middle who was wearing a hat and smiling broadly. I had a sense that she was being respectfully escorted to the meeting by her friends, and I wasn’t far off the mark. As Sally Whelan, OBOS program manager, later explained, this woman was a “real hero.”

Toyoko Nakanishi, Shokado Women's Bookstore

Toyoko Nakanishi (left) was the owner of the Shokado Women’s Bookstore, which she founded in 1975. For many years, Toyoko single-handedly produced a newsletter on women’s books and tirelessly supported countless women’s projects, including — at the time — the extremely daring and daunting adaptation of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” As she put it: “If I won’t do it, I’m not a woman.”

True to her words, she opened the second floor of her book shop to the translation team for weekly meetings, attended nearly all of them herself and, during the three years it took to finish, she was constantly on the phone (this was before email!) networking with hundreds of people and organizations that helped make the book possible.

No wonder Toyoko was smiling.

Every “Our Bodies, Ourselves” adaptation is exciting in its own way, and the Japanese project is no exception. This edition, published at a time when women did not have words to talk about their bodies, opened up a new way for Japanese women and girls to discuss their bodies and sexuality. Previously, they could not explain their physical experiences or express their desires to their partners, and they were at the mercy of physicians.

A case in point was the Fujimi hospital scandal that broke in 1981. More than a thousand unnecessary hysterectomies were performed on women, all of whom who were told that their uterus was “rotten” or their ovaries “a mess.” At the time, many of these women could not even utter the word “uterus.”

Japanese adaptation of Our Bodies Ourselves

Fortunately, the situation is very different today, and much of this is due to the pathbreaking work that took place on the bookstore’s second floor. The women who worked on the Japanese edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” got rid of all the expressions that treated women’s bodies in a negative way — including words that implied shadiness, shame, or secrecy. They developed a whole new language, one that empowered women and girls and made them feel good and confident about themselves.

For example, the term “shame hair” became “sexual hair,” and menstruation, which had been linked to the word for “pollution,” was straightforwardly named “a monthly occurrence.” Some of these newly invented words have even made it into the latest Japanese dictionaries, showing just how influential this project has been.

One of the most wonderful things about the different resources based on “Our Bodies, Ourselves” is that each project looks for a way to make a difference in its own context. The Japanese project shows that language is power and that being able to talk about our bodies in positive and affirming ways is empowering.

Kathy Davis is a senior researcher at the Institute of History and Culture at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. A noted authority on feminist scholarship, her publications include, among others, “The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders.”

July 26, 2011

Howdy From Down Here: Colbert on Summer’s Eve and Ads for Clean Men

Have you seen the Summer’s Eve videos featuring vaginal puppeteering (by way of a talking hand) asking for more V-love? The videos promote using scented cleansing and deodorant products to freshen your vagina.

Let’s get one thing straight up front: Vaginas don’t need cover-up. In fact, douches and other scented products are more likely to cause irritation and infection. The vagina is very good at cleaning itself, so if Summer’s Eve really believed in its tagline, “Hail to the V,” it would leave our vaginas alone.

But making money off women’s insecurities about their bodies never grows old for Summer’s Eve. Its newest ads targeting black and Latina women play on racial and ethnic stereotypes in addition to playing on women’s insecurities.

So how do you point out the ridiculousness of this campaign? Imagine, as Stephen Colbert does, what would happen if men’s genitals were the focus of such advertising. Hail to our best satirists.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Vaginal Puppeteering vs. D**k Scrub
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July 5, 2011

Tonight: The Consequences of Choosing Boys Over Girls

Boston area readers may be interested in an event happening tonight at the Cambridge Hospital: Mara Hvistendahl, author of “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men” will be speaking about her new book. Mara will be joined by OBOS executive director Judy Norsigian, who will be highlighting some of the reproductive rights-related work of OBOS’ global partners and speaking about the forthcoming edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

The event begins at 8 p.m. and will take place at the Learning Center A/B on the 3rd floor of The Cambridge Hospital, 1493 Cambridge Street. Hope to see some of you there!

December 8, 2010

Rally for Girls’ Sports and Community

Rally for Girls’ Sports Day When discussing how sports benefits girls — which many of us are doing today as part of the National Women’s Law Center Rally for Girls’ Sports Day — I keep coming back to the idea of community.

While sports certainly has many individual health and social benefits for girls, it also gives girls a space to develop relationships based on teamwork and respect. Bolstered by their team, girls are able to step in front of their larger school community and exude confidence and pride that might be missing in other parts of their lives.

Girls’ relationships with that larger community, however, are often complicated when schools in underserved neighborhoods have trouble providing girls (and all athletes, for that matter) with a safe space in which to perform.

Here in Chicago where I live, Chicago Public Schools are struggling with many inequity issues. CPS is at the top of the list of schools against which NWLC has filed administrative complaints for Title IX violations. The district has a whopping 33 percent sports participation gap between girls and boys (the next closest complaint is for the Sioux Falls School District with a 15.6 percent gap). See the NWLC’s briefing paper (pdf) for more vivid detail.

But poverty and the constant threat of violence also play a big role in forming sports communities. A recent story by Lisa Pevtzow in the Chicago Tribune highlights the struggle of the girls basketball team of the Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy in Humboldt Park, a neighborhood on the west side of the city. Because of lack of facilities, the team — along with other boys’ and girls’ teams at the school — have had to walk to a nearby YMCA to practice:

Keeping close together, the players make their way past boarded-up buildings, crumbling sidewalks and a gantlet of drug pushers and users who tug on their coats, grab at their equipment and hurl abuse.

“If we don’t respond, they call us names. It can be very scary,” said team member Ronye Scott, a junior at the Humboldt Park high school.

Thankfully, the school has just broke ground on a new gym of their own that should be ready for next year. But the past experiences of the students will most certainly linger — and act as a reminder of how a safe athletic environment needs to be a right for girls and all athletes.

Marlon Tobin, athletic director and assistant principal at the school, told Pevtzow some of those telling stories:

“We have to beg, borrow and steal space for our programs,” Tobin said. “We’ve already tapped out everything in the neighborhood that’ll let us in.”

Beyond causing inconvenience, the lack of gym facilities has created a significant safety problem, he said. A year ago, a group of Rowe-Clarke students were jumped on their way to play soccer. More recently, Tobin said, the school learned the hard way not to let the girls soccer team walk down the street in their shorts and jerseys, because they were harassed when they did.

“We tell kids to do the right thing and play sports, and now we have to tell them it’s not safe,” Tobin said.

Plus: For more reading about the importance of girls in sports, check out these posts compiled by the NWLC.

November 5, 2010

Share Your Story: What Have You Learned About Your Body from a Women’s Health Nurse-Practitioner Or Other OB-GYN Clinician?

Our Bodies Ourselves recently received a wonderful picture of pre-teen girls watching one of their moms get a pelvic exam, complete with mirror and flashlight, along with a note about how the nurse-practitioner conducting the exam explained everything that was being done in simple, straightforward language.

As a way to underscore how much young women across the country are able to learn about their bodies through such critically important show-and-tell learning, we are inviting women to share with us (anonymously is fine) stories of how nurse-practitioners and other ob-gyn clinicians (including nurse-midwives, family physicians and obstetrician-gynecologists) have taken the time to teach them more about their bodies through use of speculums (some with flashlights built in!) and mirrors, participation in the “whiff” tests, and other approaches that directly engage women in the learning process.

In an era where the “yuck” factor is used to inappropriately encourage risky douching practices and use of scent-filled vaginal products that may be harmful to overall vaginal health, it is important to remember how valuable this kind of education during a clinical pelvic exam can be.

Moreover, clinicians who incorporate these recommended educational practices are helping to offset a conservative trend toward restricting information about women’s reproductive and sexual health. Access to books like “Our Bodies, Ourselves” is denied in some schools and libraries; self-knowledge is considered shameful or even dangerous.

Please share with us your stories as clinicians who provide such exams or as women who may have benefited from them. You can either add your story in the comments below, or email And feel free to share and re-post this call

We plan to post these anonymously on the Our Bodies Ourselves website so that young women will be encouraged to respond with a “Yes” the next time their ob-gyn clinician might offer them the option of seeing their own cervix or learning more about their vaginal secretions.

We would also welcome emails and letters from ob-gyn clinicians who might be able to cite articles in the medical literature that point to the benefits of this kind of education. Our mailing address is available here.

Thank you for taking part in this discussion!

July 9, 2010

All Things Not Being Equal

Gretchen Reynolds, writing for the Well blog at The New York Times, reports that gender still matters a great deal in health research. It’s just difficult for some scientists to remember that.

Reynolds focuses on a pair of studies by David Rowlands, MD, a senior lecturer with the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health at Massey University in New Zealand, in which he attempted to determine the importance of protein in the recovery from hard exercise. The first study, completed in 2008, involved only male cyclists and found that ingesting protein had a significant long-term effect on overall athletic performance.

After Rowlands published those results, which were in line with conventional wisdom, female cyclists asked him to include them in any further studies. To his credit, he decided to repeat the entire experiment again with the female cyclists.

The results completely contradicted the original study. Not only did women fail to see benefits from ingesting protein — their legs actually felt more tired and sore.

The reason for the discrepancy — and what role estrogen plays in all this — still puzzles Rowland. In any case, the bigger lesson was obvious: excluding women from research is scientifically unsound.

The danger of using male bodies to represent all bodies became very clear once again last week when Northwestern Medicine in Chicago announced a new formula for figuring out a women’s maximum heart rate, considered a critical number in constructing an optimum workout.

The traditional formula (subtract a person’s age from 220) has led some women to experience frustration and exhaustion from workouts that should have been exhilarating, writes Tara Parker-Pope. The new formula for women, based on new research, is 206 minus 88 percent of age.

The new formula will also more accurately predict the risk of heart-related death during a stress test.

“Now we know for the first time what is normal for women, and it’s a lower peak heart rate than for men,” said Martha Gulati, MD, assistant professor of medicine and preventive medicine and a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine and lead author of a study published June 28 in the journal Circulation. “Using the standard formula, we were more likely to tell women they had a worse prognosis than they actually did.”

“Women are not small men,” Gulati added. “There is a gender difference in exercise capacity a woman can achieve. Different physiologic responses can occur.”

Next up for Gulati: an iPhone app that will make quick calculations using the new formula.

Plus: For some historical context, the Society for Women’s Health Research provides a brief outline of efforts waged in the late 1980s and early 1990s to require that women be included in federally funded clinical research. It ended in the NIH Revitilization Act, which was signed into law in 1993.

June 23, 2010

Finding What is There: A Medical Ethics Challenge

Several prominent blogs have recently covered the story, first reported by Alice Dreger and Ellen K. Feder at  Bioethics Forum, of pediatric urologist Dix Poppas and his research involving clitoral surgery on young girls and young intersex patients to make their genitals less “masculinized” — that is, less large.

The research, conducted at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, is troublesome for a number of reasons, including lack of indication of an underlying medical problem. In each case, the clitoris was deemed simply  too large, whatever that might have meant to the girls’ parents or the girls’ physicians.

Not only are the surgeries, as well as the accompanying attitudes and ethics, hugely problematic, but there are also issues with the follow-up study, which involved applying a cotton applicator and/or a vibrating device to determine how much nerve sensitivity was retained. Poppas was stimulating the genitalia of young children for the purposes of research, and it’s not clear to readers of the related research papers that those patients had a clear ability to consent or withdraw consent or how the potential for psychological harm was addressed.

The ethics of this research and how it was approved in the first place are quite important. But here’s another issue to consider: The articles in which this research was described were published in The Journal of Urology, a prominent journal, in October 2007 (see “Nerve Sparing Ventral Clitoroplasty: Analysis of Clitoral Sensitivity and Viability,” and “Nerve Sparing Ventral Clitoroplasty Preserves Dorsal Nerves in Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia“).

They appeared online even earlier, in August 2007. The citations were included in the PubMed database, which is publicly accessible. So the news has been out there, for anybody to find and call attention to, for almost three years. But it didn’t cause alarm or outcry until Bioethics Forum, a project of The Hastings Center, brought the findings to the attention of a wider audience.

Another example of an awareness delay is the cervical cancer experiment in New Zealand, in which women with cervical carcinoma in situ were monitored instead of being fully treated (or informed of the lack of treatment), and many of them went on to develop invasive cervical cancer — most without ever realizing they were part of an experiment in the first place. (Here’s a slideshare presentation I did, explaining the experiment).

Initial “natural history” reports from this experiment were published in the medical literature in 1970, but there was little public attention or outcry until two women’s health activists published an investigation in 1987. In both cases, ethically problematic research was published but didn’t attract public attention or outcry for some years after the fact.

What can we do about this? Of course, many of us don’t have access to expensive journal subscriptions to read the full-text of such researchers’ questionable methodologies. We can, however, set up saved search strategies and alerts in publicly available citation databases (e.g., PubMed), and monitor the results for items that ding our warning bells.

There’s a lot of talk currently about e-patients (loosely defined as internet-savvy health consumers) with regards to researching medical conditions and treatments, but perhaps more activist-minded e-patients, and other online activists, should play a role in monitoring the broader biomedical research landscape. We know there are institutional review boards to monitor research on the front end, but what about research such as Poppas’s work, which is approved and published with little fanfare?

So, readers, what topics would you like to see in a search strategy set up to monitor these type of issues? What procedures or terms are always worth a review for the ethics and inclusion criteria? For example, I’d expect any research on prisoners should get a second look, and the combination of the clitoroplasty terms and the age groups in the Poppas citations might raise a red flag.

More broadly, how can women’s health and other human rights activists most effectively monitor the biomedical literature for ethical lapses and violations? I’m interested in hearing your ideas, and am happy to put my medical librarianship skills to work for better monitoring strategies.

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.”

May 28, 2010

Work by Artist Kaucyila Brooke Censored at Bucharest Biennale

When Los Angeles-based artist Joanne Mitchell wrote to us with news of the removal of a gender-oriented work from the Bucharest International Biennale, we asked her to share the information with readers. Joanne’s piece “Our bodies, ourselves – the book, I mean” will be showcased as part of the organization’s 40th-anniversary celebration in 2011.

By Joanne Mitchell

The Bucharest International Biennale opened last week without “Tit for Twat,” a 20-year long, ongoing project made by a former teacher of mine, the artist Kaucyila Brooke.

“Tit for Twat” is a three-part epic that takes the form of photo montage, and re-imagines the creation story from the perspective of two lesbian protagonists (view it here). It is intelligent, challenging work, sweetly sprinkled with just the right touch of humor – exactly the caliber of work I aspire to make as a lesbian-feminist artist.

The work was supposed to have been installed as part of the Biennale at Bucharest’s Institute of Geology but was shockingly pulled at the last minute by the director of that institution.

Kaucyila has consistently challenged conventional thinking on gender and sexuality throughout her long and distinguished career as an artist and as a teacher at California Institute of the Arts. It is troubling that her work is being kept from view during this international event.

Kaucyila was influential in support of my project “Our bodies, ourselves – the book, I mean” while I was a student of hers at CalArts. She contributed a wonderfully engaging story about her experience with “Our Bodies, Ourselves” that I present in a video installation. My project tracks the history of the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and offers viewers an opportunity to engage critically with the history and trajectory of the women’s movement. I will be presenting the project as part of the 40th Anniversary Celebration of Our Bodies Ourselves in Boston in 2011.

Here are some statements on Kaucyila’s behalf:

Kaucyila Brooke’s “Tit for Twat” is a challenging piece of artistic literature about some of the most important topics affecting our humanity. It is a deeply thought out and literate investigation into the stability of gender categories and our deep mythopoetic narratives of origin. Some viewers will not like it, some will outright disagree. But these dissenters and others will all find wholly new dimensions of thinking about humanity’s fixed categories of being.

None of that can happen in the face of censorship, a form of silencing cloaked in cowardly evasiveness. The Arts are one of the very few global cultural spaces where repressions of difference may — and indeed must be — freely explored for humanity to find ways to move on, allowing discovery, discussion (however contentious), and progress towards a more tolerant world. It is a grievous blow to that future tolerance that the Bucharest Biennial has allowed Art’s precious freedom to be compromised in the interest of pathetic inoffensiveness.

- Ellen Birrell, Artist, Publisher and Editor, X-TRA, a Quarterly Journal of the Arts

Jacques Rancière claims “a new form of political subjectivity that would accept the point that we start from equality, from the idea that there is a universal competence – that there is a universal capacity that is involved in all those experiments and that we are trying to expand – to expand the field and the capacities of that competence.”

In “Tit for Twat” by Kaucyila Brooke, Madam and Eve are standing on the edge of human evolution, curiously embarking on a journey through space, time and history. Intellectually fascinated by the idea of “nature,” they decide to visit various historic gardens, to question the biblical assumption of heterosexuality (Adam and Eve), and to deal with their relation towards other theories of origin. Especially in a Catholic country, the piece is highly provocative but don’t we need provocative works in order to discuss future ways of living?

In our times of passage, a time that implies a certain chaos, structures are going to disappear and the new is not yet at the horizon. Especially in uncertain times, we have to open our minds, we have to be able to ask questions, we have to show critical works and we have to discuss them — but not to exclude them. No religious or political authority can provide us with a clear definition of meaning, or communicate a socially sanctioned aspiration for the collective implementation of a utopia or a promise of redemption.

Therefore, the act of censoring works (without even discussing it) is against society, is against all that contemporary art stands for today and questions the intent of the Bucharest Biennial as a whole. Believe in your audience and give them the opportunity to decide for themselves.

- Bettina Steinbrügge, Co-curator of Forum Expanded/Berlin International Film Festival, Associate curator of La Kunsthalle, Mulhouse

“Tit for Twat” will not be seen at the Biennale, but you can view images and text from dialogue balloons online at Please share this with anyone interested in feminist art and censorship.

April 16, 2010

Ohio Campus Organizer: Shirley Kailas

View all Women’s Health Heroes. Voting closes May 14. Background info here.

Entrant: Kelsey Chapman
Nominee: Shirley Kailas

When I arrived at Kenyon College, in the middle of nowhere Ohio, I was another insecure freshman girl who hated her body and was afraid to speak out. Luckily, I happened to become involved with campus organizations filled with wonderful and powerful women who helped me find my voice and speak out against sexism and sexual assault, eating disorders and the thin ideal, and many other important feminist health issues. During this time, I met one particular woman who changed not only my life, but those of everyone around her.

At first I was intimidated by Shirley Kailas (left in photo), an outgoing, beautiful, smart and powerful feminist. She was the president of Epsilon Delta Mu when I met her, which, despite being a sorority, was one of the most active and most heard feminist groups on campus.

In addition, she was an important part of the Crozier Center for Women and the college’s women’s and gender studies department. I watched as she put together a “this is what a feminist looks like” campaign in response to sexism on campus, help organize Take Back the Night, and address sexual assault and eating disorders on campus.

It was not until I expressed my interest in starting a “Love Your Body” group that I got to know her personally. We began speaking about the increased amount of over-exercise and disordered eating on campus and decided enough was enough. The group flourished because of Shirley’s dedication and passion. She single-handedly brought Courtney Martin, author of “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” to speak on campus, and over 200 people attended. In addition, she helped to lead and promote “Fat Talk Free Week” on campus and was a main proponent of Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

While her leadership in these campus-wide organizations and events is quite impressive, her personal influence is one of the main reason I am nominating her for this ward. I have watched her become a kind of respected counselor among friends. Women who have been sexually assaulted, who have developed eating disorders, or have friends with these issues, have begun to flock to her for guidance.

As an undergraduate, she has become a beacon of hope to women on this campus, and in her home of New York City — something that many of us cannot claim to have done in a lifetime. I have no doubt that she will one day be featured in the news for her accomplishments to women’s health, as she has already had a major effect on the attitudes and health of the women on Kenyon College’s campus. Thus, I nominate her for this award, to acknowledge what she has done and what she will do for women everywhere.

April 15, 2010

The Power of Female Beauty: Dr. Nick Karras and Dr. Sayaka Adachi

View all Women’s Health Heroes. Voting closes May 14. Background info here.

Entrant: Dr. Srividya Nair
Nominees: Dr. Nick Karras and Dr. Sayaka Adachi

A woman’s identity is indelibly linked with her sexuality; historically and currently, it is under attack in nearly every arena. We are left feeling inadequate and ugly no matter what role we are assigned by society. And yet it seems we are less aware of our sexuality and beauty now than in any other time. Told by endless number of pseudo pundits that we must look like her or have that body to be sexy, it is difficult to have confidence in our selves and our bodies.

The work that Drs. Nick Karras and Sayaka Adachi are doing as sexologists is profound and enduring. They have published a book, “Petals,” and an accompanying DVD that are transformative — not just in the realm of art and body consciousness, but also in medicine and health. And when combined with their counseling, their work truly has an amazing potential to change lives not just in the field of sexuality but also in the field of clinical medicine.

My life (amongst many others) has been enriched, and I have become more aware of the beauty of the female body by their work and their friendship. They deserve this award with no qualifications. Drs. Nick Karras and Sayaka Adachi have put the power over ourselves and our bodies back in our hands.

December 10, 2009

WAM! Auction Ends Tonight: Once-in-A-Lifetime Chance to Meet Your Heroes, Give Great Gifts

WAM! auction items

Ever wish you could meet Cyndi Lauper — or Tegan and Sara or Margaret Cho? Or ask Katha Pollitt or Kate Harding or Rebecca Traister to edit your manuscript? Or wear the iconic blazer Princeton Professor Melissa Harris Lacewell appears in on “The Rachel Maddow Show”?

You’ll have your chance today — but only today — to make these and other dreams come true.

Head on over to the Women, Action & Media auction, where you’ll find 53 amazing items, including:

* dinner with Jessica Valenti

* autographed guitars from Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin

* an original DTWOF comic strip by Alison Bechdel

* a customized recipe by Lisa Jervis

* lunch with Baratunde Thurston and a tour of the offices of “The Onion”

* Sarah Haskins records your outgoing voicemail message

* signed books and posters by the likes of bell hooks, Marjane Satrapi, Jane HamiltonSuzan-Lori Parks, Jennifer Weiner and Venus and Serena Williams

* much, much more

WAM! — the annual conference turned national organization that is fighting for gender justice in media — is raising for money for its launch as a national organization, with WAM! chapters in all 50 states and beyond.

It’s a great cause — and you can do your holiday shopping. Seriously, there are great deals to be had. And no one else will give (or get) the same gift!

Bidding ends at 9 p.m. EST. Good luck!