History of Health Activism Conference at Yale

Here is a Yale Daily News report on the conference, “Health Activism in the 20th century,” that I participated in at Yale last weekend.  (minor correction — MADD stands for Mothers Against Drunk Driving!)  As the reporter was only there for Saturday (bright and early at 8:30am!) and I was the first presenter, he didn’t get a chance to observe my brilliant presentation, Creating a Middle Ground: Feminist Health Activists and Emergency Contraception in the United States, 1970-2000! (I’m giving a shorter version of this paper at the History of Science Society meeting next weekend )  Here are the main points:

This paper looks at the changing position of the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN) on emergency contraception, aka the “morning-after pill.” Initially this group was a vehement opponent of emergency contraception and other forms of hormonal birth control.  By the early 1990s the organization had joined broader efforts to develop a dedicated emergency contraceptive product.  NWHN found that there was sufficient evidence about the safety and effectiveness of this contraceptive method to “cautiously support its use.”
More importantly, increasing restrictions on abortion and access to federally-funded birth control under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush convinced the organization that they needed to help ensure that women had access to emergency contraception when other birth control methods failed.

This paper is a chapter out of a book-length project on the history of emergency contraception in the United States, which is under contract with Rutgers University Press. This project aims to use the history of emergency contraception to illuminate key themes in the politics of birth control and abortion since the 1960s.

In terms of relevance to other issues in health activism in the twentieth century, one of my main points is how the history of emergency contraception reflects the professionalization of the women’s health movement. Since the 1970s, feminist health activists had gradually become insiders in reproductive health by earning professional credentials, which gave them the ability to reform organized medicine and health care policy from within. Although some of their contemporaries accused these newly-minted professionals of “selling-out” rather than furthering the cause of women’s self-empowerment,” the corresponding radicalization of the medical “establishment” was equally significant. This book is intended to contribute to recent scholarship on how women have used experience of the physical body as a source of knowledge production and feminist practice regarding women’s health issues. For example, Wendy Kline argues that “body knowledge” was central to the women’s health activism of Second Wave feminism, and that this feminist framework was abandoned as the women’s health movement adopted the professional credentials and scientific language of the health care establishment.
I suggest that rather than being a departure from Second Wave feminist strategies that were based on knowledge of the biological body, recent activism on emergency contraception demonstrates how women have continued to use personal histories of their bodies to transform reproductive health research and healthcare policy. Since the early 1990s, emergency contraception has served as a “bridge issue” that brought together former adversaries, including feminist health organizations, population and family planning people, and groups representing women of color who were the main targets of attempts to control the “population crisis” in the United States.

This coalition did not arise without a struggle and had to overcome much bad faith generated by sexism in the medical profession and the racist and coercive policies of the population movement. My book shows how these diverse groups created a “middle ground” between an older liberal feminist position that tended to support technological innovations such as hormonal contraception; and a more radical feminist position that criticized the use of hormones but was otherwise in favor of reproductive rights.

That’s So Twentieth Century: Women’s History and Web 2.0

In my last post, I reproduced an announcement from the women’s studies journal  Frontiers about a new “interactive” column by Eileen Boris, in which she will cook up a “gumbo” of emailed responses, “mixing, seasoning, and throwing in her own ingredients, as she enables us to engage in feminist dialectic.”

As Pennamite observed in the comments section, “Isn’t that gumbo going to be a bit old, if the deadline for submissions is over a year away…? Seems like an awkward way to shoehorn social media into a paper journal format.”

Right on, Pennamite!  So this post is a response to Penny’s observation and a contribution to a new venture that Dan Cohen and  Tom Scheinfeldt started cooking up at ThatCamp this past weekend. They propose writing an edited book entitled Hacking the Academy:

“Let’s write it together, starting at THATCamp this weekend. And let’s do it in one week.

Here’s my question — can we do better than use a twentieth-century technology (email) to create an interactive feminist discussion?  To steal Pennamite’s motto — you betcha!

In fact, I would argue that the call from Frontiers is barely twentieth century (even if the announcement was posted on Facebook)– one could easily imagine this being done with old fashioned snail mail.  It’s not even as  technologically sophisticated as H-Women, which, while moderated, at least allows for give and take between subscribers.

Speaking of which, I have a great fondness for the good old days of H-Women, i.e. the 1990s, when I served as an editor.   Some of the original H-Net folks and I discussed how to make H-Net Web 2.0  at an H-Net reception at the AHA a few years ago — how to bring H-Net into the Web 2.0 era.  One can now “subscribe” to the discussion lists through RSS feeds instead of by email.   However, there’s not a lot of activity in terms of scholarly exchange — most of the content consists of CFP, queries, and announcements of various kinds.

Other experiments –organizers of the last  Berkshire Conference of Women’s Historians, more specifically Historiann,  put together a blog right before the most recent Big Berks meeting (this was   So, you can find a number of women’s historians who blog.  In October 2008, I was on a panel for the little Berks meeting with Tenured Radical and Clio Bluestocking. The Journal of Women’s History commissioned TR to coordinate a roundtable on the relationship between feminist history blogging and the professional world of feminist history. However, this roundtable will appear in a subscription-only traditional publication (although available electronically as well as in print).  Where’s the 2.0?  Will there be opportunities for readers to respond in an online forum?

Maybe I shouldn’t be such a smart-ass — after all, I’m a relative newcomer to digital history, and was lucky enough to get money from my university to build up my skills in this area.  Many people aren’t so fortunate. How do we get more women’s historians and feminist scholars on the Web 2.0 bandwagon?  Is this a worthwhile endeavor?  I await your answers.

Blogging against Disabilism Part II

via Ms Magazine Blog.  In an article called “Kervorkian and the Right to Choose,”  reproductive rights activist Carol King (not the singer) reviews the new HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack.”  She claims:

“The opposition to assisted suicide in Michigan was led by the same people (Right to Life of Michigan) who oppose abortion. . . The “right-to-lifers” enlisted the disabled in their cause when they cautioned that allowing people to choose to die would soon become their “duty to die.”

First off, it’s not appropriate to use a term like “the disabled” — it objectifies persons with disabilities. Also, the position of disability rights activists on the “right to die” movement is far more complex than King presents.  The group Not Dead Yet provides a solid argument against the devaluation of persons with disabilities implicit in Kervorkian’s work, while also critiquing the anti-abortion movement for co-opting the rhetoric of the disability rights movement.  For more on how to be a feminist AND an advocate for disability rights, see the FWD blog.

Who Says Real Men Can’t Knit?

via WSJ.com.   Like other occupations, long-haul trucking has seen a decline in demand.  So, in their down-time, some truckers have taken up stitching.  At left is Kevin Abraham-Banks, a Sioux Falls, S.D., trucker, with tattoos and shave head,  who likes to pass time at truck stops by knitting — here he is making a sweater for his wife.  According to the article:

“Creating something tangible beats sitting around the truck stop “talking about who has a bigger radio,” he said. He’s finished a scarf and socks, and is working on a sweater for his wife.

“The fact that you can take strands of thread and basically make something out of it, that’s awesome I think,” he said. “It’s pretty cool stuff, man.”

Comments on the article range from “this is pathetic” to observations that knitting by men used to be (and still is) common in some cultures — e.g. 19th century Scotland:  according to one comment, “only men were allowed to knit in public as it was their winter livelihood. Women were only allowed to knit in their own home and for personal use. The men knit the Royal Army uniforms. They don’t seem to have found it ‘funny’ to KIP their WIP (Knit In Public their Work In Progress). Even well into the 20th century, knitting was a required class in British schools (my husband attended in the 60s).”

So men, don’t be afraid to KIP your WIP!