Blogging for Emergency Contraception

via Back Up Your Birth Control.  Today is the 10th annual national day of action for Back Up Your Birth Control, a media campaign sponsored by the National Institute for Reproductive Health. I’ve agreed to blog to raise awareness about this.

Because I’m a shameless self-promoter, I’m also going to start with an update on my forthcoming book, The Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States.  The page proofs will be arriving in a couple of weeks.  Meanwhile, here’s the blurb that will appear on the publisher’s website, catalog, and the book cover:

“Since 2006, when the “morning-after pill” Plan B was first sold over the counter, sales of emergency contraceptives have soared, becoming an $80 million industry in the United States and throughout the Western world. But emergency contraception is nothing new. It has a long and often contentious history as the subject of clashes not only between medical researchers and religious groups, but also between different factions of feminist health advocates.

The Morning After tells the story of emergency contraception in America from the 1960s to the present day and, more importantly, it tells the story of the women who have used it. Side-stepping simplistic readings of these women as either radical feminist trailblazers or guinea pigs for the pharmaceutical industry, medical historian Heather Munro Prescott offers a portrait of how ordinary women participated in the development and popularization of emergency contraception, bringing a groundbreaking technology into the mainstream with the potential to radically alter reproductive health practices.”

I had to stop somewhere, so the book shortchanges the most recent developments — especially the most recent efforts to use of social media to raise awareness of EC. [BTW, the Back Up Your Birth Control campaign has a Facebook page and you can find related posts on Twitter using #backitup and/or by following @nirhealth).

The use of the Web to promote EC originated in the early 1990s with the emergency contraception website at Princeton. The Back Up Your Birth Control Campaign began amidst the battle to get the FDA to approve Plan B as an over-the-counter drug.  What’s interesting to me as a historian is the use of graphic artist J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It” poster, which he created for Westinghouse under the sponsorship of War Production Board (this image should not be confused with the Norman Rockwell painting “Rosie the Riveter” that appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post May 29, 1943, and is still under copyright.  The Rockwell paiting was recently acquired by the Bentonville Museum in Arkansas, founded by Wal-mart heiress Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation — oh the irony!).  Personally, I like the Rockwell image better, but do you think the Waltons will allow anyone to use it without paying major $$ — not bloody likely!  “We Can Do It” does not have such copyright restrictions, so various groups use it freely.  (for more on these images and American popular culture, go here).  It’s become a feminist icon of female empowerment, but this article demonstrates that “during World War II the empowering rhetorical appeal of this Westinghouse image was circumscribed by the conditions of its use and by several other posters in its series.”

Returning to EC — the history of the various awareness campaigns over the years is fascinating but was nearly impossible to illustrate in the book because, like many of us, the organizations that created these images didn’t preserve them once they were no longer useful.  Others put them on their websites, then discarded the original files.  Then there’s the problem of finding the copyright holder and getting permission from him/her.  Here’s an image that I couldn’t use because there was no digital file that had a high enough resolution for reproduction — it also nicely sums up my frustrations with the whole process:

image courtesy of Canadian Federation for Sexual Health

So, here’s a recommendation for the Back Up Your Birth Control Campaign — back up your “born digital” materials and preserve your digital heritage!

Women’s historians and Dukes v. Wal-mart, or what we learned from the Sears case

image courtesy of @ACLU via twitpic

via New Deal 2.0. which in honor of women’s history month, has a series of posts on “the surprising story of how women became citizens — and how their economic lives have evolved along with their rights.” Yesterday’s post considers the oral arguments that will be made before the U.S. Supreme Court  in the Dukes v. Wal-mart Stores, Inc. case “that will determine the power of women — and all Americans — to stand up to employer abuses.

While I wait to see what the SCOTUS says in this case, I’ll reflect on another case involving a retail giant — Sears — that happened 25 years ago when I was just a wee Clio graduate student at Cornell.  In the Fall of 1986, the hot topic among those of use studying women’s history was the recently decided district court case, EEOC v. Sears, in which two prominent women’s historians, Rosalind Rosenberg  and Alice Kessler-Harris served as expert witnesses.  Rosenberg, testifying on behalf of Sears, argued  “Men and women differ in their expectations
concerning work, in their interests as to the types of jobs they prefer or the types of products they prefer to sell. . It iss naive to believe that the natural effect of these differences is evidence of discrimination by Sears.” In other words, the reason that men were in high paying commission sales jobs (e.g. automotive, appliances) was because women chose other areas to work.

Kessler-Harris countered, “What appear to be women’s choices, and what are characterized as women’s ‘interests’ are, in fact, heavily influenced by the opportunities for work made available to them . . . Where opportunity has existed, women have never failed to take the jobs offered. . . . Failure to find women in so-called non-traditionall jobs can thus only be interpreted as a consequence of employers’ unexamined attitudes or preferences, which phenomenon is the essence of discrimination.”

Unfortunately for the EEOC who filed on behalf of female employees, the court believed Rosenberg and declared that Sears did not discriminate based on sex.  As Ruth Milkman observed in her analysis of the case in Feminist Studies in 1986, “Historians, even feminist historians, frequently disagree with one another. But it is difficult to imagine a forum less tolerant of the nuanced, careful arguments in which historians delight than a courtroom.”

This may explain why, to my knowledge at least, there haven’t been any women’s historians speaking about the Dukes case.  Then again, maybe like me, they’re waiting to hear what happens with the Supremes.  Based on early reports, things don’t look encouraging.

Trumbull Library presentation on Henrietta Lacks and the Immortal Life of Health Care Inequalities

Earlier this week, I helped lead a discussion of Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as part of the Trumbull public library‘s One Book One Town series.  My co-leader was Laura Stark from the Science and Society/Department of Sociology at Wesleyan University.  Laura was a fact-checker for the book while she was a fellow at the Office of National Institutes of Health History.  Laura focused on points raised in her forthcoming book, Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research, which will be published in November with The University of Chicago Press.  She looked at how the treatment of human subjects in the United States has evolved since the Second World War and this impacts Institutional Review Boards today.  My emphasis was on standards of care for cervical cancer patients then and now, and how this intersected with prevailing issues of race, gender, and class.   As Skloot observes, Henrietta’s care was typical of teaching hospitals at this time, and Johns Hopkins was one of the few in the region that admitted African American patients (albeit in segregated wards).  During the 1940s and early 1950s, there was no Medicaid and third party private insurance was only beginning to become an employee  benefit.  So, as a “charity patient” Henrietta received state of the art cancer treatment that many at that time could not afford.  The care would have been the same had she been white.  Yet, the prevailing attitude at the time was that since “charity cases” were treated for free, doctors were entitled to use them in research, whether the patients realized it or not. Henrietta’s doctor once wrote, “Hopkins, with its large indigent black population, had no dearth of clinical material.”

Also, epidemiological studies of cervical cancer tended to reinforce cultural prejudices about race and socioeconomic status of the time period. By the early 1950s, researchers noticed that cervical cancer was common in prostitutes and others with multiple sexual partners; rare in Jewish and Muslim women; and practically non-existent in nuns and virgins.  There was considerable debate about whether this was due to an infectious agent or genetics. The notion that different races had propensity to certain diseases was common  — e.g. blacks were characterized as a “notoriously syphilis-soaked race” while Jewish persons were believed to be more prone to respiratory illnesses like TB. So, “race medicine” included the theory that Jewish and Muslim women were more likely to develop cervical cancer because of their “race.”  We now know that male circumcision helps prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, such as the human papilloma viruses that cause many genital cancers. Starting in the 1950s, scientists explored the link between adolescent sexual activity and the development of cervical cancer later in life. Several epidemiological studies published in the 1950s and early 1960s indicated that women who married before age 20 appeared to be at higher risk for cervical cancer. Some speculated that women who had multiple “broken marriages” were especially susceptible. Some cancer researchers hypothesized that some kind of infectious agent transmitted by male partners was a contributing factor, and that the adolescent cervix was especially vulnerable to “epithelial transformation” by exposure to such an agent. Given that a disproportionate number of patients were nonwhite, non-Jewish women of low socioeconomic status, recommended that routine pap smears were especially important for “nonvirgins” from underprivileged groups. These findings also tended to reinforce prevailing stereotypes about the links between disease risk, race, and class – those living in poverty – especially if they were nonwhite – more likely to be “promiscuous.”

At the same time, the introduction of Pap smear led to the notion that “cancer was curable” if caught early — this provided the justification for annual gynecological examinations.  Prior to Medicaid,  a young woman of Henrietta’s social class would not have had access to routine preventive medical care. Thus, the health disparities indicated by cervical cancer studies were used to justify government funded preventive screening for those living in poverty.

Another recent development has been efforts by health activists to make medical research more inclusive.  As Eileen Nechas and Denise Foley show in their book Unequal Treatment reformers fought to make sure that all studies funded by NIH included women, racial minorities, children and adolescents, where appropriate, historically “decisions on what aspect of health to study, on what research protocol to fund” were based “not only on scientific merit . . . but on a judgment of social worth. What is valuable to medicine is who is valuable to society, and that is white men.”  Since the late 1980, health activists fought to make sure that all studies funded by NIH included women, racial minorities, children and adolescents, where appropriate; and made sure that diseases that disproportionately affected these groups got “equal time” and money.

Here are the discussion questions we gave to the audience:

Should people have a right to control what’s done with their tissues once they’re removed from their bodies? And who, if anyone, should profit from those tissues?

Deborah says, “But I always have thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense” (page 9).   Should Lacks family be compensated by those who profited from research on HeLa cells?

How does this story relate to recent history of health care reform, and attempts to expand access to medical advances made possible by research on HeLa and other human tissues?

How can medical professionals recognize that certain diseases affect certain racial/ethnic groups without replicating prejudices of old “race medicine”?

Can one be a feminist and a top model?

Judging by last night’s episode of America’s Top Model (yes, this is one of my guilty pleasures!), the answer is no.  The latest contestant to get the boot, Sara, (left), spent much of the episode talking about how she is a feminist and how that hindered her ability to get into character for a retro, Mad Men inspired, coffee commercial.  Under non-modeling activities on her profile,  Sara writes,  “I’m really involved with Planned Parenthood activities on our campus.”

Now, I have no idea if that’s why the panel eliminated her — and in the interest of objectivity, I agreed with the judges that her performance in the commercial was one of the weakest.   I also don’t think whoever edited the episode intended to give the impression that saying you’re a feminist immediately gets you black-balled (although I can imagine that some might see it that way).  A few years ago, The Economist wrote an article about Tyra’s “unusual” brand of  feminism:

“Tyra doesn’t use the word “feminist” on the show, but her woman-specific shtick is indeed a feminist manifesto: one that finds empowerment in looking extraordinarily beautiful in photographs (or in becoming the star of a hit reality show), and in achieving this by any means necessary.”

In this sense, Tyra represents the brand of individualist feminism described by Susan Ware in Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism.  Ware’s latest book, Game Set Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports, provides a completely different model of feminism:

“When Billie Jean King trounced Bobby Riggs in tennis’s “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973, she placed sports squarely at the center of a national debate about gender equity. Combining biography and history, this book argues that Billie Jean King’s spirited challenges to sexism on and off the court, the supportive climate of second-wave feminism, and the legislative clout of Title IX sparked a women’s sports revolution in the 1970s that fundamentally reshaped American society. King’s place in tennis history is secure, but now she can take her rightful place as a key player in the history of feminism as well.”

All this leads to the question, why would a feminist want to be a top model.  Well, let’s look at Sara’s financial situation — she works two jobs so she can go to college.  Modeling is one of the few occupations where women make more than men (and if you’re a supermodel like Tyra, way more).  So, one can understand why she entered the contest.  Unfortunately, her interest in continuing studies and ambivalence about the sexism of the modeling profession got framed as a “lack of commitment.”  Too bad.  It would have been great to see a tom-boyish, articulate, unabashed feminist as top model!

Women’s History Carnival 2011

via History Carnival.

It’s that time of year, the one that makes those of us in the field of women’s history slightly batty super busy getting everything ready for our women’s history month events, with the help of the National Women’s History Project (image above).  If that weren’t enough, some of us in the women’s history blog/twittersphere are so masochistic enthusiastic that we’re participating in a Women’s History Carnival too.  Here’s more information from the History Carnival site:

In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month the History Carnival is inaugurating a special Women’s History Carnival for March 2011, for all blogs and blogging about the history of women, gender and feminism. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet, but hopefully it’ll be a bit different from the usual History Carnivals:

There should be at least one Carnival post, but we’d like to do much more than that! We’ll publicise any great blogging or themed events we come across (or you tell us about) and generally do our best to encourage discussion and bang the drum for women’s history.

There’ll be further updates on Twitter throughout the month at @historycarnival and on this website. If you’d like to get involved, if you’re doing something for Women’s History Month that you’d like to publicise, or you have ideas for different events, you can leave a comment below, use the contact form, or just send a tweet @historycarnival.

Plus, you can follow the RSS feed for WHC announcements

The Carnival

Depending on nominations, it’s likely that there will be a Carnival posting (venue tbc) shortly after International Women’s Day, with a follow-up towards the end of March to round up the month’s activities. You can nominate blog posts for the Carnival using this special nominations form. (Don’t use the normal HC nomination form.) Although recent material may be given priority, anything written since March 2010 will be considered!

Blog conversations

Join in blogging for Women’s History Month! A few people we hope to hear from are listed below (more to follow)…

Jen Newby, Writing Women’s History (twitter)
Judith Weingarten, Zenobia: Empress of the East (twitter)
Penny Richards (twitter)
Knitting Clio (twitter)
Katrina Gulliver, Notes from the Field (twitter)
Another Damned Medievalist, Blogenspiel
Sharon Howard (twitter)

Other places

Follow @historycarnival for news: hashtags #whc11 or #twitterstoriennes

How Women’s Historians can help close the Wikipedia Gender Gap

via Cliotropic, who comments on the recent report that only about 15% of Wikipedia contributors are women. Cliotropic notes that ” Wikipedia’s user-demographics data is entirely voluntary and that many women, offered a chance not to identify themselves by sex, avoid doing so. Sometimes it’s an effort to avoid harassment, and sometimes it’s to avoid the women-targeted ads. So their data may well be off.”

Related to this gender gap in who writes for Wikipedia is the woefully inadequate coverage of women’s history in Wikipedia — not surprising since women’s history, after decades of research and teaching, is underrepresented in both higher education and K-12 history teaching.  Cliotropic says, “if you teach history courses on women, gender, or sexuality, or on the history of any racial or ethnic minority in the United States, it’s worth considering adding a Wikipedia assignment to your syllabus.”

One of the commenters suggests using Jeremy Boggs’  “stub-expanding” course assignment for his U.S. survey course  here -but there isn’t a stub section for women’s history!

It’s too late for me to assign this for my women’s history class this semester but I think I will take Cliotropic’s suggestions in the Fall.

Meanwhile, I think it’s a good idea for those of us who are professional women’s historians to think about investing our time in improving the representation of women’s history on Wikipedia.  Shelby Knox’s comments to my post about her Radical Women’s history project reminded me that digital sources like Wikipedia and “this date in history” sites are the point of entry for many young women, and young people in general.  Of course, we would like them to use more authoritative sources like Notable American Women and Notable Black American Women, but that still means schlepping to a bricks and mortar library (assuming there is one close by that’s open regular hours and actually owns the books).  And, we academics are all familiar with Gerda Lerner’s 1975 essay in Feminist Studies that pointed out the limitations of “compensatory history” that simply looks at the “women worthies.”  Still, if “great women” is where our students and feminist activists like Knox are starting, then we have to meet them there.

What do others think?

Blog for Choice 2011

As you can see from the graphic at left, the annual Blog for Choice Day was yesterday.   Since today is the actual 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I figured, better late than not at all!  This year’s question, Given the anti-choice gains in the states and Congress, are you concerned about choice in 2011?

I don’t have much to add to other bloggers’ answer other than echo the overall consensus, Yes, I’m very concerned!

My worries extend beyond the choice of abortion — access to birth control also appears threatened, not so much by new laws, but more so because of economics.   The Republican majority in the House will not be able to revoke the health care law, at least not while President Obama is in the White House and the Democratic party still controls the Senate.  Yet, the existing health care law isn’t really adequate when it comes to contraceptive coverage.  Also, while many reproductive rights activists rightly celebrated making emergency contraception available over-the-counter (OTC), this might actually make things worse for some women because OTC products are not covered by private insurance plans or Medicaid.  Thus, while the rise of what pharmacy historicans call “OTCness” over the past two decades has weakened the boundary between patients and the health care professionals, it has done nothing to address the economic inequalities in the United States that continue to pose an insurmountable barrier to those without the means to pay for the products of this self-care revolution.

Documentary video on National Women’s Health Network

I’m still powering through the last few papers and exams, but am taking time to post this short documentary by/about the National Women’s Health Network.  The Network celebrated its 35th anniversary on December 16, 2010 (happy belated anniversary!)  They l will have a prominent place in my forthcoming book (which I plan to mail to the press after Christmas, I promise!)

And here’s a call for donations rom Executive Director Cindy Pearson:

Together, we have been improving women’s health in the US since 1975.

  • We bring the voices of women consumers to the policy and regulatory decision-making bodies in D.C.
  • We work to improve the health of all women by providing unbiased, evidence-based information that women need to make informed decisions about their own health.
  • We are supported by our diverse members from all across the country.

We play our watchdog role fearlessly. And, we do it without taking any financial contributions from drug companies, the health insurance industry, medical device manufacturers or anyone else with a financial stake in women’s health decision-making.

Will you help us?

We have a great opportunity with our 35th Anniversary Challenge Campaign. A small group of members are stepping forward with pledges to give $35,000 if we raise $35,000 from gifts ‘above and beyond’ usual year-end gifts.  These members generously pledged to help encourage others like you to step up and give more as well.  You can be sure that any gift you give to NWHN, large or small, will have a big impact on the lives of women and their families. Now, it’s on to the next 35!

Job announcement: Wellesley Centers for Women

Taking a break from grading to post this job announcement — yay, someone is hiring!

Search for the Executive Director

Wellesley Centers for Women

The Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), an influential research institute with the goal of generating knowledge that can lead to positive social change, seeks an Executive Director. With an operating budget of over $7 million, an endowment of $32.7 million and a staff of 75, the Centers are recognized internationally for groundbreaking, rigorous research and scholarship that places women’s perspectives at the center of inquiry. Located at Wellesley College, one of the nation’s leading women’s colleges, the Centers benefit from a unique relationship with the College including student internship and employment opportunities, some collaborative teaching and research with Wellesley faculty, and financial support.

This is an exciting opportunity to direct a highly motivated and committed community of researchers, and to ensure that WCW continues to push the boundaries of understanding and have significant impact in the public sphere. A successful Executive Director will build on the strong leadership of Susan McGee Bailey and chart a course for the future that will heighten the Centers’ visibility; increase revenues through new and existing donor networks, research grants and contracts; and attract and retain top-notch researchers. The Executive Director will also spark innovative thinking about how to create fresh synergies between WCW and Wellesley College, two world-class entities that share a commitment to research, education and the empowerment of women.

The position calls for a creative, deft, consultative leader with excellent strategic, communication and fundraising skills. Distinguished scholarship and a terminal degree in a relevant discipline are expected, as is experience in an organizational leadership role. Demonstrated passion for women’s issues is essential. The Executive Director reports to the Provost of Wellesley College and is guided by a 27 member advisory board, the Wellesley Centers for Women Board of Overseers. The Board of Overseers includes two members of the Wellesley College Board of Trustees, which has final authority over the Centers. For more information on the Centers, please view this website.

Please direct inquiries, applications and nominations to Sheryl Ash and Rebecca Swartz at Isaacson, Miller. Candidates should provide a C.V., letter of interest, and reference list electronically to 4148@imsearch.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . All replies will be held in strict confidence. Wellesley College is an EO/AA educational institution and employer.

Rape Rape Part II: Wikileaks and Julian Assange version

via Slate Double X

Where Rachel Larimore says that “Julian Assange is Creepy: So is His Arrest on Rape Charges.”   In a turn of phrase oddly reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg’s comments about the rape charges against Roman Polanksi, Rachel writes:

“It’s not that the charges aren’t serious. They go beyond Assange allegedly not using a condom when a woman asked him to. He comes across as a creep and a misogynist. But they are still cases of “acquaintance rape,” which is notoriously difficult to prove.  And that just contributes to the idea among skeptics—and Assange’s lawyer, naturally—that these are trumped up charges designed to keep Assange from causing trouble for the United States and its allies. It doesn’t help that the last time Assange had a document dump, Swedish authorities wanted to question Assange and then released a statement backing off and saying that he “is not suspected of rape.”

So, according to Rachel, date rape must not _really_ be rape?  WTF?!

In response to Rachel, Amanda Marcotte argued that “Assange Defenders Attack Rape Accusers for No Good Reason.”

” I have to agree with you that the circumstances of Julian Assange’s arrest are suspicious as hell and that the charges against Assange seem credible enough.  I’m surprised at how many people find it impossible to hold both thoughts in their heads at once and believe that because Interpol is exploiting the sexual assault charges to get Assange, it must mean the charges themselves are lies.  I often caution people not to assume conspiracy when opportunism is what’s likely in play. Even before all this came out, I really disliked the hero worship of Assange, who has always put me off my lunch.  It’s possible both that Wikileaks is a necessary curative for government overreach and that its leader is out to serve his own ego needs above all.  Anyone who thinks that’s impossible needs to think harder about what’s going on when politicians get sentimental on the campaign trail.

What is disgusting to me is how much of the left has conveniently forgotten that women who file rape charges can pretty much always expect to have their names dragged through the mud, unless they were “lucky” enough to be raped by someone of much lower social status who also jumped out of the bushes to rape them.”

Thanks, Amanda.  This needed to said, and now it has, and I don’t have too!  Back to grading. . .