How Did Women's Health Advocates Start a Movement?

Nicole Levitz, Guest Contributor

I was lucky enough to know reproductive health writer and activist Barbara Seamen before she died in 2008, and I felt her influence on every page of Voices from the Women’s Health Movement. The book contains the written work she loved and returned to often throughout her long career. It also has many brand new pieces, including stories that Barbara helped to put down on paper. Compiled by Barbara and her co-editor, Laura Eldridge, I see these books as a gift for young feminists, a way to bring the past and the future of the women's health movement together.

The stories of women's health advocates are recorded in this collection using language that is accessible and relevant. The two volumes highlight the voices of those who lived the struggles, wrote them down, and made them a part of women's history. The books give an insider's look at turning points in women's health that give you the feeling of being in the middle of the action. When Alice Wolfson is interviewed about invading the Senate floor during the 1970 congressional hearings on the birth control pill, she makes you feel like you pushed through the door with her, in spite of threats of being hauled away be the police. Alice and her fellow activists held their ground fearlessly saying, "Alright, call the police. We’ll call the paper.”

The essays cover a wide range of topics one expects from a book about women's health, like birth control, motherhood, menopause, and menstruation. However, it also branches out to reflect a wider understanding of the issues that impact a woman's well-being. It includes the experiences of transgender women and survivors of gender-based violence, and an essay by Anne Yeager highlights the overlooked intersection of mental health and pregnancy. After going off the medication she needed to manage manic depression, in the hope of avoiding birth defects, Anne describes how she started to unravel and how she fought her way back during her pregnancy.

Reading Voices from the Women’s Health Movement reminded me of the hours I spent reading through stacks of papers that littered Barbara’s apartment. She had collected thousands of articles, books, and news clippings over the years, and my task was to create a system of organization. As I dived into the dusty mounds, I began to see little bits of history unfold. The experience was very similar to what you get reading these books.

Voices from the Women’s Health Movement allows young women's health activists to continue to learn from Seamen, even though she's gone. I like to think that when a new activist pulls this book off the shelf, she will be transported, like I was in Barbara’s apartment, to another place and time. I like to think the history in these pages will make her feel like she's a part of something bigger than the assaults on reproductive rights that are happening today. Because she is. We all are.

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Related:
Choice Words: An Interview with Jennifer Baumgardner on Reproductive Rights

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