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Jewesses with Attitude

Standing up for women's health care

These last several weeks, I (like other JWA bloggers) have walked around in a haze of frustration, rage, and despair over politicians' apparent blindness to the centrality of women's health to national health. As a historian, I can attest that as goes women's health, so goes the health of the nation. If women aren't healthy, their families aren't healthy; if families aren't healthy, the nation (economically and socially) is not healthy. And reproductive rights are an essential component of women's overall health care. The insistence of some people on seeing these rights as expendable reminds me that even progressive people can be stupid and sexist.

Beyond ranting and raving to anyone who will listen and harassing my legislators on a daily basis, which -- while it blows off some steam -- feels woefully insufficient, I wasn't sure how else to mobilize my anger about this. So I was glad to learn about Not Under The Bus, a campaign for women's health care by the Women's Media Center that calls for health reform that provides "fair, safe, and covered" care for women. Their latest video illustrates with simple stick figures the powerful message behind their name:

The truth is that even Not Under The Bus doesn't have many other suggestions for action beyond the basic calls, petitions, and op-eds. But even so, their video reminded me that there is tremendous power in standing up and saying "No!" That simple act can shift the direction of history. Exercising a bit of agency changes not only one person's life, putting her -- perhaps -- in the driver's seat, but also sends out ripples to the world beyond.

As I watched that stick figure woman hold up her hand to the bus, suddenly I remembered the long legacy of Jewish women who have taken that transformative step of facing down power and standing up for women's health, and I stood a little taller, feeling their strength at my back.

I'm thinking about Hannah Mayer Stone, a pioneering physician and reproductive rights advocate, who was arrested in 1929 for circulating birth control information -- a simple act that was illegal at the time. I'm also remembering Sherri Finkbine. When she learned in 1962 that thalidomide, a drug she had taken while pregnant, was known to cause serious birth defects, she sought a therapeutic abortion and was turned down. So she took her case public, sparking a national debate about abortion reform.

Barbara Seaman (who I blogged about just last week) remains one of my great health activist heroes. A journalist, she challenged doctors and pharmaceutical companies to listen to women's reports of symptoms and acknowledge the dangers of synthetic hormones. Because of her tireless work, which even caught the attention of Congress and led to hearings on the safety of the Pill, medications today contain information about potential side effects and risks.

Rose Kushner (also a favorite blog subject of mine) is also on my mind. Her own experience advocating for herself as a breast cancer patient -- during which 19 doctors refused to treat her on her terms -- transformed her into a leading public educator and voice for informed consent. The expertise she built earned her a spot on President Carter's National Cancer Advisory Board, an unusual honor for a layperson.

And then there's Lorraine Rothman, creator of the "Del' Em," a "menstrual extraction" device that gave women the ability to shorten their periods (and,perhaps, perform a very early abortion). Fed up with how doctors treated women with little respect, Rothman helped build an alternative model for women's health care -- the collective self-help clinic -- and founded two Feminist Women's Health Centers in Southern California.

Recalling these women reminds me that when we stand up for women's right to fair, safe abortions, contraception, and health care in general, we're not standing alone. We're standing with the activists who came before us, whose own courageous protests changed the world as it was into the world as we know it today. We should feel not only inspired by their models, but reminded by their legacy of our entitlement -- and the imperative! -- to raise our voices and demand what right now feels both absolutely necessary and in danger of slipping from our grasp.

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Standing up for women's health care." 23 December 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 28, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/notunderthebus>.

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