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From self-help to no help

I’ve never met Lorraine Rothman, a women’s health activist and inventor of the Del’Em menstrual extraction kit. But I came to know her work through my dissertation research, and so I was deeply saddened to hear that she is dying.

Rothman was an early leader of the self-help health movement, a phenomenon of early 1970s women’s liberation that involved groups of women using a speculum to look at each other’s cervixes. Think of it as a physical complement to consciousness-raising, a way for women to gain knowledge and authority about their own bodies. Instead of relying on a gynecologist (usually male, at that time) to tell us about the health or sickness of our bodies, women would be able to help each other know their bodies from the inside out, literally.

In 1971, Lorraine Rothman and Carol Downer traveled around the country with a slide presentation and bags of speculum to teach women about the art of what they called “self-help,” sparking the creation of “self-help clinics” as they went. Rothman then invented the Del’Em (basically a soft plastic tube and vacuum jar), which self-help groups could learn to use to remove the contents of the uterus on the day menstruation began or was expected. This process of “menstrual extraction” was touted as a way to liberate women from the inconveniences of menstruation. It could also be used as a method of very early abortion. This procedure offered another way for women to use technology to take an active, cooperative role in the workings of their own bodies.

Though self-help and menstrual extraction is all but forgotten, Rothman was a key figure in the development of feminist health care, co-founding several feminist women’s health centers. It is sad and ironic, then, that she is now fatally ill because of the failure of her own health care. She is dying of advanced, metastasized bladder cancer, which was not detected by the doctors she saw through her HMO over the past two years of her pelvic pain. She did not see a urologist, because her HMO did not offer the option of seeing a female doctor. A physician’s assistant at a women’s health center finally detected that she had a serious problem, but while Rothman waited for an appointment with a uro-gynecologist through her HMO, her pain became unbearable and a visit to the emergency room diagnosed her advanced cancer. She is now in hospice care.

Her story proves that we still have a long way to go to create a health care system that is responsive and accessible to all patients, providing services that meet their needs and earn their trust. With feminist health care centers like those Rothman helped create now on the wane, many women like her (and others, such as transfolk) with reason to distrust the medical establishment, are falling through the gaping health care cracks. Rothman may have been utopian in thinking that viewing the cervix with a group of women friends could change the world, but we would do well to ask ourselves: where is empowerment and self-determination in health care today?

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2 Comments

This is really very sad news.She was a great lady who always thought about women development.

I was there, and remember this work and the thrill around being part of attempts to reclaim our body rights. I say attempt, because we were somewhat less than successful against the power of the male centric medical establishment.

Today's feminists don't know about this early work, and don't carry it on. Perhaps renewed knowledge of Lorraine and others work in this area will spur a resurgence of women's body rights efforts. It certainly doesn't exist in modern medicine with the prevalence of surgical birth on demand, technology to aid fertility, and years of carcinogenic hormone shilling; or in the pornography movement, which pretends to be about women's "agency" but has taken us very far in the opposite direction, with women's bodies even less viewed as their own, but rather, a commodity. Gynes happily provide assistance for this with their western style FGM surgical procedures.

I'm sorry to say that I haven't found women physicians or gynes to be much better than their male overseers. I understand why of course; their willingness to kow tow to the patriarchal agenda is one of the reasons they get in to medical school.

On a personal level, I remember standing in front of an oncologist gyne 30 years ago, and with Lorraine and other women who shared my women's health beliefs backing me (in spirit if not reality) I refused a castration for a blip on a pap smear. Was told that I would "die a horrible death". Two years ago I refused castration again. I remain intact. It wasn't as easy this time to find feminists or feminist research to help me, and I had to fall back on the work done in the '70s. But there are some, still speaking out.

HERS Foundation http://www.hersfoundation.com/...

and sexual knowledge and health primarily directed to younger women, but then, so was Lorraine's work, then: http://www.scarleteen.com/

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "From self-help to no help." 24 September 2007. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 19, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/self-help-to-no-help>.

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