The Best and Worst Moments in Women's Health: What's Your Take?

By Christine Cupaiuolo — September 23, 2008

The publication of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” made Health magazine’s list of best and worst moments in women’s health — as one of the best moments, of course.

Here’s what Stephanie Dolgoff wrote:

Women finally get straight talk about their bodies

If you need to know something about your body, what do you do? Look it up, of course. But before 1970 there weren’t any good resources. That year a group of Boston women published a stapled-together booklet — the precursor to Our Bodies, Ourselves — and fueled the burgeoning idea that women should be full participants in their medical care. Three years later, the radical publication (which discussed such issues as sexuality and birth control) was beefed up and released by Simon & Schuster. It’s now in its eighth edition.

Very cool.

Other standouts: After realizing that what works for white men doesn’t necessarily work for the rest of us, the National Institutes of Health in 1993 started including more women and minorities in clinical trials. And tubal litigation is now a real option. Dolgoff describes when it wasn’t:

Until 1969, a woman couldn’t elect to have her tubes tied unless she fit a formula — her age multiplied by the number of children she’d delivered had to equal 120 or more. (What that means: If you were 30 years old, you would have to have had four kids before a doctor would have agreed that you’d done your share of “women’s work” and sterilized you, unless another pregnancy would have posed a health risk.)

Though the list is supposed to cover “highs and lows in the last 20 years of female wellness,” a number of “best moments” are from older decades — in the case of the tampon’s development in 1929, much older. And some might be remembered more as milestones in popular culture that led to a greater acceptance of women’s health issues: Judy Blume novels (swoon); Edith Bunker going through menopause on “All in the Family” in 1972 — or to a greater respect for women’s physical abilities: U.S. women winning the World Cup in soccer in 1999 and Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”

On the more medical side, there are a couple of items that deserve a closer look — such as the FDA in 1960 declaring birth control pills safe for women. It’s great that we have the pill, but it took the work of health activists like Barbara Seaman to improve their safety.

The FDA’s approval of Gardasil, the first vaccine introduced to prevent cervical cancer, also deserves an asterisk. While Gardasil’s approval was met with great fanfare, the distribution and cost has come under scrutiny, and researchers have raised doubts, most notably in the New England Journal of Medicine, about whether Gardasil and another vaccine, Cervarix, will ultimately reduce rates of cervical cancer (read the articles here and here).

Dolgoff nailed the “seven lows in women’s health.” The list includes the refusal of pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception (Plan B), forced sterilization of women of color, and the Virginia Slims campaign — “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” — that co-opted feminism in the name of promoting lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.

My only question is: Why only seven? Many other “worst” moments come to mind, including misinformation about hormone replacement therapy and the Global Gag Rule.

So readers, what other best or worst moments would you add to the list?

6 responses to “The Best and Worst Moments in Women’s Health: What’s Your Take?”

  1. I was reading about the 120 rule in a book this morning, and realized that by that metric, not only could I not choose sterilization right now, but my *mom* (who was done childbearing after I was born 30 years ago) would not qualify.

  2. Yay to reading this. It makes us want to be more proactive with our health than passive in my eyes.

  3. I’d include the use of “Reference Man” as a determination of safe (although in reality there is no such thing) levels of radiation for x-rays, etc. even though women (and children) are usually much smaller than “Reference Man” not to mention anatomically different, and thus are impacted differently as a major low.

  4. Here’s a highpoint that’s not on the list, but if you’ve ever avoided a checkup because the experience was uncomfortable or embarrassing or painful or scary, you’ll appreciate the spirit of this invention:

    In 1994, obstetrician Sandy Welner (1958-2001) patented an exam table which lowers to allow physically disabled women to transfer from wheelchairs for pelvic examinations (it has other adaptations to allow for optimal positioning for both patient and physician). Today, Welner tables are used in VA hospitals and elsewhere, across the US. “I asked patients what would make an examination table more comfortable and less cumbersome,” she wrote. “The overwhelming response was an accessible table, one that provides security, comfort, safety, flexibility and stability. That’s a tall order, but I incorporated all these features in the design of my universally accessible examination table for people with all abilities and limitations.”

  5. Christine, you’re right – I think I would have rather seen legalization of contraception (for married and then for unmarried women) on that list.

  6. Gardasil as a best moment in women’s health??? (scratching head). My pick for a best moment would be the founding of the Women to Women clinic in Yarmouth, ME by (among others) Dr. Christiane Northrup. The medical clinic was one of the first in the U.S. to be “by women for women” and out of this clinic’s work came the groundbreaking notion that holistic medicine and conventional medicine can live in some kind of harmony.

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