more than medicine: a history of the feminist women’s health movement
Jennifer Nelson, NYU Press, New York, 2015, 280pp., ISBN: 978-0-8147-7066-5, $26.00 (Pbk)
In the late 1970s, a woman who had just had an abortion in Seattle, Washington described how ‘it makes me sick to think that I could kill my child with such a small amount of pain to my body’ (pp. 83–84). Moved by the woman’s admission of guilt, Ann McGettigan formed a ‘postabortion counselling group’ in order to support women through ‘their emotions around abortion’ (p. 89). Given the polarisation of abortion politics in the United States, it may come as a surprise that McGettigan was not a pro-life activist. A member of the Abortion Birth Control Referral Service (ABCRS)—a project founded by Seattle feminists shortly after Washington state legalised the procedure in 1970—McGettigan was a pro-choice activist whose experience providing abortion referrals prompted her to set up a support group.
The ABCRS’ holistic commitment to the experience of abortion is just one example of how Jennifer Nelson’s history of community health organising in the United States draws on local advocacy efforts in order to challenge entrenched and oversimplified impressions of feminist struggles for accessible healthcare. More Than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement encourages readers to cast off tidy assumptions about reproductive politics, grassroots feminist organising and medicine. Nelson uses detailed archival research and interviews with activists to bring together histories of community health organising typically examined in isolation. More Than Medicine consists of six chapters and begins with a case study on efforts to end poverty and racial inequality through federally funded Neighborhood Health Centers (NHC) in the 1960s before moving to the major focus of the book: feminist health projects in 1970s Seattle, Washington and 1980s Atlanta, Georgia, and the emergence of reproductive justice organising in the 1990s. Nelson threads the commitment to ‘revolutionary healthcare’ through civil rights, New Left, women’s liberation and women of colour reproductive justice organising, encouraging readers to think of these movements as linked by a philosophy that saw ‘revolutionizing healthcare’ as necessary for transforming ‘social hierarchy’ (p. 2).
For readers well versed in War on Poverty initiatives or the feminist health and reproductive justice movements, More Than Medicine may at first glance seem to cover familiar ground. However, Nelson’s intersectional lens breathes new life into the history of the feminist health movement, while previously overlooked primary sources introduce new projects to the historical record. Readers will learn about the first rural NHC funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity in Mound Bayou, Mississippi where physicians wrote prescriptions for food, as well as about a network of feminist health centres in Seattle, Washington where contraceptives and infertility treatment were offered side by side. Following recent contributions to histories of US feminism, Nelson shows how accounting for race, class and nation in feminist health activism provides a richer view of service provision and ‘women’s health’. The Third World Women’s Resource Center in Seattle offered family planning services that were cognisant of the reality of sterilisation abuses, fears of genocide and affordability, whereas SisterLove founder Dazon Dixon Diallo’s role in the Atlanta Feminist Women’s Health Center made AIDS as a ‘women’s health issue’ in Atlanta long before national organisations recognised the epidemic as such.
In perhaps the most instructive chapter for feminist activists and scholars committed to social justice, Nelson explores the gains of foregrounding race and class in feminist health organising alongside the losses stemming from narrower visions of justice. When the National Organization for Women (NOW) hired reproductive justice founder Loretta Ross to ‘integrate racial justice into its gender politics’ in the 1980s, Ross started to envision a broad reproductive rights agenda that could build a ‘multi-racial, broad-based women’s movement’ (pp. 180, 182). Yet, even as Ross pursued coalition work with women of colour organisations, NOW resisted moving beyond abortion rights and failed to centre these organisations’ goals. Ultimately concluding that NOW was ‘inherently inimical to the empowerment of women of color’, Ross left in 1989 (p. 183). However, her work planted the seeds for a framework linking reproductive rights to human rights that many will recognise as the increasingly visible reproductive justice or ‘RJ’ movement. NOW may have missed the message, but Nelson makes clear the necessity of a feminist politics rooted in anti-racism and economic justice. Had Nelson explored the relationship between positionality, agenda and strategy—such as how NOW’s embrace of lobbying necessarily relies on electoral politics rather than on building collective power from the ground up—this section would have been even more instructive.
At times, More Than Medicine struggles to convincingly support its major claim that each movement it examines contains traces of prior movements committed to ‘revolutionary healthcare’. Still, Nelson’s book will be of interest to both academics and activists, which is no small feat. She brings powerful histories to life, all of which enable her to convincingly conclude, ‘health care needs to be a human right’ (p. 220).