In More Than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women's Health Movement, Jennifer Nelson examines how the civil rights and new left movements coupled with the feminist movement impacted, reshaped and changed how many women received healthcare. Rather than looking at health from simply a physical or bodily perspective these women focused on a more holistic approach that included how health is impacted through housing, food, income, education, employment and more. Nelson looks more closely at the time period from the 1960s through the 1990s and describes the work of various organizations and individuals and how they fought for and implemented changes that directly impacted women.
First, Nelson describes the NHC's work, focusing particularly on the Mound Bayou Community Health Center and why it was as successful as it was. Nelson claims that because Mound Bayou focused on community empowerment, community leadership and academics, they managed to run a health center that incorporated this holistic view of health through growing food, employing local women and men and involving the community that they served. For those working at the center it became obvious that health was as much about providing services that directly impacted the health of those in need, due to lack of clean water, food, adequate housing, clothes and basic necessities. Nelson then moves to discussing the need to expand women's sexual and reproductive autonomy by opening clinics where women could learn more about abortions and birth control, among many other services. One of these clinics was the Aradia clinic that opened in 1972. A few years after Aradia opened, the Atlanta Feminist Women's Health Center also opened its doors, and Nelson describes how both clinics assisted, trained and taught women about their reproductive health and autonomy. At the same time, there were some differences between Aradia and the Atlanta FWHC, very much impacted by the anti-abortion movement. The Atlanta FWHC was impacted much more by not only new rules and regulations preventing easier access to abortion, but also by escalating anti-abortion tactics, including violence. Even though Nelson states that both the Aradia clinic and the Atlanta FWHC were successful in providing health services to their patients, and training women to staff the clinics, the needs of women of color were often ignored, or not realized. White women also outnumbered women of color at the clinics, and despite the (sometimes failed) efforts to be more inclusive, such as expanding the notion of reproductive freedom to include HIV/AIDS, many women of color felt that they were not heard or represented in the movement.
One of those women were Loretta Ross, who was hired by NOW (the National Organization of Women) as the director for the Women of Color programs to help build a coalition movement that focused on reproductive rights and antiracism. Many feminists focused their attention on women's right to an abortion, which was often number one on their agenda. Ross believed that there needed to be reproductive justice beyond legal abortion since many women of color had been sterilized during the 1960s and 1970s, and because they faced higher levels of poverty. Many women of color also faced unique challenges dependent on both gender and racism that was often not acknowledged by the feminist movement. Even though Ross felt that her work with NOW was partially successful, she eventually left NOW to work with women of color on the issue of reproductive justice. Nelson ends the book by describing the success of the National Black Women's Health Project (NBWHP), an organization that started in 1983. The NBWHP focus on a broader approach to women's health that includes culturally appropriate ways to integrate reproductive justice, sexism and racism. They also built coalitions and helped strengthen other groups, resulting in the organization Sister Song's, which is both diverse and extensive. The success of Sister Song's is described by Nelson and she states that the need for such organizations are equally important today as it was when they were first started;
"Without groups committed to ensuring that those with the least can access quality health care, without groups pressing for health care provisions that attends to social inequalities grounded in race, gender, nationality, sexuality, and class, and without groups listening to what those who suffer from discrimination need to live healthy, fulfilled, lives, we risk continuing to make health care a commodity available to those with means, to those with social advantage, even as our entire society pays for the suffering of those without means and without social advantage" (p. 219-220).
More Than Medicine is an extensively researched book, focusing on the struggle for feminists to make women's health a priority, to reach out to those in need of health care, and to integrate women friendly policies and provide care to those who have very little access to it. As Nelson points out, the feminist movement did not always include women of color in culturally appropriate ways, understating their needs and the challenges they faced, both as women and women of color. The book reaches a diverse audience, and can be used in the classroom in various disciplines. It is also a book that highlights the fight women face in terms of health and health care, and one that extends the struggle of women of color in a feminist movement where they are not often represented.
© 2015 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.