- Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women's Health in the Second Wave
This compact but well-written exploration of the ways by which second-wave feminists deployed "the" feminine body in the struggle for women's rights unfolds less as a linear narrative than as a series of carefully crafted episodes. Kline assesses the power and weakness of "thinking through the body" in chapter-long discussions of reader responses to Our Bodies, Ourselves (New York, 1973) (2); the politics of teaching the pelvic examination using "model" patients; feminist abortion providers in Chicago; resistance to Depo-Provera; and the woman-centered home-birthing movement. She unifies her analysis around an assessment of how far—and no further—an essentialist politics of the body moved the women's movement forward. Employing archival research, oral histories, and cultural analysis, Kline tells this story economically and expertly, if more episodically than one might wish.
In Chapter 1, Kline examines how the personal stories embedded in Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) helped to establish the epistemological legitimacy of experiential, body knowledge (read: feminine body knowledge) both in the patient-provider relationship and as a source of insight into the science of women's health (11). The paradox that Kline exposes through excellent sampling of readers' letters to the OBOS collective is that the bodies and experiences of women do not fall into unified categories; many women read OBOS looking for themselves, experiencing the book as a simulacrum of feminist community, and often, especially if they were women of color or lesbians, not finding themselves in it. Yet, often they responded by trying to help the collective improve the book. They believed that their personal experiences represented a legitimate entrée to this virtual community of women.
Kline's second chapter, takes a fascinating look at the successes and failures of feminist-inspired reforms aimed at the learning environment of medical students, specifically the teaching of pelvic examinations during the third-year clinical rotation through Obstetrics-Gynecology. The Women's Community Health Center in Boston opened in 1974 in an attempt to provide direct health services in a feminist context. One outgrowth of its work was a contract with Harvard Medical School to provide "model" patients to help medical students. The project's underlying philosophy emphasized that women's experiential knowledge could empower, enlighten, and even unite diverse groups of women. The entire specialty of OB-GYN was under siege from feminists and consumers during this decade, and many medical schools were considering new strategies for better teaching with enhanced opportunities for feedback from patients or "models." The experimental program at Harvard failed, however. A taint of sexual shame never really lifted from the encounters; the power imbalances between the "patients" and their examiners could not be dissolved. Experiential, essentialist knowledge was not enough. [End Page 317]
The story of abortion-rights activists, especially in Chicago, provides another example of "body" thinking that did not ignite widespread popular support. Begun during the years prior to Roe v. Wade as an underground movement known as "Jane" and transitioning into above-ground abortion and women's health-care clinics, feminist groups in Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere attempted to generate a full-scale critique of women's health care around the issue of abortion. This, too, turned out to be too narrow a focus to attract the necessary support, as well as a politically exposed one. Not even the National Organization for Women (NOW) mustered much enthusiasm for the projects.
One of the best chapters in the book concerns the politics and epistemology surrounding the FDA's 1983 Public Board of Inquiry hearings about Depo-Provera, the injected contraceptive. These hearings represented the first national showcase for the National Women's Health Network (NWHN), established in 1974, the leaders of which advocated against a drug that they believed to be dangerous to women. Worse, they were incensed about the millions of (especially) poor and black women who had been railroaded, they believed, into using...