- More Than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement by Jennifer Nelson
In More Than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement, Jennifer Nelson chronicles the movement from its origins in the 1960s through the present, focusing in particular on race and class divisions between activists as well as activists’ efforts to bridge those divisions. Through case studies of the Tufts-Delta Health Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi; reproductive rights activism in Seattle and Atlanta; as well as an analysis of the career of Loretta Ross, Nelson offers three important contributions to the literature on women’s health activism. First, she reaffirms that women of color have a long history of defining health and health care broadly and argues that the reproductive justice movement of the 1990s developed as a result of decades of organizing by feminists of color around civil rights and women’s rights together and separately. Scholars have studied white women activists more than female activists of color and Nelson’s examination of Ross and her contemporaries like Byllye Avery, as well as women of color activists in Atlanta like Dazon Dixon Diallo, reinforces the latter’s rich history and helps to bring it more fully alongside the history of white women in the women’s health movement. Second, the general narrative of the women’s health movement suggests that white women, with a few exceptions, failed to attend to issues of race and class and, as a result, marginalized women of color, even as they tried to diversify their ranks. Nelson’s meticulous research on Seattle and Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s reveals a more complicated reality. In these instances, white women at the grassroots level paid a great deal of attention to issues of race and class, but they were not always successful at translating this awareness into clinic policy; nor were they particularly successful at recruiting women of color to join their organizations. This is a subtle, but important, shift in the historiography. Finally, Nelson’s case studies of Atlanta and Seattle move the focus away from activists living in the Northeast and onto those who lived in lesser-studied cities who made important, but overlooked, contributions to the feminist women’s health movement.
Nelson explores efforts at collaboration between women of color and white feminists in the 1980s through her analysis of Ross, who joined the mainstream reproductive rights movement via the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1985 with the intent of diversifying its membership and broadening its approach but found her efforts stymied by white activists who failed to broaden their narrow focus on abortion and who refused to change substantially their political strategies despite claims of wanting to do so. Frustrated, Ross left NOW in 1989. Working with black, Latino, Native American, and Asian activists, she helped establish the reproductive justice movement based in part on ideas that Nelson traces back to the establishment of Neighborhood Health Centers like Tufts-Delta in the 1960s. “A human rights focus illuminated that health care was not strictly a medical issue,” Nelson writes. “Healthy and unhealthy bodies were produced by social inequalities like race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality” (p. 209). In 1997, Ross was one [End Page 180] of the organizers of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, an umbrella organization that embodies this comprehensive perspective.
More Than Medicine also contributes to the literature on abortion. In her research on women’s activism in Seattle, Nelson located feedback surveys taken by women who used the Abortion and Birth Control Referral Service in the early 1970s. Sources like these are rare and offer unique insight into the experience of abortion at the moment it was legalized, before pro-choice and pro-life rhetoric came to dominate popular understanding of the procedure. Nelson argues that women described abortion in complicated and sometimes conflicting ways and shows how volunteers running the referral service listened to their clients and used their feedback to improve the relationship...