- Muckraking Wonders:Jewish Journalist-Activists of the US Women's Health Movement, 1969–1990
"Girlcott your gynecologist and save your uterus," women's health activist and journalist Barbara Seaman advised readers in 1972, "and if he tells you not to worry your pretty little head about something, pick up your pantyhose and RUN—to a doctor who'll take you seriously."1 Behind Seaman's humor was a key tenet of the women's health movement: the days of patient passivity were over. As the movement grew out of second-wave feminism in the late 1960s, American women demanded to be respected as health care consumers and critics of male-dominated medicine. Feminists challenged doctors' "political influence, their economic power, and their cultural authority," while calling on women to take an active role in demystifying their own bodies.2 In 1975, journalist Rose Kushner recounted her experience desperately seeking information after discovering a lump in her breast. "With appointments scheduled, a glimmer of plans made, books to read, at least I had my forefinger in my own destiny," she wrote in Breast Cancer: A Personal History and an Investigative Report. "I would be no slab of silly-putty to be manipulated helplessly by a pack of doctors."3 Kushner's pursuit of bodily autonomy was built on a foundation of proactive patienthood advanced in part by Seaman's work. As journalists-turned-activists, both Seaman and Kushner used the power of their writing and accessible platforms like newspapers and magazines to inform American patients about the tenets of the women's health movement. Their method and messaging had a long-term impact on the productivity and legacy of the health feminism.
American Jewish women like Seaman and Kushner shaped health feminism in tone as well as in strategy as they used investigative journalism [End Page 371] to shape health care and national health policy. Their work helped build the rhetorical and political strategies of the cause throughout the 1970s and make inroads for health feminists with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Health. By the 1980s, they helped the movement mature and address new women's health concerns and treatments. Gloria Steinem later characterized Seaman as the "first prophet of the women's health movement."4 Kushner redefined the role of the patient expert through her breast cancer activism and her activist techniques influenced generations of activists, including those working on HIV/AIDS.5 Polls from the 1970s suggest that Americans felt "a complicated mix of admiration for and resentment of the medical profession."6 This mix often played out in the press as activists, patients, and physicians voiced their perspectives on reforming American medicine.
Directly engaging with Seaman and Kushner's Jewishness, despite their relatively secular lives, can enrich the history of the women's health movement. Inclusive and flexible, Jewishness as an analytical category allows historians to include a range of Jewish meaning, practice, and self-understanding. This essay argues that studying Seaman and Kushner's careers parallel to their life histories as American Jewish women offers an opportunity to interpret Jewish health activists both as feminists and as Jews. The women's health movement did not have to be a "Jewish" movement to be shaped by Jewish women's work and, by extension, Jewish women's personal frameworks of social justice.
By the late 1970s, activists who applied feminist reform politics and critiques to medicine and health care began to identify as "health feminists." Avenues for reform included reframing the patient-practitioner relationship, promoting access to quality medical information, ensuring safe medical products and pharmaceuticals, and supporting women's increased access to medical schools.7 Jewish women embraced roles as self-help authors, journalists, scholar-activists, underground abortion providers, and clinic organizers. They were well-represented in the leadership [End Page 372] of national women's health organizations and in community-level initiatives. Eight of the twelve founders of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, authors of groundbreaking health manual Our Bodies, Ourselves, were Jewish, as were four of the five founders of the National Women's Health Network, an advocacy organization cofounded by Seaman.8