In this second post about the Women’s Health Organization (WHO), I am sharing what my friend Alyce Guynn wrote about her experiences with the organization. The featured artwork is by graphic artist Nancy [Collins] Simons.
Alyce Guynn: One of the first things I did on return to Austin after several years of sabbatical in San Francisco was join the Women’s Health Organization. We, tongue-in-cheek, referred to it as WHO, same as the World Health Organization. It was going strong when I came along.
Carole Jones was one of the founding members, hosting the weekly meetings in her living room, where in 1974 she welcomed me back to where I belonged, and generously and enthusiastically invited me into WHO.
Our Bible: the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves. Our number one goal: to help women take control over and responsibility for their own bodies. Our method: teach women how to do self-exams, self-exams that extended beyond breast and reached the cervix. Our tool: the plastic speculum.
The first person I remember dropping her drawers to demonstrate a self -cervical exam is Allison Nash. Her name, to me, is synonymous with women’s health, although she is also associated with the Bertolt Brecht theater group. She exuded a confidence, a relaxed attitude about the body, its functions. Unabashed, unashamed. I learned so much from her. Years later, I paid tribute to Allison when I named my only daughter.
My interest in women’s health originated, in part, from a criminal case I’d worked on working in the San Francisco all women’s law firm of Cumings & Jordan. Ann Flower Cumings and Susan Jordan were defending a group of Santa Cruz lay midwives when I joined the firm as an investigator/legal assistant. I don’t remember the resolution of the case, but what I do remember is that it was through my association with these experienced, dedicated midwives that I learned about home birth, heard about Ina Mae Gaskin. Here, my passion for working with women concerning women’s health took root.
So, coming home, I was more than delighted to find a ready-made organization where I could bring my passion into fruition. How I miss those collective efforts. The feeling of making progress. The sisterhood of working with groups of women toward better lives.
It was in those weekly meetings, some of us sprawled on Carole’s floor, where women opened up about their health issues. One woman confessing her botched breast implants, several of us telling about our illegal abortions. All of us, eager to take what we learned and share it with other women in the community.
Our resident artist, Nancy Collins, created a drawing of Super Woman brandishing a plastic speculum with the slogan “At Your Cervix”. We were nothing if not audacious. We held workshops where we demonstrated self -exams. We kept a binder of anecdotal material about local OB/Gyns, a reference/ referral book. One nurse wrote about an arrogant Gyn who went on a rampage in the operating room and threw a sharp instrument, narrowly missing one nurse’s foot.
We encouraged women to take a friend with them to doctor appointments. We encouraged them to take notes, ask questions, to insist on answers. To demand to be treated as intelligent, inquiring adults, not little girls incapable of making our own decisions. One of our suggestions was to throw off the sheet that covered a woman’s body so that the doctor only saw her genitals and force him to see the whole woman, not just body parts. We taught women to do regular self-exams so each would know what was normal for her cervix, as it changed during various cycles.
Like lawyers, female OB/Gyns in Austin were then few and far between. Most women patients had to see male doctor: male doctors who had no personal experience with periods, or missed periods, with miscarriages, with birth.
All of that, but the heart of it was sharing among women. The regular meetings where women felt safe, not only to show their cervices, but also to share their histories, fears, frustrations. A place to find support, hope for change.
And have fun doing it. We sang a lot. We laughed a lot. We felt at home.