Tag Archives: Austin Texas

Women’s Health Organization: 2nd post

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 while 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 a 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.



Women’s Health Organization

The Women’s Health Organization (W.H.O.) in Austin was formed in 1974 with three main objectives: education for women, improving existing health care, and the establishment of new services for all women. W.H.O. targeted two areas of education: self-knowledge and improved relationships with gynecologists. They distributed a questionnaire to area gynecologists, set up an evaluation and doctor referral service based on feedback, and actively sought to bring a “progressive woman gynecologist” to Austin to include among referrals. They produced informational pamphlets and reading lists. W.H.O. also established a Self-Help Clinic and trained women in self-cervical and self-breast examinations. Similar to the groundbreaking work of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, publishers of “Our Bodies; Ourselves,” this local women’s group empowered women with information about their bodies, challenged patronizing gynecologists, and opened space for new services such as birthing centers and midwife-assisted home-births. The model of peer support survives today with lactation coaches and breast cancer support groups.

Nancy Simons illustrated the W.H.O. pamphlets. She shares these memories:

I remember us having a table at a Health Fair and encouraging women to write in a book about their personal experiences with local gynecologists (sort of an early version of Yelp!). I remember our provocative (for that feminist era) poster with a naked woman and the words “HELP YOURSELF.” I will never forget how small and sweet our mysterious cervixes seemed. I remember doing a cartoon of Wonder Woman with a speculum in hand saying “AT YOUR CERVIX.” The whole thing was very liberating for women whose bodies had previously been mostly defined by male doctors.


Rita Starpattern is the “red haired woman” in the award-winning 2016 documentary Tower by Keith Maitland.  I worked with Rita at Red River Women’s Press in Austin in the 70s.  Rita’s act of courage during the tower shooting rampage at the University of Texas was something she didn’t share widely.  It was after her death that I heard what she had done that terrible day.

On August 1, 1966 Charles Whitman, a trained marksman, went to the top of the University of Texas tower in Austin and unleashed 96 minutes of horror.  The first shot he fired from the observation deck was at Claire Wilson, killing the eight-month-old child she was carrying.  Her injuries left her unable to move, lying on the searing concrete of the main mall beside her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman, who was killed by Whitman’s second shot.  Rita went to Claire and lay down beside her, talking with her and comforting her through the ordeal.

I sat beside Claire Wilson James at the Paramount showing of the Tower on March 17, 2016.  Claire said it would mean a great deal to the young actress who had played Rita to know more about her.  That has prompted this blog.  Rita Starpattern was born on Christmas day in 1946 and died April 21, 1996.  I wrote the following remembrance for Rita’s memorial at Laguna Gloria on Lake Austin.

Rita created space for women. It was the current running through her work — space for women to counsel each other, to learn the printing trade, to create art. It was my fortune to work with Rita in one of those spaces — Red River’s Women’s Press

Rita dug into her first project when the press was still called Fly By Night Printing , producing a 1976 Women’s Community Calendar. Photographs captured the emerging community and Rita’s research annotated the days. Rita’s neighbor and friend, Cynthia, and Melita printed a first run of 2,000. Ads went out and orders came in from around the country. Rita was at the center of the transformation to Red River Women’s Press, a feminist print shop.

Red River was a place where women learned the non-traditional skills of typesetting, graphic arts, layout, camerawork, stripping negatives, burning plates, offset printing and silk screening. We were also a union shop, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (better known as the Wobblies), a printshop for social causes, from Women’s Space and Bookwoman, to food coops, to the Brown Berets and the Committee for Human Rights in Chile. If you wanted our union label you got it. It had a line from the song Bread and Roses: “The rising of the women is the rising of us all.”

 Rita graced us in many ways. We were diverse and intense, lesbian, straight, feminists and activists in many causes. Trying to serve a community of social activists and also survive as a business. Rita had a great talent for reminding of us of our common ground, where we converged. Her energy was quiet and sustaining.   Sometimes she’d realign us (like a good chiropractor) with her clever words and bubbling chuckle. Sometimes she simply raised an eyebrow or let out a deep sigh that spoke volumes.   She was a trooper. She labored over artwork, but also over grant reports, wage reports, tax reports — the tedious stuff that kept us in business.

Last evening I sat with two members of the press looking over photographs and leaflets. I had to laugh when I saw our price sheet: Offset Reality. That was very Rita. The clever wit and twist of words.

Red River’s Women’s Press was never on Red River. It was on Twelfth Street, backed up to a trickle of a stream called Shoal Creek. In May, 1981, that trickle became a river submerging the copy camera in the basement and rising fifteen inches on the presses on the second floor. Red River dug out from under the mud and organized a benefit, but never really survived the blow that nature had dealt.

Rita took skills she had perfected at the press — organizational skills, grant writing skills, networking skills, and put them to use building creative space for women in the arts. There she flourished and blossomed and made a lasting impact in the art world.

Rita remained a trooper throughout her long battle. Even in that last week, she was making her lists for us. She told Joann that we had to write down the her-story of Red River Women’s Press. We were graced by Rita’s wit and very formidable will. And we will write that story because it was on Rita’s list. We will do it for Rita and because Rita would like the world to remember what was on our union label: The Rising of the Women is the Rising of us All.

The featured photo was taken in 1977.  Rita Starpattern and I are accepting a donor’s generous contribution to Red River Women’s Press.

Rita Starpattern founded Women & Their Work, a visual and performing art gallery at 1710 Lavaca in Austin.  On the gallery’s thirtieth anniversary in November 2007, Rita’s friends and colleagues honored her accomplishments with a gallery event.  Her friends, Sherry Smith, Kay F. Turner and Mary Sanger announced the occasion with this e-mail:  “She was born a Murphey, became a Jones by marriage and a Starpattern by design. Rita Starpattern, founder and first director of Women & Their Work died of cancer in April 1996 at the age of 49.  Rita Starpattern was an activist, a feminist and an artist whose inner wanderings were quirky, imaginative, funny and very intelligent.  Rita produced work in painting, drawing, sculpture and film.  A visionary who came of age in the 1960s and became committed to second wave feminism in the 1970s, she blended all her skills and desires with an entrepreneurial spirit when she undertook the creation of a cultural institution centered on women: Women & Their Work.”