Tag Archives: Women’s Health Organization

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 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.

 

Austin Women’s Movement in 1975

In October 1975, a two-page spread in The Rag featured the wide range of activities taking place in Austin’s women’s community: a Women’s Community Calendar, Cyclar, (image is featured above); a peer counseling center, Womenspace; a women’s printing collective, Fly By Night Printing Collective; the Women’s Health Organization; Common Woman Bookstore, and a Women’s History in Texas calendar by People’s History of Texas focused on the untold history of Texas women.

For the full article, visit the digital archive in the Independent Voices collection of Reveal Digital.  Over three hundred issues — not quite the entire run — are scanned at this site.  The articles are on pages 9-10 of the October 24, 1975 issue at the Independent Voices site.

The Rag article announced that the Common Woman Bookstore Collective would open its store in December 1975 at 2004 ½ Guadalupe, and had taken its name from lines by Judy Grahn, poet and member of the Women’s Press Collective, Oakland, California.

The same article described the Fly By Night Printing Collective as a one-year-old alternative press collective with four women printers, and plans to maintain regular hours at 901 West 24th Street, accepting any and all non-sexist and non-racist printing jobs.  Plans to move to the Bread and Roses Center were also announced.  Fly By Night was the predecessor of Red River Women’s Press (featured in a separate post on Collective Impressions).

The Women’s Community Calendar, Cyclar, was described as a collective effort to give a sense of the emerging women’s community and further develop the meaning of “women-identified women.”  Photographer Robin Birdfeather and artist Rita Starpattern were credited with conception, design and direction.  Cynthia Roberts and Melita Abrego of Fly By Night Press were credited with layout, publicity, and printing.  The Rag article says, “In fact, this calendar has been put together by women from scratch to finish.”

Women/Space was described as a peer counseling and referral center for women in the Austin community. “As a feminist group we believe that women in this society share common pressures, problems, and feelings, and that exploring these with other women is a valuable way to expand self-awareness, get in touch with personal resources, and find alternatives to life situations. Women can find strength and support in other women.”  Women/Space was described as having a three-fold thrust.  Individual, non-sexist counseling – including abortion, birth control, and lesbian counseling – was available free, on a walk-in basis, every weekday evening in the Women/space room at the University Y.

The Rag article described the Women’s Health Organization, (see separate post), this way:  “W.H.O. in Austin has encouraged women to use knowledge as a major weapon against fear by becoming familiar with various diseases and conditions in the vaginal area, and when professional care is necessary, to insist on better treatment from the male-dominated medical profession.”

The Women’s History in Texas calendar, described in The Rag article, was the first project of People’s History in Texas, a non-profit that has gone on to produce film documentaries on Texas history.  The calendar explores women’s role in Texas history (i.e., Black women in Texas, women in the Texas labor Movement, Chicanas, pioneer women in Texas, and women in athletics), with original historical analysis, artwork and photography.

 

 

 

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.