Like many graduate students, I obsess about my particular academic interests and have a hard time letting them go at the end of the day. I happen to study the history of women and medicine in the United States, so I see my specialization everywhere, often to the dismay of my friends and family. I interrupt movies to point out inaccuracies and anachronisms, and I offer unsolicited historical commentary about the depictions of women on Mad Men. I lecture people about the stupidity of 1950s nostalgia, and I get angry about advertisements for Dr. Pepper. I am, in short, lots of fun at parties.
I realize, when I do these things, that I’m being obnoxious. I know that most people don’t want to hear about history all the time, and so, for most of my grad school career, I’ve been making an effort to separate my academic life from my “real” one. Balance is good! We don’t need to look at every current development through the lenses of gender or medical history! Right? Right. But then, this past winter, I started writing my dissertation about the history of gynecology, and, at the same time, a series of disturbing gynecology-related stories started appearing with increasing frequency in the news. These stories made my research seem uncomfortably, horrifyingly relevant, and suddenly, my academic life was my real life. Here is a brief sampling, which is by no means complete:
- In Virginia, Republicans proposed a bill requiring any woman who wanted an abortion to submit to a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound first. The bill was amended before it was passed to allow for a less invasive abdominal ultrasound.
- A Georgia state representative named Terry England argued that women should not be allowed to abort stillborn fetuses but should, instead, suffer through labor and delivery. He supported this argument by comparing women to livestock, suggesting that if cows and pigs could deliver dead babies, women could do the same.
- Arizona passed a bill permitting physicians to withhold information from their pregnant patients about their health and the health of their fetuses, provided that the deception is intended to prevent women from choosing abortions.
- Republicans in Arizona also proposed a bill requiring women with birth control covered by health insurance to prove to their employers that they needed the pill for a medical reason, not for contraception. Women who continued to use birth control for the prevention of pregnancy could be fired.
- The Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum warned Americans about “the dangers of contraception in this country.” Birth control, he argued, is “not okay.”
- Rush Limbaugh called the Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” after she testified to Congress about the importance of health insurance covering birth control.
- New Hampshire passed a bill requiring doctors to tell women that abortion causes breast cancer, despite the fact that no scientific study has demonstrated any such connection. Similar laws exist in Texas and Alaska, and one is currently proposed in Kansas.
These stories all carried devastating practical consequences for women or, at least, the potential for such consequences. As a historian writing about women’s health, though, I kept thinking that taken together, these developments were about so much more than sex, reproduction, contraception, and abortion. They were about the gendered dynamics of power, about the way that we, as a society, view women.
Here’s the thing about gynecology. In 2012, we tend to think of it as just Pap smears and Yaz prescriptions, but the truth is that it has always carried tremendous symbolic weight. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, mostly male gynecologists consolidated their authority over women’s bodies and women’s lives, defining which behaviors were “normal” and which required treatment – treatment sometimes involving the surgical removal of the clitoris, uterus, ovaries, and/or Fallopian tubes. The medical community denied women information about birth control and condemned them for seeking abortions. Women did influence the specialty in a variety of ways – a fact I focus on in my own dissertation work – but for the most part, gynecology was practiced by men on women’s bodies, reinforcing the notion that women were subject to the greater authority and expertise of men.
During the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, gynecology played a central role in feminist discourse. Feminists demanded access to contraception and abortion, but again, gynecology also carried a larger symbolic significance. Here, in 1971, Wonder Woman’s weapon of choice in her battle against the patriarchy was a speculum:
I love this image because it conveys the symbolic power of gynecology, either as a tool of subjugation, if left in the hands of a conservative male medical establishment, or as a means of empowerment, if seized by women and used to improve their lives. The first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, also published in 1971, reinforced this idea that women needed to own and understand their bodies, their sexualities, and their reproductive capacities in order to empower themselves and make educated decisions about every aspect of their lives.
We need more of that gynecology-as-empowerment thinking today, as we face the Rush Limbaughs and Rick Santorums and Terry Englands out there. In the most public and political spaces, women attempting to own their bodies and protect their health and control their fertility are being called “sluts” and “prostitutes” and being compared to cows and pigs. Our physicians are lying to us. We are being denied access to information we desperately need.
It’s time to bring back Wonder Women with a speculum – that’s what I’m saying here. And I know that others are realizing it too. I know because I have also seen news stories about activists sending hand-knit uteruses to their Congressmen and posting intimate and explicit “vagina updates” on a Virginia state senator’s Facebook page. But we need to do more. When we vote, when we protest, when we publish, we need to remember both the symbolic power and the practical significance of gynecology. We need the speculum to be used for us, not against us.
For further reading:
Baxandall, Rosalyn, and Linda Gordon. Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Kline, Wendy. Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave.
McGregor, Deborah Kuhn. From Midwives to Medicine: The Birth of American Gynecology.