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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Self-Help Clinic

Copyright 1971

Visit Our History, Self Help Clinic, Staying Well, Our Anatomy, Our Periods, Reclaiming Abortion, Our Birth Control, and Library web pages for further detailed information.

A group of women not long ago banded together to seriously consider some mutual questions concerning the care of their reproductive and sexual organs. It all came about because each of us seemed to be getting the same kind of no help from our physicians. So we decided to just rap, share experiences, and maybe as a group seek out some answers on our own. Our results were so mind blowing that we want to share them with our sisters in hopes of encouraging others to do the same. Some of the problems we first attacked were: how can I recognize vaginal infections early, before they become so advanced that I have to visit a physician and probably wind up on antibiotics$$$. Can I see early infections, especially yeast (Monilia) effectively and inexpensively? How do I recognize yeast? What does syphillis look like, and can I recognize gonorrhea -- in spite of what the physicians say? Are there marked changes on the cervix of my uterus during my 28-30 day menstrual cycle? If so, does the cervix also show change due to pregnancy, and if so how soon can I see the change? We realized early in our rap sessions that being able to recognize very early pregnancy would be a great asset if we were to decide to terminate the pregnancy. Each of us at one time or another had been told by a physician that chemical test for pregnancy wasn't foolproof. We would really have to wait for at least the 4th and 5th week after the missed period to know for sure. Too long, we all decided!

Another point in which we were all up-tight about was the present methods of health care for women. For instance: I've got an itch. So I've gotta call the doctor. When I call, the receptionist asks, "What's wrong?" and proceeds to make an appointment from one to two weeks hence. So I wait. Take sitz baths, douches, and so sex. Sometimes the waiting alone helps, usually not. Often the bladder becomes infected while waiting for the appointment interval to pass. Finally I get to see the physician and his comment on examining me, draped in a sheet so that I couldn't even if I wanted to, -- "Usual female infection, take the antibiotic prescription and come back in two weeks."$$$ When I ask him if I can see what the infection looks like, the physician is appalled at the idea. "You shouldn't worry your little head about this kind of thing. After all, isn't that what I'm here for?" So I return in 2 weeks$$$, and maybe it's cleared and maybe it isn't. Another kind of antibiotic is prescribed and another appointment is made$$$. I again ask for specific information about the infection and by now the answer usually comes in Greek (which I am obviously not very fluent in.)

With pregnancy it's pretty much the same thing. See him, wait, and come back. $$$ I know that the longer I wait the more difficult it will be on my body to terminate the pregnancy. In addition, different states' laws offer time limiting restrictions.

So the women got together. We rapped about our common medical encounters. Then we made a discovery on that very first meeting. In order to better understand what we were talking about we had to look. So we encountered our first, last and only hangup in the entire rap/self-help clinic. And we did it with the help of 5% courage and 95% curiosity. Up on the table each of us went. Some of us were a little shy going up, all of us thoroughly with it by the time we got down. All of us were learning about our sexual organs and realizing that we were not only sharing our answers but were learning things about the cervix that was a gold mine of information. No wonder physicians have been reluctant to share the information$$$. We realized that there was a great deal that we could do for ourselves in personal health care, long before it becomes to see a physician, and all because we learned a very simple self-examination procedure. We were able to purchase plastic speculums (one for each woman). The speculum opens the vaginal cavity to allow examination of the vaginal walls and the cervix.

With the use of a lamp and mirror, it became quite simple to examine ourselves for irritations, infections, discharges, changes on the cervix. Since the cervix has essentially no pain nerve endings, we realized that it was quite easy to have an infection developing without giving any signs. Not until a heavy discharge has reached the vulva (outer lips) or burning and itching is taking place, do we realize what's going on. But by then it is too late to do anything but go through the ritual of visiting a physician at this convenience$$$. We also recognized that there are differences in the cervix, depending on the size of the woman, numbers of children, etc. We were able to easily recognize problems early so as to seek medical help quickly, before the problem becomes a major disease. Results of our self-help clinic were so obvious that some of us are now taking methods and going into neighboring communities to form new self-help clinics. Everywhere we go we are finding the same responses: "Wow! No wonder the physicians haven't wanted us to know our bodies." $$$ "Now I understand how the diaphragm works!" "It's like looking into your own mouth!"

We feel another important aspect of this clinic is to talk about the political implications of women being able to control their own bodies; Giving abortion referrals, becoming fully aware of the great need for abolishing all laws that restrict and control women. We believe that getting to know yourself can save your life. Women are killing themselves with panic abortive methods, because our laws refuse them proper care. In spite of our restrictive laws, getting to know our own bodies and what we can do for them has opened up far better choices of personal care. We are continuing to live under outrageous laws and barbaric medical practices. We believe that in learning to accept the care and knowledge of our own physical selves, we will be well on the road to self determination.

Some of the finding that came of our original self-help clinic and on which we were then able to take positive action were: 1) A woman who is exposed to the risk of pregnancy, by examining herself once a week, and becoming thoroughly familiar with her own cervix, can within one week after missing her period, recognize that she is pregnant. She need not depend on chemical tests. 2) Gonorrhea is still difficult but when uterine discharges occur, we catch them early and can take positive early action. 3) Yeast infections can be recognized easily, and treated inexpensively and in many cases with positive results within 24 hours without prescription. You need not be a highly skilled clinician to learn to recognize by name the most common vaginal infections. By being able to recognize early infections we have taken control of our right to choices of treatment. Including the choice of ultimate self determination which is also called "doing the job myself."

In starting a self-help clinic we can make some suggestions. We have no leader, no formal structure. We use some of the consciousness-raising techniques during our discussions. Although physical experience is essential, rapping about sex, reproduction and physiology especially when you don't know what you are talking about can lead to some fancy bullshitting. That has to be dealt with right on with good factual material. In addition to standard texts, we strongly recommend the Birth Control Handbook put out by Montreal Women's Liberation. (P.O. Box 1000, Station G, Montreal 130, P.Q., Canada.) There are films available through most public and school libraries. They are informative and can be valuable for comparative purposes. After viewing a film on the present, medically approved hospital abortion method (commonly called D and C), we checked into and found a better, more humane, and safer method being developed and used. This method is not to be confused with the aspiration method used today in many hospitals and used in conjuction with D and C's. We have found a more highly refined aspiration technique that is both simple and safe.

Our rap sessions have no rules governing participation. We believe that the modesty hangups for each of us fall in their own time. And they do fall as our consciousness is being raised. Age makes little difference once we get our goals in mind. Our group has an R.N. -- which was totally unplanned. She has been able to steer us into competent references. We also have a sympathetic physician with whom we confer. But no one lectures.

About 10 people seem to be the ideal number to participate. When our group has grown to as many as 15 we spinoff into the neighboring communities.

We feel that by far the most important aspect of our self-help clinic is in its political implications that women already have the right to control their own bodies. There is nothing to fear but ignorance. Get rid of that ignorance and you are doing it!

-The West Coast Sisters


By: Colleen Wilson

Visit our "Reclaiming Abortion" and "Speak Out" webpages!

While doing research about abortion, I must explain that abortion is always mentioned as just another means of birth control and therefore is always grouped with all other forms of birth control and intertwined with the sexual practices between the female and the male.

In the so-called primitive days when women and men were about the same size and strength and the female was as mobile and independent as the male, except when she was close to giving birth, there must have been great mystery for both sexes, as the male of the species could plainly see that the female had three added things going for her that he did not have.

First of all, at a certain age of a female would have menstrual period, and from that time on she could have children. This of course the male could not do, but there is evidence that he sure tried to imitate the menstrual process by a nasty operation called a subincision which was performed on the adolescent boy. A stone was placed inside an incision and allowed to grow closed, but on certain occasions this was irritated until it would bleed. An imitation of the female process that is still practiced in New Guinea.

Now of course if this operation was too painful or did not show the desired results, then no one was going to get by with it, so the menstrual cycle was made into something that was to be dreaded, and women during their cycles were considered unclean. All sorts of taboos were placed on the women, and any man that came near her. The cultural status of women was lowered on the basis of her biological performance.

Now the natural protection against unwanted pregnancy was, and still is, before and during the menstrual cycle and this is also the time of greatest sexual desires. When the taboos were put on our foremothers (the menstrual taboos are the oldest known taboos in the human family), the tide had turned for them as they lost not only their natural birth control, but also their time of greatest sexual desire.

The second link in the natural chain, that somehow became changed and made unnatural can best be stated by Mark Twain when he wrote in the 1890's: "The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in women's construction, is this: there shall be no limit put upon her interaction with the other sex sexually, at any time in her life. The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in man's construction, is this: During his entire life he shall be under inflexible limits and restrictions sexually. Man is competent from the age of 16 henceforward for 35 years, while his own grandmother is still as good as new. By the women's make she is out of service three days in the month and during part of her pregnancy. These are times of discomfort, often of suffering. For fair and just compensation she has the high privilege of unlimited activity the other days of her life. What becomes of this high privilege? Does she live in free enjoyment of it? NO. Nowhere in the whole world. She is robbed of it everywhere. Who does this? MAN. Man's statutes. Now you have a sample of man's "reasoning powers" as he calls them. He observed certain facts. That his procreative competency is limited to an average of 5000 times, while hers is a 150,000 times. Yet instead of fairly and honorably leaving the making of the laws to the person who has an overwhelming interest at stake in it, this immeasurable hog, who has nothing at stake worth considering makes the laws himself, and puts all these facts together and arrives at the astonishing conclusions: That the creator intended that women be restricted to one man. Or even more ridiculous, that the man should have a harem. This is just one of many such Biblical statutes that has been imported into the law books of the nations, where it continues its violations"

In order for some men to prevent the female from using the sexual desires that she was born with, many truly sadistic methods were invented, one being another nasty operation called infibulation. During this operation performed on young girls entering puberty, the clitoris and both labia were cure away and the vulva areas sewn almost closed. Only to be opened in adulthood to enable the husband to impregnate her and then sewn closed again. Open for childbirth and sewn up again. Here the jealousy and/or desire for power of the male went so far as to limit completely the female's desires and also her capacity for pregnancy and childbirth unless that male said differently. This operation is still being performed in parts of Egypt.

The third thing our foremothers had going for them that was also made into a burden was pregnancy and childbirth. Child-bearing in the ancient days and also today in the food-gathering cultures of South Africa and Australia was much easier, as a woman could have a baby and within an hour catch up with the rest of her tribe and behave as before, except for the added activites of nursing. But this has also been made into a handicapping situation and in the more complex societies the more complicated the process of birth has become, until only a few years ago it was common for an American woman to stay 10 days to 3 weeks in confinement after childbirth. Pregnancy is considered a precarious condition, and childbirth is surrounded with myths and mysteries and dangers that cause so many women to approach this period with great fear and anxiety.

The male has denied the advantages that women have by treating them as disadvantages and investing them with mysterious or dangerous properties. By making women objects of fear and some one to be avoided as unclean, they lowered the status of women on the basis of their physical performance. These physical advantages were first demoted to the status of cultural disadvantages and from then on there has always been a belief in the cultural and biological disadvantage of women.

By the time this had all taken place our foremothers were probably convinced that they were somehow lesser persons that their fathers, brothers, and mates. As the great robbery had been pretty well completed, these women of our past had nothing more going for them than extra unwanted pregnancies. But they had another thing going for them and that was their minds. They could think and because this could not be seen, it was harder for the male to try to take away. They were able to think and, like all human beings, they knew what was best for themselves. All the senses were working to let the mind know and make the judgment of decision. A woman knows better than any other person if she should or should not have a child. No matter what the reason against it, each woman knows when she should not have a child. And that's all that our foremothers really had going going for them back in the beginning of time and for thousands of years up until 100 short years ago. These marvelous women of the past practiced that one prerogative that they had left, birth control before the act and miscarriage or abortion after the act.

The Christian dogma came into conflict with Roman customs just when abortions were allowed. (Now this is where we start hearing the word ALLOWED.) What they (men) were going to allow women to do or not to do with their bodies. Even though there was a conflict the old abortion customs remained in effect until 313 A.D. In 314 A.D. St. Basil condemned all abortions, but the majority of theologians followed Aristotle's view that the so called soul developed in three stages -- the vegetable soul at conception, then a higher animal and soul and at last a rational soul.

The church, in accordance with that theory, generally punished abortion only if performed after the soul had become rational or 'animated'. This point also had been drawn from Aristotle and was set down at 40 days after conception for a male fetus and 80 days for a female. No one ever explained how fetal sex was to be determined or how a woman knew exactly which day she had conceived on. Did you notice again that the female came in second? Being that the female was such a subhuman person it only stood to reason that it would take 40 days longer for her to acquire that soul.

Over 5000 years ago in ancient China, women fired quicksilver all day in oil and then swallowed the potion. Or they swallowed 14 live tadpoles three days after menstruation. When these things did not work, then they had a recorded abortive technique that did work. Egyptian women in 1500 B.C. made a plug of crocodile dung mixed with a kind of paste, or prepared a tampon from lint soaked in juice, fermented from locust tips, or mixed honey with a natural sodium compound for a douche. These were used first as a contraceptive and then as an abortion solution.

The Greeks and ancient Romans made abortion the basis of a well-ordered population policy. An extensive literature on abortion techniques, ranging from the insertion of papyrus and dry sponges to the use of laurel and peppers was recorded. William Leaky, the historian stated, "The practice of abortion was one to which few people in antiquity attached any feelings of condemnation, and described it as 'almost universal'." Plato advised abortion for every woman after 40. Aristotle advised all forms of population control.

Now I don't want anybody to get the idea that our foremothers really owned their own bodies. Although the cultures usually cared less, in most of these societies the mate or husband had absolute control over the family. And if he said it was OK, then the woman could have the abortion. But if she did so without his divine approval, then he could have her severely punished or banished from the family. He also had the power to order an abortion performed on her against her will.

By the 6th century, Byzantine women were so desperate that they tied a tube that held cat liver to the left foot, in hopes that this would ward off pregnancy. In the 16th century, an Italian devised a linen sheath for use by the male. In the Middle Ages potions were prepared from the leaves of young willow trees, mixed with iron rust and potter's clay, the bark of a white poplar tree, and the kidney of a mule. A European folk remedy that was even used in this century was to place roasted walnuts inside the clothing. A woman placed the number of walnuts for the number of years she wished to remain barren. Our own grandmothers nursed each child for several years hoping this would keep them from becoming pregnant again. Each and all of these remedies were followed up by desperate hopes for miscarriage and finally abortion by any means.

For a short three-year period in 1588, Pope Sixtus V wiped out the 40-80 rules and declared excommunication for all abortion. This was a package deal, as he also made adultery a hanging offense in Rome. Anything connected with sexual practices was somehow considered a terrible sin, as he was out to cleanse the Renaissance church. The leading theologians of the period disputed his new rule and most Catholics seemed to ignore it. Three years later Pope Gregory XIV revoked the rule and returned to the 40 day practice. He said "that the hoped for effect had not occurred and had led to constant sacrilege." The Catholics affected had simply overlooked their excommunication status. The old 40 day rule lasted until 1869, 100 short years ago. This is when the NO abortion rule started in the church and within a few years every woman on the face of this earth discovered she had a Catholic uterus, as Catholic Church rules became for some strange reason state laws in many nations around the world, even in non-Catholic countries.

For the past 100 years the human race has been told that abortion is "against the laws of nature", but far from being natural law going back to the dawn of history or even back to early Christianity, the present state and church law is only 100 years old. In fact, abortion as just another form of birth control has been practiced from the beginning of time which makes it "natural law".

But in 1869 there was again a great robbery on our foremothers, this time for the last and only thing they had going for them. The right to own their own bodies. And this robbery was again a package deal, as contraception was beginning to be perfected and the birth control movement was on in France and Belgium. Within a few years after the slap at abortion, the Church waged war on contraceptives. There were two dominant attitudes concerning sex at that time. First, sex was completely evil. Second, intercourse was for the procreation of the race and only for that reason was it permitted. Not only was the female not supposed to enjoy the sex act (that's nothing new), but the male was told not to get excited about it, or he would be committing a sin also. Because it is physically impossible for the male to have sexual intercourse without being excited, it is amazing that we are all here. Or maybe our forefathers were not such religious beings after all.

In the United States the Puritans had inherited this dismal view of sex and no one seemed to have any regard for the person who had been keeping this race going. She was then finally demoted to nothing more than a baby-making machine. As the father of Puritanism, Martin Luther said, "If a woman grows weary and at last dies from child-bearing, it matters not. Let her only die from bearing, she's in there to do it." The type of victory won by this Puritan crusade in the U.S. is exemplified in the U.S. statute of 1873, which was aimed at abortion and contraception. In its title were the words, "Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use".

Now these laws have not stopped women from their natural desire to control their own systems; it has just made it much harder. At the turn of this century it was not hard to abort oneself or have another woman do it but it was hard work to get birth control information. In the past 30 years contraception methods have improved and have been fairly well accepted but the failure factor is still great and abortions are still desired, used, and necessary.

Presently, the federal government is cutting federal funding for abortion. This virtually makes abortion unattainable for poor women. At the same time, there has been an increase in federal spending for sterilization procedures as well as liberalized laws regarding sterilization over the last few years. These sterilization practices have been especially devastating for Third World women in the U.S. --- 20% of all Black women of child bearing age have been sterilized, 24% of Indian women, 22% of Chicana women, and 35% of Puerto Rican women. At The Association for Voluntary Sterilization Conference which was sponsored by Planned Parenthood in Syracuse, New York on September 17 and 18, 1977, there was much discussion of a new sterilization procedure called "mini-lap". This 15 minute procedure involves an incision directly below the belly-button using only a local anesthetic. This new procedure, which can be performed in a doctor's office, is being used largely on Third World women. This is because, according to physicians, TW women are "stronger" and can withstand more pain that white women.

Forced sterilization, either through financial or psychological coercion, or by simply performing the procedure without a woman's informed consent, represents women's ultimate loss of control of our reproductive rights. Now more than ever we must unite with all of our sisters so that we have control of our bodies, our lives, our futures.

Lader, Lawrence, Abortion, 1965, Bobb Merrill.
Phelan and Maginnis, Abortion Handbook, 1969 Contact Books.
Twain, Mark, Letters form the Earth, 1938.
Terrible Choice, International Conference on Abortion, 1967, Washington, D.C.
Osterman and Arnold, The Pill and Its Impact, Newsbook National Observer, 1967

Monday, November 1, 2010

Racism and the Women's Movement

By Carol Downer

Originally Published in Women's Health Movement Papers on July 1980

Please visit Self Help is Global in Women's Health in Women's Hands!

In the Spring of this year, the Feminist Women's Health Center in Los Angeles, along with many women's organizations in Los Angeles, were approached by the Los Angeles Women's Building to respond to a questionnaire on racism. Each questionnaire was to be the basis for an article in Spinning Off, the Women's Building newsletter. Their group had been having discussions about racism, and they wanted to raise the issue of racism and how women's organizations in the women's movement are dealing with it. The Feminist Women's Health Center was one of the many groups that had an interview, article, or statement in the April/May issue. The article, written by Carol Downer, Delores Nola, and Becky Chalker, follows:

One of the most glaring racist characteristics of the women's movement is that most women, like all Americans, are abysmally ignorant of world politics. Many of us, for example, do not comprehend the impact of a trend, exposed by the Peace movement during the Viet Nam War, for the U.S. government to support policies which promote the domination of Third World countries and their resources by U.S. based, global corporations.

In response to this oppressive trend, Third World nations have united in the U.S. and have demanded that they be allowed to become industrialized, instead of simply supplying raw materials to industrialized nations. The Iranian people, whose self-supporting economy and agriculture was destroyed by a flood of U.S. corporations and a massive military build-up, have used the only means available to them to end U.S. interference within their borders -- take over of the Embassy.

In the post-Viet Nam era, the rise of oil prices, the devaluation of the dollar, run-away inflation, high interest rates and unemployment are all the results of the decline of American imperialism.

The rise of the Third World in the last decade represents the best hope that we have seen in our lifetimes for world revolution and for the eradication of capitalism and imperialism and their attendant evils, racism, classism, sexism, homosexism and ageism. While Western white male rulers shake in their boots and scurry around trying to prop up their positions of domination, all women have the opportunity to unite to destroy those institutions which have kept them second class citizens. American women have to get rid of the idea that they have something to lose by the demise of capitalism.

This is why we at the Feminist Women's Health Centers have a commitment to fight racism by working directly on Third World struggles and by making efforts to attract feminists of color to our ranks. We work to achieve our stated goal of struggling against racism, our own and that of others, on a day to day basis. All people who work in our organization must subscribe to these goals. We have open hiring and specific policies concerning job assignment, work space and firing. In our group, women of color have responsible positions and participate in decision and policy making.

To give an example of what we think fighting racism is, in the last year and a half, the Feminist Women's Health Centers in California and on the East Coast, made a major commitment to support the Iranian people's struggle to rid themselves of U.S. imperialism. Because of our work, we were invited after the Embassy takeover, to be on a delegation to travel to Iran in December to support the Iranian revolution, to oppose U.S. military intervention, and to demand the return of the ex-Shah. What we found there made us determined to return home and expose the 25 years of torture and political repression that the United States government wholeheartedly supported.

Our commitment included, in addition to sending 2 staff members on the arduous trip to Tehran, major outlays of money for long distance phone calls press conferences, air travel, duplication of materials, and a national speaking tour. These expenses have resulted in full-time staff taking partial salaries for an extended period. Carol Downer's participations on the tour also resulted in her being jailed for several days, after her stay of sentence for the W.A.T.C.H. Inspection of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, was cancelled by Judge Charles McClure.

Various individuals and groups in the women's movement have bitterly attacked our trip as supporting anti-women governments, as wasting feminist resources and even as imperialistic, for us to impose our standards on Third World people. We regard these criticisms as absurd and as rationalizations to avoid taking an unpopular stand to support the determination to Iranian people to govern their own lives, by substituting, instead, either merely giving money, medicine, and clothing to Third World revolutionary struggles, or even worse, regarding women's individual career advancement as an exemplary feminist goal.

There is a women's movement and there is a feminist women's movement and the distinction is critical. Movement superstars like Betty Friedan, who rubbed elbows with the Shah of Iran in 1975 and bought the line that he had liberated women in Iran, and that the Empress Farah was somehow a "feminist," is an upper-class woman who is making her fame off the conservative, middle-class women's movement without offering anything of substance in return. Germaine Greer, a priviledged academic, who also traveled to Iran with Friedan, is another star who has gained fame, or at least notoriety, without returning anything useful. We need to banish these figureheads so that all women can struggle to know what true feminism is.

There is a feminist women's movement which has a global perspective with the specific goal, not of trying just to create a comfortable women's community, but of trying to change the conditions in the lives of all people.

We as feminists feel that white women have the right to fight for their liberation against their own oppression, but you can't fight your own oppression without fighting against other peoples as well. Our struggles against oppression are inseparable.

There are many reasons that women of color are not in the women's movement in large numbers: racism from within, pressure from without from their male peers, and because of divisive forces from the government and media. Many factors which are keeping women of color from uniting are not white women's fault, they are the fault primarily of the white patriarchy. Regardless, if the feminist movement does not come to grips with these barriers, and if we do not get women of color involved in some way, then we will become a quaint artifact of the 1970's and irrelevant.

However, the feminist movement shouldn't be judged too harshly, because we do not have all the power to control our lives. We are living a right-wing era, therefore, the women's movement is not broad-based. We've lost the benefits of large numbers of women doing consciousness raising. The movement has been side-tracked into single issues. We must be multi-issues. We can't just be pro-ERA or pro-women's art, or just anti-rape. Single-issue approaches ignore the broad political context of our oppression and racism flourishes in them.

Women of color and white women can fight together for common goals, but we can't ask women of color to abandon their brothers and their cause. For example, you can't forget the issue of police brutality against black men in this city. Separatism, or women of color working within their own organizations, but ultimately, we do have the same interests, we do have the same goals, and we must fight side by side.

Vicious racism, such as that found in most schools, factories and businesses in the U.S. does not flourish in the women's movement, but more subtle racism certainly is a problem, and will continue to be so, as long as the society is not fundamentally changed. We must fight against it in our every day relationships among each other, but even more importantly, we must recognize the roots of racism and work as an organization to attack its social and economic causes.