Sometimes your past returns in the strangest of ways, as happened to me when today's article from TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon first crossed my doorstep. As you'll see, its subject would not be one on which this almost 75-year-old guy would consider himself to have the slightest expertise: women discovering their bodies in complex ways in the 1970s -- and mutilating them now. As you know, I almost always write little intros for TomDispatch pieces, but this time, fascinated as I was by Gordon's account, my heart sank... until, that is, I made my way ever deeper into the piece and discovered something odd and wondrous. I had, however indirectly, been associated with each of the key documents from the late 1960s and early 1970s that she cites as crucial to her growing understanding of herself in those years.
In 1969, in the midst of the turbulent anti-Vietnam War movement, I was swept out of graduate school and found myself -- I don't quite remember how -- working as a printer at what we then, romantically enough, called an "underground print shop" (though it wasn't in any way "underground"). It went by the name of the New England Free Press (NEFP) and we spent our time printing up anti-Vietnam War leaflets, strike posters, and all sorts of other subversive creations of that moment. Just in case you doubt my memory, here's a photo of me (yes, I swear it's me!), circa 1969, working at that very print shop on an old Chief 22 press. The NEFP became known for its pathbreaking literature program, a remarkable and still-fascinating set of movement writings that we often (but not always) printed up ourselves and sent around widely. Fortunately, some old NEFP staff members have recently begun creating an NEFP website in memory of that long-gone moment and of some of those pamphlets, especially a remarkable catalogue of the women's liberation materials we then distributed. As it happens, they included the three pieces mentioned by Gordon today as crucial to her own development: the famed Our Bodies, Ourselves (when it was still a pamphlet, not a book), Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English's Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, and Anne Koedt's The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.
I certainly can take no credit for the fact that we were distributing such now-classic materials (though I do recognize one article that I did bring to that long list), but I can still take pride in the fact that I was there when it all happened. (The NEFP even distributed the first piece I ever wrote for publication, "Ambush at Kamikaze Pass," which would, a quarter of a century later, become the basis for my book The End of Victory Culture.) Anyway, enough about me, as they say. Now, consider the remarkable memories of Rebecca Gordon. Tom
From Mowing the Grass to Cutting the Flesh
How Young Women Learn to Hate Their Genitals
By Rebecca Gordon
I'll never forget the first time I saw my own menstrual period start. I was seated on the floor in a circle of women, legs bent in front of me, soles facing each other, a mirror resting on my feet. The flashlight directed at the mirror illuminated my vagina, which was held open by a plastic speculum. There, at the end, sat a little pink mushroom, my very own cervix. A single drop of ruby-colored blood emerged from its center.
It was just like in the Berkeley Women's Music Collective song "The Bloods":
"Get a speculum at your neighborhood clinic
Learn about your cervix and what's in it
There's a new day coming when you've got the bloods again."
In those days, the women in my collective lesbian household celebrated our periods. We recorded them on a calendar in the kitchen, so we could see how well we synchronized with each other. We thought the old euphemisms ("I fell off the roof today," "My Aunt Flo is visiting," or my mother's favorite, "the Curse") were worse than silly. We were proud of being mysterious creatures who bleed but do not die.
We may have gone a little overboard.
It was certainly ridiculous to celebrate menstrual cramps, which can be pretty awful. One of my lovers used to vomit monthly from the pain. But then Stewart Adams invented ibuprofen and millions of women rejoiced. (Dr. Adams's death this January didn't receive the media attention many of us -- whether weekend warrior athletes or women "of childbearing age" -- think it should have.)
We had some other silly ideas about our vaginas: we thought that if you inserted carefully peeled garlic cloves in them you could cure a yeast infection. (As far as I know, it didn't work, but if you nicked one of those cloves with the knife as you were preparing it, it sure would burn!) Plain yogurt may have worked a little better, by creating an acidic environment inhospitable to yeast, but boy was it messy! And don't get me started on using sea sponges as tampons. Let's just say that they act like any other wet sponge when you squeeze them. Not the moment to practice your Kegel exercises.
Our Bodies, Our Lives
If we were sometimes silly, we were also wise enough to know that understanding and taking control of our bodies was a first step to taking control of our lives. In 1973, the Boston Women's Health Book Collective turned its 193-page, 75-cent pamphlet "Women and Their Bodies" into the book Our Bodies, Ourselves, and for the first time, women all over the United States could read about our own mysterious inner (and outer) workings. (Today, resources based on OBOS exist in 30 languages.) That same year, the Feminist Press reissued Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English's booklet from Glass Mountain Pamphlets, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Female Healers, about the hidden European and American history of medicine by and for women.
Taking control of our bodies went beyond reading and writing, though. Feminists opened their own clinics in the 1970s, where women could get healthcare and information from practitioners who didn't condescend to their patients and who made experiences like getting a pap smear, a test for cervical cancer, as comfortable and non-invasive as possible.
And in the days before home pregnancy tests and before the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal, feminists learned how to end unwanted pregnancies as safely as possible. They also learned and taught each other how to perform "menstrual extractions" (terminations of early pregnancies) and even full abortions. In Chicago, the underground Abortion Counseling Service of Women's Liberation (better known as "Jane") provided referrals to illegal abortion providers and later learned how to do it themselves, performing perhaps as many as 11,000 such procedures. A film about Jane's work is still available today.