Lorraine Rothman, a second-wave pioneer of the feminist self-care and self-help movement, died yesterday at the age of 75 at her home in California. She had been diagnosed with cancer only a week prior.
Rothman, together with her colleague, Carol Downer, pioneered the concept and practice of guerilla gynecology (thanks, Sis, love that term!). In the early 70s, Downer, having learned how easy it was to look at her own cervix with a speculum and flashlight, began to teach other women in small consciousness-raising groups how to look at their own cervices in order to monitor their own cervical health and well-being. Lorraine Rothman moved on to invent the “Del-Em” kit using a Mason jar she had in her kitchen and aquarium tubing. This device allowed women to perform their own menstrual extractions (early abortions) safely and privately. Rothman and Downer traveled across the country teaching women how to take control of these and other facets of their own reproductive health care. After Roe v. Wade, Rothman and Downer created the first Feminist Women’s Health Center, which employed only women. Sister clinics soon followed in other parts of California, as well as Oregon, Iowa, Tallahassee, Atlanta…and Yakima. In 1975 Rothman’s self-help clinic concept was the subject of the books A New View of A Woman’s Body, How To Stay Out of the Gynecologist’s Office and Woman-Centered Pregnancy and Birth.
Rothman, Downer and women who staffed and worked in the women’s clinics empowered a generation of women not only to take charge of their own reproductive and gynecological health but to steadfastly, and always, question and challenge the authority of patriarchal medicine over women’s lives and bodies. Their research was committed, woman-centered and cutting edge. Over 20 years ago, for example, Rothman began researching the hormones used in birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy. In her book Menopause Myths and Facts: What Every Woman Should Know About Hormone Replacement Therapy, she challenged the prevailing theories and practices of patriarchal medicine in ways exemplified by this excerpt:
Myth 14 Most of the estrogen replacement hormones are natural hormones; those that are synthetic act as natural hormones.
Fact Estrogen replacement hormones are not natural to women’s bodies. So-called natural hormones are not part of the body’s process of making hormones and have not had long-term large-scale studies to determine safety.
All hormone drugs are synthetic chemicals that are manufactured in laboratories; even the ones derived from plants have been chemically altered in laboratories. The closest to “natural,” the most popularly prescribed and longest on the market – Premarin – is reconstituted from PREgnant Mares’ UrINe (PRE+MAR+IN). Once the mare’s urine is altered in the lab, Premarin is not even natural to a horse.
Drug companies deliberately make their synthetic hormones NOT identical to human hormones so that they can patent these products and make them financially profitable.
Our endocrine glands respond to very subtle stimuli and the amount of hormone secreted by any gland can vary widely throughout the day. Finding a dosage of synthetic hormones that feels comfortable in your body is still a crude way of trying to mimic what our bodies will do if left alone.
Further, the amount of estrogen secreted by our ovaries during a normal menstrual cycle is measured in millionths and billionths of a gram – a phantom, a wisp of mist suffusing our body. Yet this minute amount has profound effects in our bodies.
Under the category of “natural” are isolated substances derived from plants, such as soy and Mexican wild yams, none of which contain any human hormones. When these molecules are altered in the laboratory to match the structure of human hormones, they are marketed as “bio-identical” or “natural” hormones. Even though these engineered molecules are identical to our own progesterone and estrogen, they can never match what our body’s timing, quantity, or natural processes require.
Unless these new molecules can be patented it is extremely unlikely that long-term studies of large numbers of women will be done to determine the effects and safety of “natural” hormones.
Rothman’s, Downer’s and other feminist women’s voices on the subject of synthetic hormones prescribed to women were ignored for years by patriarchal medicine. Recently, of course, hormone replacement therapy was found to be risky and dangerous. As has happened so many times, the claims of feminists — woman-centered women — like Rothman proved true.
In a blog post written before Lorraine Rothman died, Jewesses with Attitude wrote of her:
It is sad and ironic, then, that she is now fatally ill because of the failure of her own health care. She is dying of advanced, metastasized bladder cancer, which was not detected by the doctors she saw through her HMO over the past two years of her pelvic pain. She did not see a urologist, because her HMO did not offer the option of seeing a female doctor. A physician’s assistant at a women’s health center finally detected that she had a serious problem, but while Rothman waited for an appointment with a uro-gynecologist through her HMO, her pain became unbearable and a visit to the emergency room diagnosed her advanced cancer.
Her story proves that we still have a long way to go to create a health care system that is responsive and accessible to all patients, providing services that meet their needs and earn their trust. With feminist health care centers like those Rothman helped create now on the wane, many women like her (and others, such as transfolk) with reason to distrust the medical establishment, are falling through the gaping health care cracks. Rothman may have been utopian in thinking that viewing the cervix with a group of women friends could change the world, but we would do well to ask ourselves: where is empowerment and self-determination in health care today?
It is a source of endless frustration to me that despite the fine and selfless work of feminist women in decades past, in these days so many women, even feminists, continue to subject their bodies, minds, and lives to a medical and pharmacological establishment which has proven time and time again that it does not have the interests of girls and women at heart. It is wrong that this HMO did not offer Rothman the option of seeing female medical practitioners. It is devastating that she wasn’t able to obtain the care she needed after all her many years of service to women and to the medical establishment as well.
I can only hope that hearing of Lorraine Rothman’s work, perhaps for the first time, might inspire feminist women and all women to investigate her work and the work of her feminist colleagues so that the lives and bodies of girls and women might be spared the indignities of a medical establishment which rarely treats them well.
Thanks to Sis who forwarded along the e-mails and other information from Barbara Seaman, Barbara Love, Carol Downer, and other feminist women, who, like Lorraine Rothman was, are giants.