In 1979, at the height of the Women’s Movement, three women at Purdue University formed the Sisters for Health Education (S.H.E.), a student organization founded on the principle that “every woman has the right to understand and control her own body” (“History of S.H.E.,” Box 1, Folder 1). For the next few years, they set out to single-handedly educate themselves, and the women of Purdue, about their bodies in an effort to put back into the hands of women the knowledge to care for themselves, their children, and their communities.
In 1981, Purdue had no gynecologist on staff and lacked express resources for its women students in the areas of birth control, unwanted pregnancy, and sexual assault. In a letter to Ms. Dunkle, Director of the Health Equity Project, dated June 18, 1981, S.H.E. founding member Marcia Whisman relates several stories of women who came to S.H.E. in search of support and information after bad experiences with the sole nurse on staff at the student health center who handled “sexual matters”:
She should have her certification to practice taken away from her….[she] is opposed to abortion, doesn’t seem to have a very good attitude about sexuality in general, doesn’t like to deal with sexual matters, and is very inept with examinations to the point of hurting a friend of mine when she was examining her.
Another student was referred to the staff nurse for vaginal infections and was told to “quit fooling around” though she was not sexually active. Yet another requested a pregnancy test but never heard back from the staff nurse regarding the results. When she finally called, the nurse scolded her: “I have known for several days that you were not pregnant, but I thought I would let you worry—have you learned your lesson?”
In relating these stories, Whisman reveals the difficulties that women students faced in attempting to access unbiased healthcare in order to make informed decisions about their bodies – decisions that would also impact their education. Letters and articles describe the pushback encountered by Purdue staff who had previously advocated for a women’s center (one was short-lived, but the campus currently lacks one). Knowing this, S.H.E. proceeded with caution when petitioning the university for funds as a student organization, choosing their words carefully to “sanitize” their mission to counsel women on matters of birth control and abortion.“KNOWLEDGE IS POWER”
Despite institutional resistance, S.H.E. was operational by 1980; eventually they acquired a space in the Wesley Foundation and opened their “clinic” on March 2, 1981. They were soon busy hosting educational workshops, advising women over their hotline, and disseminating calls to action to protect women’s reproductive rights at the national level.Fed up with the ways that sexism and racism shaped interactions between medical professionals – almost exclusively men at that time – and their patients, the Women’s Health Movement aimed to put medical knowledge directly into the hands of women. S.H.E. correspondence captures a national dialogue among feminists working to put knowledge directly into the hands of diverse women and questioning the epistemological assumptions inherent in healthcare practices of the time (see Wendy Kline’s “’Please Include This in Your Book’: Readers Respond to Our Bodies, Ourselves,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Spring 2005). Inspired by the movement’s motto, “Knowledge is power,” S.H.E. researched not only debates surrounding the Pill’s safety, but also mental health, fat-shaming, lesbian women’s sexuality, the beauty industry, and food additives and natural remedies for common ailments like menstrual discomfort and bladder infections. They corresponded with feminist organizations and women’s health clinics in solidarity around the country and ordered speculums directly from medical supply companies to distribute at workshops where they taught women how to view their own cervices.
In addition, they brought together local resources for victims of rape and sexual assault, including a brochure (shown below) from the Indianapolis Police Department advising women to “Trim bushes and shrubbery” around their homes “so no one can hide in them” (Box 2, Folder 22), advice that now seems comically outdated.S.H.E. members compiled and circulated lengthy lists of recommended reading that covered topics ranging from feminist theory to a history of midwives. Oft-referenced throughout is the Women’s Health Movement bible, Our Bodies, Ourselves, a self-help guide to women’s health first published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in 1970. Updated and reissued every four to six years and now available in more than thirty languages, the text remains the gold standard for many feminists and health educators today. What unfolds in this collection is nothing short of a dynamic portrait of a nation’s healthcare practice under radical reform. Grassroots feminist health activists raised crucial questions about medical epistemology and literally rewrote how women understood and cared for their own health and for each other. This history, told through the correspondence and clippings of a small but dedicated group of Purdue feminists, continues to impact our healthcare today. Though the revolution may be incomplete, we see echoes of it in contemporary debates for reproductive justice and in renewed activism around home birth and midwifery, for example, the Big Push for Midwives campaign and Ricki Lake’s hit documentary The Business of Being Born.
THE GROWING BACKLASH
If the collection reveals the progress made by grassroots women activists, it also foreshadows a growing conservative backlash that would carry through the 1980s. S.H.E. members actively advocated for women’s right to access safe and legal abortion and protested the Human Life Amendment, wrote to prominent politicians at the state and national level, a precursor to today’s fetal personhood amendments. Though member’s letters are not included in the collection, the responses they received are, including letters from prominent politicians such as Richard Lugar and Dan Quayle. Newsletters penned by the then newly-founded Moral Majority defame the content of Our Bodies, Ourselves and “the feminist agenda” as a threat to the nation.For contemporary readers, reproductive rights debates often seem a clear-cut dichotomy, a war between pro-life or pro-choice advocates. But the S.H.E. records expose much more nuanced and complicated perspectives on the issue than we might now imagine. Among proponents of the Women’s Health Movement, many were involved in other causes, including the anti-war and burgeoning environmental movements. Feminist small presses exploded across the country in the 1970s, capturing the conversation of the Women’s Movement and its intersecting discourses with other social movements for justice and equality – and the members of S.H.E. were tapped in. UNTIDY ENDINGS
Ultimately, the collection ends abruptly and offers no explanation of what became of S.H.E. and its inspiring members. After the last materials dated 1982, there is silence. Earlier articles and letters hint at a struggle to maintain the flow of funds necessary to keep the resource going – the phone bill their largest expense. Marcia Whisman continued to send postcards and letters to her feminist sisters at S.H.E. even after she moved to Maryland to pursue graduate work. In a letter, she shares her intention to establish a similar resource at her next university, anticipating that women everywhere were in need of the knowledge to understand and care for their bodies.
In fall of 2015, Purdue hit another major milestone in caring for its women students: after years of student activism amid a growing national discourse surrounding sexual assault on college campuses, Purdue University announced the establishment of C.A.R.E., the Center for Advocacy, Response, and Education, a relationship violence and rape crisis center slated to open at the start of the 2016-17 academic year.
As one of the students who spent four years writing to university administration, organizing and speaking at Take Back the Night rallies, and talking with local media about the need for this resource, I cannot help but wonder what the members of S.H.E. would think of this newest result of grassroots feminist efforts at Purdue.
And I wonder, where did their feminist rabble-rousing take them and were they thanked enough for the work they did?
The struggle continues, sisters. Fight on.
P.S. Look for a newly donated collection on the years of student activism and advocacy that went into getting the Center for Advocacy, Response, and Education in the near future.
Editor’s Note: Dana Bisignani is a graduate assistant working in the Women’s Archives and an anti-violence activist and educator. A two-time recipient of the Berenice A. Carroll Award for Feminism Peace, and Social Justice, and former graduate instructor in Purdue’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, Dana left her doctoral program this year in order to pursue anti-violence education and prevention work full-time.