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From Our Archives: Related Stories on Environmental Health
Health activism and the feminist movement frequently travel hand-in-hand, and they, along with environmental concerns, have been topics of deep interest in past issues of On The Issues Magazine.
Following her diagnosis of breast cancer, the artist, photographer and writer Matuschka contributed powerful artwork of herself for the cover of the winter 1992 issue and also wrote of her experiences after her mastectomy.
In response to a suggestion by her surgeon that she have reconstructive surgery, Matuschka says: "For a moment I thought this was crazy. The implant scandal had just hit the media. We had learned that many of the materials used for these implants were originally intended for upholstery, battle ships, and automobile parts. Annoyed that my surgeon was pushing plastic surgery, I commented sarcastically, 'If I'm going to bother putting anything on my chest to replace a missing breast, why not install something useful there, like a camera or a walkman?'
"...Hiding breast cancer allows people to forget, or never see, what happened to these women. All my life I have refused to hide behind anything. It was unthinkable for me to conceal my disease behind a reconstructed breast or a plastic, por- table prosthesis which spends the night in a box. Why should I be embarrassed that I had a mastectomy?"
The Spring 2011 edition of On the Issues Magazine, "The Ecology of Women," also pays special tribute to women's health advocate and writer Barbara Seaman. Seaman was fearless in challenging the "accepted wisdom" of the health establishment and tireless in her advocacy for women. She was also a contributor to On the Issues Magazine, penning an article in the Fall 1997 edition, "Beyond the Halsted Radical," which discussed several books on new approaches to breast cancer treatment and compared them to the then-standard treatment of massive tissue removal.
"Breast-cancer books written by patients are not entirely new, nor is breast-cancer activism. I should know, because it's been 32 years since my own mother-in-law authored a slim volume called "Always a Woman," which the New York Times described as 'the first breast cancer book by a layman [sic] and the personal story of Sylvia Seaman's radical mastectomy.' Eight years later, the first trade edition of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was published. Its section on breast cancer concludes on a note that might seem humdrum to today's readers, but was nothing less than a call to revolution at the time: 'Remember you have a choice about having your breast removed. You don't have to choose between immediate painful death and breastlessness when you first discover a lump.'"
After a rigorous and provocative discussion of several books, Seaman concludes:
"...It's been a quarter of a century since "Our Bodies, Ourselves" informed us that we 'have a choice' about how we handle breast cancer. Batt, Stabiner, Steingraber and Clorfene-Casten, as well as Epstein, Steinman and LeVert [the authors Seaman reviews], each extend that advice by exploring what those choices are, and the complexities and controversies that they entail. Each of these writers embody the best of author activism, by making important, even lifesaving, information accessible to individuals and by simultaneously attempting to influence and alter the way our society deals with breast cancer."
Provoked by some of the same issues as Seaman, On the Issues Magazine founder and publisher Merle Hoffman developed and wrote about the concept of "Patient Power" in 1985.
"The concept of women as consumers of medical care rather than passive recipients of treatment -- the awareness that women's holding to traditional relationships with physicians, i.e., passive, dependent, viewing their doctors as Gods -- was ultimately destructive to them individually and as a class, led to my formulating the philosophy of Patient Power.' This construct was first published in 1975 in the Journal of the International Academy of Preventive Medicine.
"In the early 1970s, when many minority and special interest groups were exploring their own histories and asserting their rights, the acknowledgment of patients as a class - intrinsically holding rights and responsibilities - seemed an appropriate analytical and political vehicle for what I clinically experienced as a general victimization of women (patients) by a generally male medical establishment. This was especially true in the area of reproductive issues where trust, ignorance, fear and dependency resulted in a myriad of problems such as unnecessary mastectomies, hysterectomies, dangerous I.U.D.s, experimental hormonal therapies and iatrogenic (physician caused) pregnancies. Story after story, woman after woman comes to mind..."
In 1998, Katherine Eban Finkelstein wrote about the medical activism of her sister, Myra, in seeking an effective cure for her own breast cancer. "As Myra now explains her strategy, "It's naive to believe there's only one way of treating this disease. There's a lot of information out there. It's like buying a couch; you go from store to store." But is Myra right? Is shopping for a cure the same as shopping for furniture? Could she sample an array of alternative and conventional cures without one interfering with the other? Could she keep all her options open and still make headway against what she has been told is probably a fatal disease?"
In response to the environmental crisis that she saw brewing, Lynn Wenzel wrote in 1998: "Ecofeminists say 'no more waiting.' We are in a state of emergency and must do something about it now...
"Children pay a huge price for environmental racism. A 1990 report by the New York City-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) revealed that 96 percent of black children and 80 percent of white children of poor families in inner cities have unsafe amounts of lead in their blood. According to the August 14,1997 issue of Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, a publication of the Environmental Research Foundation (ERF), a nonprofit environmental information organization in Annapolis, Maryland, the incidence of childhood cancers per 100,000 children in the U.S. and England has been rising steadily for at least 20 years, with excesses of cancers among children living near such toxic facilities as oil refineries, solvents, plastics and detergents manufacturers, steel mills, crematoria, railways, highways, and harbors."
In 2009 Jacqui Patterson detailed the disproportionate effect of climate change on women, and especially, on women of color. "The effects of climate change threaten everyone, but they do not threaten all people equally. Women are disproportionately affected by natural disasters, which are on the increase, as they experience higher rates of mortality, morbidity and post-disaster diminishment in their livelihoods. This pattern of disproportionate impact is echoed the world over, and it is where race, gender, class and climate change intersect." In the current edition of On the Issues Magazine, Patterson follows up with an eyewitness investigation on the Gulf Oil Drilling Disaster and the disparate impact on women.
The toxic world affects animals, too, and in 2009 Barbara J. Gislason described her work establishing Animal Law in an effort to protect them.
"Beginning in 2003, I was the pivotal person launching Animal Law within the Minnesota State Bar Association and then the American Bar Association. At the time, I was afraid that animals would not survive in the increasingly toxic world described in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. I imagined how religion, mythology and science would influence the emergence of Animal Law, as distinct from Animal Rights Law.
"My quest for understanding is one that begs an honest view of the limitations of what we are willing to know. All facts cannot easily jump territorial and cultural barriers. Facts about cows in India, where they are sacred, are not interchangeable with facts about cows in the United States, where they are food and fiber. Time after time, I see animal lawyers -- and I have done this myself -- utilize facts to justify what should not have to be justified, for example that animals should not be cruelly treated. We imagine methods for reform by placing within the circle of compassion the ones we love most -- our pets -- and hope the circle will develop."
For those who refuse to connect the dots and insist that individuals are to blame for their own health problems, Fred Pelka took on what he called "health chauvinism" in a 1994 article.
"The social and individual acceptance of health chauvinism serves a number of purposes. First, it mitigates any responsibility those of us who aren't ill or disabled might feel toward those who are. The disabled are different, and they are to blame for that difference, and thus have placed themselves outside the circle of our compassion. We need not worry about discriminating against them in the workplace, or slashing funds for Medicaid or rehabilitation or independent living services. If we do decide to help 'the less fortunate,' health chauvinism allows us to adopt a stance of moral superiority, of pity, charity, and 'forgiveness.'
"Second, health chauvinism undercuts any critique of a social system that oppresses people with disabilities, who commonly report that it is society's reaction to their disability – in the form of attitudinal barriers, job and school and housing discrimination, and lack of accessible transportation and public facilities – rather than the disability itself that is their greatest problem.
"It's also worth noting here that blaming cancer or other illnesses on bad feelings lets other possible culprits off the hook – for instance the nuclear power industry, chemical pollutants in our food and our environment, etc. Again, health chauvinism works to prop up the status quo, to undermine voices for radical change.
In 1992, Beatrice Levin contributed a fascinating account of how women have made medical history – if scarcely acknowledged – through the ages in the face of patriarchal opposition, scorn, religious and cultural norms.
"Throughout the middle ages, the study of human anatomy was forbidden in Catholic Europe. Christian dogma detested such 'wordly knowledge,' and the Jewish and Moslem religions prohibited the dissection of human cadavers or the pictorial representation of the human body. Only verbal descriptions of parts and sites of organs were permitted. Throughout this period, Arab armies crossed the desert into the west and plundered what few medical texts and anatomical renderings remained. Again it was female Arab copyists who preserved the knowledge of those early Western writings and drawings. They translated them into Arabic, and adapted their drawings and diagrams into written form. It was these women who discovered the error of the previously accepted western belief that the uterus had seven parts."
In 1991, Elayne Clift wrote about the ongoing battle to develop and recognize women scientists. "Whether or not women are included in research studies is only one critical issue. The other question is: Are they included as researchers? According to Dr. Margaret Jensvold, a psychiatrist who has filed suit against the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the answer is a resounding 'no.' Jensvold has charged that NIMH engages in a systematic pattern of sex discrimination against women researchers working on women's health issues. She has a compelling case. In a lawsuit filed in federal district court in Maryland, she alleges that her male superior harassed her, denied her opportunities for research and writing provided to male fellows, fired her before she could complete her third and final year of the fellowship program, and attempted to destroy her promising academic career. To hear Dr. Jensvold recount her experience is chilling..."
For more articles involving women, health and the environment, go to our Archives and look for these topics in our Complete Story List.
Nan Orrock posted: 2011-07-06 15:28:58
Thank you for this moving tribute to Barbara Seaman - a tribute as well to the feminist health movement that has made such a difference and whose work is yet unfinished! I loved being re-introduced to On The Issues as well! The struggle continues - la lucha continua!
william walter posted: 2012-01-09 06:31:17
Like women, Respect women, men and women who molest the mind of another person are worrisome people to be with! people who have abilities to aid and protect others unknowingly are a joy to be with! I personally don't do any of those things. I leave my trust to the good will of the Elite ones; expecting respect for the privacy and civil rights my mind, body, and spirit are entitlled to. A person who respects both weak and strong people is like a boss who knows when to help a worker and when to get out of their way. A really smart person, like myself never chooses to use mind manipulation techniques on anyone. I don't need the anxiety that comes with being a mother, or father! The weight of helping others draws criticism from others. Some helpers are power grabbing bullies who disreguard the well being of some who are being helped for the good of the many. Having stumbled on this article about Barbara Seaman, it was a nice place to find, for she was clearly reaching out to all. People in families and people without families need to know things Mrs Seaman wrote about.
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