One Woman’s Experience of the American Feminist Women’s Health Movement

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Beth Widmaier Capo, a professor of English at Illinois College, Jacksonville. 

In 2007 I interviewed my mother, Nancy Watters Widmaier, about her experience with the Detroit Feminist Women’s Health Center in the 1970s.[i] Although she earned her nursing degree in the 1960s, she wasn’t part of the FWHM until after her own pregnancy. In 1973, she “decided that I was going to have a natural childbirth, which was kind of new at the time, so I went to a class on the Lamaze method and read a lot of books. Basically I didn’t want to take any Demerol or drugs that would make you sleepy or possibly affect the baby so that’s why I thought natural childbirth was good. . . . It was kind of radical for its time; all of my friends went in and asked for pain medicines.”

During delivery, “I pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed for hours and hours and hours …. They had me lying flat on my back with my legs in stir-ups rather than letting me sit in any other position. Once you go into labor and your water breaks, they won’t let you get up and walk around or anything and I thought that was terrible. I kept getting up and going to the bathroom and they would just yell at me ‘you’re not supposed to get up!’ but I did anyway.”

Later that year she attended a self-help clinic at the new Detroit FWHC. “A friend of mine, one of the more radical people I knew, read in the newspaper that there was going to be a self-help clinic to learn vaginal self-examination. . . . I said, ‘Oh, I don’t need that. I know all about women’s bodies. But I’ll go to keep you company if you want.’ I went and was amazed at all that I learned.”

“The night of the first self-help clinic, [the organizer] was explaining things to people, showing slides, talking about the advantages of self-examinations and talking about how women could take control of their own bodies and take the power away from the male medical profession and win some of that power themselves. Little light bulbs kept going off in my head, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea. Oh, that’s a good idea.’ And then Cathy[ii] took her pants off and got up on the table and inserted the speculum and showed everybody her cervix. My jaw dropped. ‘That woman took her pants off in public!’ It was all women, but everybody was a little surprised. It was so fascinating; nobody was offended. Cathy passed out speculums and invited everybody else to do it. Very few actually did do it that night in front of everybody else, but everybody took a speculum and went home and it did in private, I’m sure.”

Mom volunteered with the DFWHC for four years. “I was there almost every day of the week because I enjoyed it. . . . I volunteered to work in the clinics: I did a lot of fitting diaphragms and teaching self-exams. Everyone who came in the door was offered a chance to learn a self-exam and given their own speculum. . . . At first we started off doing pregnancy screenings: women would come in and we’d do a urine test. We would just do it in front of them and say ‘if the hormone’s in there and it’s clear, it will turn cloudy and if it’s not, it will be clear. So what do you think this is, cloudy or clear?’ They made their own decisions, we didn’t say ‘You’re pregnant’ or ‘You’re not.’ We’d do a vaginal exam and say ‘if your cervix is not pregnant, it feels like the tip of your nose and if it’s pregnant, it’s softer than that. . . . We would counsel them about their options: adoption, pregnancies, deliveries and abortions.”

Women involved in the Detroit Feminist Women's Health Center. Nancy Watters Widmaier is pictured to the right, holding Beth and her brother.

Women involved in the Detroit Feminist Women’s Health Center. Nancy Watters Widmaier is pictured to the right, holding Beth and her brother.

Through the DFWHC she became involved in the home birth movement. In late 1975 “I went and saw a couple of these home births and was amazed at the difference between hospital births, where people were hooked up to a lot of equipment and not allowed to get out of bed. At most of the home births there was no intervention and nature was just allowed to take its course. … The midwives never claimed to deliver babies; in fact I hardly ever saw them take the baby from the mother. Usually they would take the mother’s hand when the baby’s head was born, they would put the mother’s hand on the baby and she would be the one that would take it out of herself. It was amazing to see; it would help the baby’s head to come through so there wouldn’t be a lot of tearing.”

“There was this one Iranian woman. She never lay down until her baby’s head was crowning. She was just more comfortable up and moving around so she was cooking and washing, taking care of her other kid. Her mother was there, her sister was there and I was there the whole day long while she was in labor. . . . That baby was named after me.”

In all, she worked with the midwives for two years, helping deliver over thirty babies, stopping when she moved to a small town in Ohio: “It was politically in a different place; all these farmers couldn’t see the reasoning behind not going to the white-coated doctors and they thought it was terribly dangerous not to have your baby in a hospital and they couldn’t see the fact that keeping a woman monitored and off her feet during labor was causing problems, that scheduled Cesarean is not the desirable way to have a baby. I didn’t talk about my past to them because none of them were in a place where they could really understand anything that I said. People would have thought I was strange—‘You touched your own vagina, why would you want to do that? You better wash your hands’.”

Nancy Widmaier worked as a nurse until retirement, and passed away in 2008.

About the Author 

Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon

 

Beth Widmaier Capo is Professor of English and Gender & Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL. She is the author of Textual Contraception: Birth Control and Modern American Fiction (Ohio State University Press, 2007) and various articles on American literature, feminist activism, and pedagogy.

 

 

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[i] For brevity, feminist women’s health movement will be abbreviated FWHM in the text of this piece; feminist women’s health center will be abbreviated FWHC.

My thanks to Claire Brakel Packer for her transcription of the interview in 2007, to Marion Banzhaf for the original idea to do the interview, and to Kit-Bacon Gressitt and Jodie Lawston for reading and commenting on a longer essay regarding the interview.

For more on the Feminist Women’s Health Movement, see Kathy Davis, The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders (2007); Sandra Morgen, Into Our Own Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990 (2002); Wendy Kline, Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave (2010); and Michelle Murphy, “Immodest Witnessing: The Epistemology of Vaginal Self-Examination in the U.S. Feminist Self-Help Movement” (Feminist Studies 30.1 2004: 115-147).

[ii] Cathy Courtney founded the Detroit FWHC along with Jacki Stefko.

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