On October 2 I had the pleasure of meeting for several hours with the famous second-wave feminist Carol Downer. For those who don’t know, Downer (born in 1933) was one of the founders of the women’s medical self-help movement. She and her fellow activists taught women all over the world to do their own cervical and breast examinations, and popularized a simple method of menstrual extraction by means of a two-tubed cannula. This technique, normally performed on the first day a woman’s period was due, ensured a state of non-pregnancy. In the early 1970s Downer and her associates created women-led clinics in southern California, many of which exist to this day. In 1972, Downer was arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license for recommending yogurt as a treatment for yeast infections — in the feminist and progressive press the charge against Downer was derisively called “the Great Yogurt Conspiracy”. She was acquitted. Her vindication in the legal system contrasts sharply with the fate in 2014 of Jennifer Ann Whalen, now in prison in Pennsylvania for practicing medicine without a license after she ordered abortion pills for her daughter on the internet. Downer subsequently obtained a law degree, and for over forty years has been an outspoken advocate of women’s health and abortion rights.
Carol Downer contacted me after reading Sex and Herbs and Birth Control and arranged to route herself through Phoenix to meet with me on her way to a talk she was giving to African American midwives and doulas in New York. Our discussions were wide-ranging and frank. Among the topics touched upon were the ups and downs of her federation of women’s clinics, her international experiences promoting cervical self-examination, her disgust with the cavalier attitudes of many medical professionals and state legislators toward reproductive health issues, and the difficulties of attempting to interest American youth in progressive activism of any sort. Downer expressed deep reservations (which I share) about using the consumerist rhetoric of “choice” to refer to the right to access to a safe abortion. She also said that the women’s movement should have protested far more vigorously against the 1976 Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funds from being used for abortion; activists at the time thought that it would have minimal impact and failed to see that it was merely the opening salvo in a steadily increasing barrage of attacks on women’s reproductive rights and health.
Downer was intrigued by the description in my book of abortifacients such as slippery elm sticks, which were inserted into the uterus by the midwives of several indigenous cultures to induce abortion. She commented that the midwives must have had extensive knowledge of the womb in order to place the sticks properly, and she speculated that they might have done self-examination of the cervix as part of their midwifery training.
My conversation with Carol Downer was stimulating and inspiring, but it was also poignant. In the third chapter of Sex and Herbs and Birth Control I discuss what John Riddle calls the “broken chain of knowledge” that occurs when the younger generations of women — either through urbanization or “modernization” or perhaps complacency about the progress that women have made — lose interest in the knowledge and traditions of their foremothers. Something similar seems to have happened in recent years. At least in the U.S. most young women know little if anything of the techniques and struggles of the pioneering second-wave feminists who fought for women’s reproductive health in the 1960s and 1970s. All too frequently one encounters the smug attitude that those were the “bad old days”, and things are so much better now. Yet as recent events in Texas, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and elsewhere attest, women’s reproductive rights are under siege. Without a revival of the activist and medical self-help movements that were started by Carol Downer and her associates almost a half-century ago, access to safe, affordable abortion and contraception is likely to become difficult if not impossible for more and more women.