During much of the 20th century, women had very little control over the knowledge produced about their bodies. A dramatic shift in knowledge ownership and creation occurred with the emergence of the 1970s feminist health movement. Yet the mainstream women's movement too often spoke with a white middle-class voice that focused on abortion and ignored the needs and issues of women of color, poor women, and gay or queer women. Reproductive justice was a response to the monochromatism of the early feminist health movement.
This section captures moments in the transformation of knowledge about women’s reproductive health, highlighting several examples from the Ann Arbor area.
Teenage Sex Education
Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By and For Women
This 1971 book provided access to women-centered knowledge of reproductive health. In lay terms, it featured a blend of scientific evidence and feminist interpretation about issues like masturbation, sexuality, and birth control. Women passed it from hand to hand, students read it aloud in dorm rooms, and it was occasionally banned from high schools and public libraries. This early newsprint copy, from the files of the University of Michigan Women’s Advocate Office, was used to inform and counsel women students. Today more than 4 million copies of the book, printed in 25 languages, have been sold.
Initially a form of protest against the Vietnam war, teach-ins were quickly adopted by the women’s rights movement. In November 1972, one month after a Wayne County judge had ruled all Michigan abortion laws unconstitutional, several Ann Arbor women’s groups organized an abortion rights teach-in that included speakers as well as karate lessons, sing-alongs, and modern dance. In the national arena, Roe v. Wade had been argued before the Supreme Court in October, but would not be decided until January 1973.
On April 11, 1972, members of the Advocates for Medical Information (AMI) gathered on the Diag to burn selected pages of the textbook Obstetrics and Gynecology (1971), edited by the University of Michigan’s Dr. J. Robert Willson. One protest organizer argued that the book was unrepentantly sexist, pointing out the following passages:
“Every aspect of a woman’s life is colored by her ability to accept the masochism that is part of her feminine role... [The normal woman] sacrifices her own personality to build up that of her husband.”
AMI hoped that this action would prompt revisions to medical textbooks that depicted women in infantilizing and demeaning ways. Himself a supporter of expanded women’s reproductive services, Willson did revise the book in response to the feminist criticism. The chapter was changed in the 1975 edition to cite feminist literature such as Our Bodies, Ourselves, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, and Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful.
Law and Legal Knowledge
Reproductive justice can be facilitated or impeded by the law. For example, court decisions on privacy have allowed for access to contraception (Griswold. v. Connecticut, 1965) and abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973), but also have allowed states to mandate limitations on access to abortion like waiting periods, detailed consent processes, mandated ultrasound exams, and restrictions on the places where abortions can be provided (Casey v. Planned Parenthood 1982).
So far, a woman's right to control her own body has not been accepted as a fundamental constitutional right. Because of the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, women cannot be said to have achieved full equal protection under the law.
Michigan started the second law and gender journal in the country in 1993.
Whose Reproductive Bodies?
Whose Birthing Practices?