The Politics of Women’s Health

Elizabeth Reis, Macaulay Honors College

Fall, 2016

Tuesdays, 5:30 p.m. – 8:00 pm.


Office hours: Tuesdays, 1:30-3:30 (call x2908 when you get to MHC)

ITF: Maggie Galvan
Office hours: Fridays 11:30-12:00 and before class

What does it mean for a woman to have a “healthy” body? How do we tell our stories about health and illness? How and why do discussions of women’s health become political? What does health literacy mean? Who decides what counts as health?  How are these constructions influenced by race, class, gender, and ethnicity?


This course examines women’s health experiences, primarily (though not exclusively) in the US. It addresses questions of authority and decision-making that remain central in women’s health policy debates today. Topics include sexuality, prenatal care and birthing practices, the “epidemic” of obesity, reproductive health, cancers, menstruation and menopause, abortion, birth control, disability, chronic pain, mental health, and environmental toxins.



Boston Women’s Health Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves (This can also be read online)

Lynne Greenberg, The Body Broken

Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Class participation:  This class will require active and sustained class participation, with open and honest discussion. We will be covering material that may challenge your beliefs, values, or conventional wisdom more generally. While you may not agree with everything said, you owe it to each other to listen carefully and respectfully to other people’s views.

Attendance: Because this will be a discussion-oriented class, you have to be here to benefit. I cannot recreate the class discussion for you if you have to miss class. Absences (as well as arriving late or leaving early) will negatively affect your final grade.


Rules: No computers, iPads, etc. are allowed in the class unless we are looking at the reading together. Please no texting either.

Academic Integrity
All work completed for this class must be your own.  If you cheat (hand in your friend’s work or copy directly from the internet or a book, etc.) you will (at the very least) fail the class and your name will be registered with the University.  For guidelines and the Macaulay Honors pledge, see:

Students with Disabilities
I will make every effort to accommodate students with disabilities. If you have a documented disability and anticipate needing accommodations in this course, please make arrangements to meet with me as soon as possible. Please request that the Counselor for Students with Disabilities send a letter verifying your disability.

Weekly Journals should be uploaded to the “journals” section on Tuesday morning before 12:00 noon.

There are 13 weeks of Journal submissions, but you can take one week off (of writing, not reading!) If you do a beautiful job, incorporate all the reading, and thoroughly contemplate and address the study questions, you will get full credit. If you complete all the journal entries and receive full credit, you will get an A on this part of the course. If you only submit and get credit for 11 you will receive an A- for this part of the course; 10, a B+; 9, a B; 8, a B-; 7 a C+, 6 a C and less than that a D or lower. If you submit fewer than 5, you will not pass the class at all.

The quality of the submission counts too!  In other words, this is your opportunity to grapple with the readings, to question, to connect one week to the next, and to raise issues that you’d like to see discussed in class. The journals aren’t formally graded, but I still want complete sentences, though you don’t have to worry about making an argument, having smooth transitions, and the like. If you only write about one of the readings or you write about your opinions with no reference to the readings at all, you won’t get credit that week (though I may award partial credit.) I don’t have a page limit, but I expect you’ll submit roughly 500-750 words. More is fine.


Final Paper/Presentation: I will pass out the assignment for this project toward the end of the term. It will be due on the last day of class.





Weekly journal responses: 50%

Attendance and Participation: 20%

Final Paper and Presentation: 30%



  1. Tuesday, August 30: What is Women’s Health? Why is it political? What is health literacy?

Our Bodies, Ourselves, 651-687, or online to: and read the section on Health Literacy (5 bullet points)

Abenaa Brewster, “A Student’s View of a Medical Teaching Exercise” (online)
In class film: “Absolutely Safe”



  1. Tuesday, September 6: The Politics of Obesity

Margaret Lowe, “From Robust Appetites to Calorie Counting:  The Emergence of    Dieting among Smith College Students in the 1920s,” Journal of Women’s History (Winter 1995) (online)

Slide show from 1954 Life Magazine:

Lonnae O’Neal Parker, “Black Women Heavier and Happier with Their Bodies, Poll Finds,” Washington Post, February 27, 2012:

April Herndon, “Mommy Made Me Do It: Mothering Fat Children in the Midst of theObesity Epidemic,” Food, Culture, and Society (September 2010) (online)

In class film excerpt: Unnatural Causes: Becoming American




  1. Tuesday, September 13: Cancer, Sexuality, and the Body
    Lochlann Jain, “Cancer Butch,” Cultural Anthropology 22:4, pp. 501-538 (online)

Jacque Wilson, “Let’s Talk About Sex. . . and Cancer” (online)

Audre Lorde, “Breast Cancer: Power v. Prosthesis,” The Cancer Journals (1980) (online)

Our Bodies, Ourselves, pp. 587-607, or read the bulleted points under Breast Cancer information

Leisha Davison-Yasol, “Please Put That Pink Can of Soup Down and Put Your Bra Back On,” Huffington Post (Oct. 14, 2015)

In class: “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” film



  1. Tuesday, September 20: Living with Chronic Pain and Disability

Nancy Mairs, chapter from Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled  (online)

Deborah Kent, “Somewhere a Mockingbird,” in Parens and Asch, eds. Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights [online]

Lynne Greenberg, The Body Broken, entire book

Meghan O’Rourke, “What’s Wrong With Me?” The New Yorker (August 26, 2013)  (online)

Christine Miserandino, “The Spoon Theory” (online)

Lena Dunham, “The Sickest Girl,” Lenny (Nov. 17, 2015)

In class film: (Sex)Abled: Disability Uncensored


  1. Tuesday, September 27: Mental Health and Depression

Linda Logan, “The Problem with how we Treat Bipolar Disorder,” The New York Times (April 26, 2013). [online]

Mary E. Wood, Life Writing and Schizophrenia: Encounters at the Edge of Meaning, pp. 261-311 [online]

Siobhan Brooks, “Black Feminism in Everyday Life: Race, Mental Illness,
Poverty and Motherhood,” in Colonize This! pp. 99-118 (online)

Julie Holland, “Medicating Women’s Feelings,” New York Times (Feb. 28, 2015)

Ellen Forney, excerpt from Marbles (online)

You have until October 18 to read all of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Tuesday, October 4: no class, Yom Kippur


 Friday, October 14: It’s a Tuesday schedule, but we won’t have class because it’s a Friday night.

By Friday at noon, please upload a reading response for the first half of the Skloot book.



  1. Tuesday, October 18:

Women and Health Disparities

Tara Parker-Pope, “Tackling a Racial Gap in Breast Cancer Survival,” The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2013 (online)

Read: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (entire book)

Jenna Wortham, Black Health Matters, New York Times (August 27, 2016)

North Carolina Senate Denies Funds for Sterilization Victims,” ABC News (June 22, 2012)

In class film excerpt: Unnatural Causes: Place Matters


  1. Tuesday, October 25:

Egg Donation and Egg Freezing

Our Bodies, Ourselves, 486-500 or online: Assisted Reproductive Technologies


Katie O’Reilly, “Superdonor” Vela Magazine (2015)

Elizabeth Reis, “Young Women’s Eggs: Elite and Ordinary”

Rachel Warden, “Why Corporate Promotion of Egg Freezing Isn’t a ‘Benefit’ to All Women,



  1. Tuesday, November 1: Policing Reproduction

Our Bodies, Ourselves, 337-346 or online: History of Abortion in the U.S.

Erik Eckholm, “Case Explores Rights of Fetus Versus Mother,” The New York Times, October 23, 2013 (online)

Alison Rieheld, “Not all Objectification is Sexual: The Return of the Fetal Container,” International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (Oct. 28, 2013) fetal- container/

Adrienne Asch, “Will We Need Abortion in Utopia?” Principles of Health Care Ethics, Second Edition Edited by R.E. Ashcroft, A. Dawson, H. Draper and J.R. McMillan (2007, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd), pp. 393-400 (online)

Merle Hoffman, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Boardroom excerpt (Feminist Press, 2012) (online)

Tasha Fierce, “’I Just Had an Abortion’Ebony (Jan. 12, 2015)


  1. Tuesday, November 8 (Election Day!):

Pregnancy, Miscarriage, and Birth

Janet Golden, Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome chapter (online)

Our Bodies, Ourselves, pp. 763-770; 780-788 or online: Pregnancy and Birth in the U.S.

Wendy Kline,  “Communicating a New Consciousness: Countercultural Print and the Home Birth Movement in the 1970s,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine (online)

Robin Marantz Henig, “Transgender Men Who Become Pregnant Face Social, Health Challenges,” NPR (Nov. 7, 2014)

Sarah Frostenson, “More and More Women are now Dying in Childbirth, but only in America,” Vox (August 8, 2016)

Lara Freidenfelds, “Misunderstanding Miscarriage,” Nursing Clio (April 1, 2014)
In class: Unnatural Causes: When the Bough Breaks or The Business of Being Born




  1. Tuesday, November 15:

Menstruation, HPV, and Menopause

Watch youtube videos:

“The Curse”:

“The Camp Gyno”:

Judith Houck excerpt from Hot and Bothered (online)

Laura Mamo, Amber Nelson, and Aleia Clark, “Producing and Protecting Risky
Girlhoods,” Three Shots at Prevention: The HPV Vaccine and the Politics of
Medicine’s Simple Solutions, pp. 120-145. (online)

Susan Haack, “HPV Vaccine: Panacea or Pandora’s Box? The Costs and Deceptiveness of the New Technology, published on The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity website (online)

Tanner, “Why We Must Stop Calling Menstruation a Women’s Issue,” The Establishment (May 25, 2016)

Gloria Steinem, “If Men Could Menstruate,” Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1986)

Begin reading Toxic Bodies, pp. 1-82



  1. Tuesday, November 22:

DES and Environmental Health

Finish Toxic Bodies, 83-166

Our Bodies, Ourselves, pp. 727-757 or online: Intro to Environmental Health

Elizabeth Reis, “Toxics in our Living Rooms,” Nursing Clio (Oct.15,2015)

In class film: “Beautiful Baby Girl”




  1. Tuesday, November 29:

Female Sexual Dysfunction

Carolyn Herbst Lewis, “Waking Sleeping Beauty: The Premarital Pelvic Exam and Heterosexuality during the Cold War,” Journal of Women’s History 17:4 (Winter 2005), 86-110 (online)

Leonore Tiefer, “Female Sexual Dysfunction: A Case Study of Disease
Mongering and Activist Resistance,” PLoS Med 3(4): e178. [online]

Elizabeth Reis, “What’s in Your Vulva?” Nursing Clio, May 13, 2013

Raya Kirtner, “On Pap Smears, Rape, and Reclaiming the Body,” Nov. 9, 2013


Our Bodies, Ourselves, pp. 35-43; 181-189

In class film: Orgasm, Inc.


  1. Tuesday, December 6:

Female Genital Cutting

Just one article for you this week since you’ll be busy with your blog posts. I’m giving everybody a break and NOT making you write a journal response for this week. However, please read this article and be prepared to discuss it in class. 🙂

Olga Khazan, “Why Some Women Choose to Get Circumcised,” The Atlantic (April 8, 2015)



Blog Post Project and presentations due the last day of class.