After Charlottesville: The Role of Gender-Based Hatred in White Nationalism

Memorial at the site of Heather Heyer’s death. Photo courtesy of Tristan Williams Photography, Charlottesville.

Like many people, I spent the weekend of August 12 and 13 glued to the news coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists had descended with torches and swastikas for a Unite the Right rally, prompted by the community’s moves to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. At home I watched photos and articles fill my Facebook feed. At the recreation center where I work out, I watched network news on the wall-mounted TV.


The synergy between race- and gender-based hatred has deep roots in the United States.


Hostility toward racial diversity was the driving force behind the rally — and it showed in the racial makeup of the crowds of people chanting Nazi slogans like “Sieg heil” and “blood and soil” — but I also noticed a serious lack of gender diversity as photos and videos circulated. Women were few and far between. However much I kept seeing it, though, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I grew up half Asian in a very white community, so seeing the dynamics of race has always come easily to me — and they were taking obvious form in Charlottesville. Having grown up cis-male, though, I don’t always catch the dynamics of gender on the first pass.

Then Monday came, and I was reminded, once again, of how gender played out at the Unite the Right rally. I read news that a white nationalist website, the Daily Stormer, was losing its domain host due to comments it published about the violence in Charlottesville. Continue reading

One Simple Kit

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

Last week, I texted a friend of mine and told her: I have a hard choice before me. When she asked what that was, I smiled as I replied: I must choose between replenishing the MAC mascara that I just ran out of and buying the new Harry Potter book. We both laughed. But really, even as a single mom who falls beneath the poverty level, this was my choice of the day.

I have known hard times. I have lived in my car with my two dogs and I have had to volunteer my time cleaning my son’s school to ensure that he gets an education because I couldn’t afford the monthly tuition. I have taken hits by the ones I love, both physical and metaphorical, and I have had my innocence stolen from me by a boy I hardly knew.


One simple kit is combating poverty, hunger, and gender inequality.


Yet somewhere across a sea, a young girl sits in her room, blood gushing from her for reasons unbeknownst to her. Fear brings tears to her eyes as she struggles to understand why God has cursed her. That is what her mother has taught her. That if such a thing occurs, it is a curse from her creator for being a filthy creature. A girl her age tells her that she has contracted a disease, something she couldn’t remember the three letters to reference, but she knew was deadly.

In a rural region in southern Malawi, a girl who has had her first period may be expected to undergo a “sexual cleansing” ritual, in which she is made to have unprotected sex with a man called a hyena — a risky proposition in a country in which nearly 1 in 10 adults has HIV. Her choice to deny such an offer could result in her entire family being stricken ill or even dead — at least that is what she is told. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 6: Los Campesinos

Welcome to the final installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In earlier installments, we learned how chemists were able to extract a chemical from a wild yam called barbasco and convert it into progesterone, the active ingredient in the Pill.

In 1960, the FDA approved oral contraceptives for marketing. At this time, more than 2 million Americans were already using the Pill — and more than 100,000 Mexican campesinos (a Spanish word for peasants) were harvesting barbasco, the wild yam necessary for its production. By 1974, 125,000 Mexicans were collecting and selling barbasco. Every week, during the barbasco trade’s peak, an excess of 10 tons of the plant were removed from tropical Mexico.


Until the barbasco supply started to dwindle in the 1970s, Mexico enjoyed prominence as the world’s supplier of progesterone.


Though they were paid subsistence-level wages for their labors (half a peso per kilo of dried root), and the work itself was dangerous and backbreaking, they were putting Mexico on the map in the scientific community. After establishing a hormone synthesis industry in Mexico, the European stranglehold on hormones was loosened and the price of progesterone plummeted from $80 per gram to less than a dollar per gram. By 1954, Syntex, a Mexican laboratory, was the largest producer of steroids in the world, having usurped Europe’s monopoly.

Scientists depended on the campesinos’ knowledge of soil conditions and growth cycles, as well as their ability to differentiate between different species of yams. The campesinos relied on their knowledge of weather patterns, differences in root coloration, and size variations to determine when they could dig up roots with the highest concentrations of sapogenin, the chemical that was converted into progesterone in the laboratory. Over the decades, the campesinos slowly gained an education in organic chemistry. Continue reading

Mary Peace Douglas: “A Tender Heart and a Real Fighter”

The struggle for reproductive rights in Arizona has a history that stretches back to Margaret Sanger’s involvement with Clinica Para Las Madres, Planned Parenthood’s 1930s precursor in Tucson. Sanger and the other founders of Tucson’s first family planning clinic were brave activists with fierce convictions, and over the decades, the movement saw an influx of fighters whose work was defined by their passion and dedication.

Mary Peace Douglas, who became an active participant in Southern Arizona’s civil life when she moved to the Sonoita Valley more than 65 years ago, was one of those fighters. In the years that she worked for Planned Parenthood’s Tucson affiliate, Mary Peace Douglas made a name for herself as an advocate for reproductive freedom who had a remarkable resolve and spirit that breathed life into the movement.


In addition to the family and friends who remember her fondly, Mary Peace Douglas leaves behind a legacy of having changed Arizona for the better.


Originally from the East Coast, Mary Peace was born to a mother who had also been active with Planned Parenthood during the organization’s early years — meaning that she was involved with Planned Parenthood “from age zero,” as her colleague and cousin Dorothy Sturges puts it. After receiving a high school and junior college education in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Mary Peace moved out west to Southern Arizona, where she made her mark on the struggle for family planning in the region.

Earlier this year, on February 1, Mary Peace passed away at the age of 87. During her life she was a pioneering fighter for reproductive rights and helped build Planned Parenthood Arizona into what it is today. Beginning in the late 1960s, she served a long tenure on Planned Parenthood Center of Tucson’s board of directors, and later was hired to work in development, where she quickly proved she could be an effective fundraiser. Additionally, she spent time serving on the national board of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 3: From Injection to Ingestion

Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951

Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951

Welcome to the third installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, we learned about the iconoclastic chemist Russell Marker, who figured out how to synthesize large quantities of progesterone — the birth control pill’s active ingredient — from a yam called barbasco that grew wild in Mexico.

In 1949, Russell Marker dropped out of science — “I considered all chemists to be crooks,” he bitterly opined — and a scientist named Carl Djerassi was hired to head the lab at Syntex, the hormone-synthesizing laboratory in Mexico that Marker had co-founded in 1944. Within a few years, Syntex was a major player on the synthetic-hormone scene in Europe and the Americas.


After Luis Miramontes’ successful experiments, all of the elements for Sanger’s “magic pill” were in place.


Although progesterone could be manufactured in large quantities at this time, it could only be given intravenously. Progesterone was being used therapeutically to prevent miscarriage and treat excessively heavy menstrual periods. The lack of alternatives to injections represented a problem for these people — a daily pill would be easier and more convenient than frequent injections. In 1950, Syntex set their sights on the development of a synthetic form of progesterone that was more effective in smaller doses and could be administered orally rather than by intravenous injections. Such a development would be necessary before Margaret Sanger’s dream of a “magic pill” could come true. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 2: Barbasco and the Roots of Hormonal Contraception

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University Archives

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University Archives

Welcome to the second installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. Previously, we learned about the role a sex hormone called progesterone plays in inhibiting ovulation. Scientists had no easy way to isolate significant amounts of this chemical and wanted to find a quick and inexpensive method for synthesizing large quantities of progesterone.

Russell Marker was born to Maryland sharecroppers in 1903. Hoping to escape rural life, Marker was one of only two students in his junior-high class to attend high school. He graduated in three years and enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry. He needed one more class to receive his doctorate, but refused to take it, believing he had already mastered his chosen subject, organic chemistry. He was only interested in working in the lab and thought the required course would be a waste of his time. (The university did eventually award him an honorary doctorate in 1987.)


A wild-growing yam in Mexico provided chemicals that could be refined into progesterone, the active ingredient in the Pill.


At the time, the scientific community was abuzz with discoveries being made about hormones. They held tremendous potential for research, but scientists couldn’t figure out how to isolate large quantities of them for study. Up for a challenge, Marker set out to find a way to synthesize one hormone, called progesterone, in abundance. He hypothesized that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be cheap sources of steroid hormones. Marker was specifically hoping to find plants rich in sapogenins, which are chemically similar to cholesterol. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 1: Hormones, Our “Chemical Messengers”

Welcome to the first installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill, from our discovery of how hormones work, to the synthesis of these hormones from an inedible wild Mexican yam, to the creation of a pill that changed the world.

Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses. Indigenous people used it as a fish poison, and traditional Mesoamerican healers used it to treat rheumatism, snakebites, muscular pain, and skin conditions. When the root was fermented in alcohol and put on aching joints, it was believed to work as a pain reliever.


The idea of a birth control pill was born in 1912 when Margaret Sanger dreamed of a “magic pill.”


Barbasco’s medicinal uses might not be surprising, given that scientists derived a chemical from the yam that led to the development of cortisone and oral contraceptives, both of which had sizable impacts on medicine and society. Oral contraceptives would not have been possible without a cheap and abundant source of progesterone, which was easily synthesized from the root after an American chemist, Russell Marker, discovered a process for converting a cholesterol found in barbasco’s roots to progesterone, a key ingredient in the Pill.

In the decades before this chemist’s excursion to Mexico, first-wave feminism was brewing in turn-of-the-century United States, and birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger demanded access to contraception — in 1915, she invented the term “birth control,” and as early as 1912, the idea of a birth control pill had been envisioned — again, by Sanger, who wrote of her hope for a “magic pill.” A nurse, Sanger was spurred to action by the horror of watching women die prematurely after having too many children, while other women died from botched abortions. Continue reading