What’s in a Name? Frances Oldham Kelsey and the Power of Skepticism

If Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey had been named Mary, Helen, or Dorothy, it’s possible that thousands of babies would have died or been born with debilitating birth defects.

In the mid-1930s, after earning a master’s degree in pharmacology in her native Canada, Frances Oldham wrote to Eugene Geiling, a researcher at the University of Chicago, asking to work in his lab and study for a doctorate. Assuming Frances was a man, Dr. Geiling replied with an offer of a scholarship, addressing the letter to “Mr. Oldham.”


Dr. Kelsey upends the stereotype of the government bureaucrat. She saved lives by being a stickler for details.


Reflecting on the incident in an autobiography, she remembered Dr. Geiling as a “very conservative and old-fashioned” man who “did not hold too much with women as scientists.” His assumption that Frances Oldham was male might have played a role in her scholarship and subsequent education, which prepared her for a career that touched every American.

From an Early Victory in Chicago to a New Career in Washington, D.C.

After moving to Chicago, Frances Oldham earned a doctorate in pharmacology in 1938 and a medical degree in 1950. Along the way, she got married, becoming Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, and gave birth to two daughters.

Her work in Dr. Geiling’s lab provided early experience in unraveling medical mysteries. In 1937, more than 100 people, including 34 children, died after taking a liquid sulfa drug formulated with an artificial fruit flavor. Dr. Geiling’s team of scientists soon identified the problem: The medicine was composed primarily of antifreeze — along with the active ingredient, coloring, and flavorings. It was sent to market with no testing. Public outrage led to the 1938 passage of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which required manufacturers to provide evidence to the FDA that their drugs were safe. Continue reading

International Women’s Day: She Persisted

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1909 in the United States, and was officially designated as a worldwide holiday by the International Women’s Conference in 1910. The founders of this conference were socialists and communists who wanted equity for women’s contributions to the workforce, particularly in the garment industry, where women worked for 12 hours a day in hazardous conditions for very little pay.


Celebrate women who have fought winning battles for human rights.


International Women’s Day also praises women who have fought to gain voting rights around the world. Citizens of the United States are (or at least should be) aware of American suffragists like Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony, whose efforts culminated in the 19th amendment of the Constitution, giving American women the right to vote in 1919.

We should also honor the struggles of women in other countries to get the right to vote. For instance, Sylvia Pankhurst was a leader of the British suffrage movement, and was active in the labor movement as well. Many of us take the right to vote for granted, but let’s not forget that women in Saudi Arabia were unable to vote until 2015, and they weren’t even allowed to drive a car until the Saudi royalty decreed that women could start driving this year.

Past generations of women fought hard for the right to vote, and the current generation is an untapped source of power at the ballot box. For example, while only half of registered millennial voters cast a ballot in 2016, this level of voter participation was an increase from the previous election cycle. Collectively, more millennials and members of Generation X cast ballots than did members of older generations. That can be credited to the fact that members of younger generations outnumber members of the older generations, but it is also an indication of the potential young people have to create change when they exercise their right to vote. Continue reading

Book Club: Woman Rebel – The Margaret Sanger Story

Now that comic books have become the source material for blockbuster movies, the oft-told story of the maligned and misunderstood superhero should be a familiar one, even to many who have never read a comic. Think Professor Xavier’s cohort in the X-Men movies or Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. They’re extraordinary. They’re also flawed, often unable to shake the ghosts of an uneasy past. But their powers, not their shortcomings, are the reason they’re so maligned. No matter their good intentions, they challenge what is known and established, earning them fear and distrust.


Bagge’s graphic novel is a refreshing contribution to a medium that is often a guilty pleasure at best.


Given that trope, maybe it wasn’t such an odd idea to give the comic book treatment to the life of Margaret Sanger, the reproductive rights pioneer and founder of Planned Parenthood. Writer and illustrator Peter Bagge, a veteran of alternative comics, does just that in Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013). The outcome is a graphic novel that doesn’t let exaggerated expressions, vivid colors, and terse speech bubbles derail an intelligent and sensitive retelling of Sanger’s life.

Comparing Sanger to a superhero might be hyperbole, but Sanger’s trailblazing work not only created the movement to advocate for birth control but also spurred the development of the oral contraceptive, or “the Pill.” She had the drive and the know-how to contribute to the movement as an author, editor, lecturer, and founder of a reproductive health clinic. Along the way, Sanger helped change the laws that stood in the way of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, while rubbing shoulders (and sometimes developing romances) with many luminaries of her time, from novelists to political agitators to wealthy industrialists. March is Women’s History Month, and this year’s theme is Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment — a theme perfect for someone of Sanger’s stature. Sanger’s visionary efforts earned her many accolades — as well as a campaign of character assassination that has called her everything from a fascist to a proponent of genocide. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gonorrhea, Women, and the Pre-Antibiotic Era

Penicillin, the first cure for gonorrhea, was developed for mass production in the 1940s.

Penicillin, the first reliable cure for gonorrhea, was mass produced in the 1940s.

It’s Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on the achievements of women worldwide — like Margaret Sanger, Rosalind Franklin, and Florence Nightingale, or contemporary heroes like Wangari Maathai. But it may also be a time to examine some of the sadder aspects of womanhood, including the increased burden gonorrhea imposes on women. While gonorrhea is no picnic for anyone, it wreaks the most havoc in female reproductive tracts. In fact, before antibiotics, gonorrhea was a leading cause of infertility — one 19th century physician attributed 90 percent of female infertility to gonorrhea. Not only that, but the effects of gonorrhea could seriously reduce a woman’s overall quality of life.


With gonorrhea becoming more resistant to antibiotics, the CDC warns of a return to the pre-antibiotic era.


Gonorrhea is described by written records dating back hundreds of years B.C. Ancient Greeks treated it with cold baths, massage, “cooling” foods, and vinegar. In the Middle Ages, Persians might have recommended sleeping in a cool bed with a metal plate over the groin. A bit to the west, Arabs tried to cure gonorrhea with injections of vinegar into the urethra. Kings of medieval England might have had their gonorrhea treated with injections of breast milk, almond milk, sugar, and violet oil.

Although gonorrhea is as ancient an STD as they come, because women rarely have symptoms while men usually do, for much of history it was mostly discussed in terms of men. The name gonorrhea itself derives from the ancient Greek words for “seed flow” — gonorrhea was thought to be characterized by the leakage of semen from the penis. This confusion inspired many misguided notions throughout the millennia, such as the idea that almost all women carried gonorrhea and transmitted it to their unwitting male partners. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • plannedparenthoodactionorgSince it’s that time of the year again, let’s play a round of anti-choice March Madness! (Mother Jones)
  • The GOP might as well face the facts … They’ve lost women forever. (Salon)
  • Foolish parents continue to put their children at risk for cervical cancer. (RH Reality Check)
  • In honor of Women’s History Month, we present you with 50 women who shaped America’s health. (HuffPo)
  • When Women Have More Control Over Bearing Children, Their Lives Are Obviously Way Better — DUH! (Jezebel)
  • Salon expounds upon this less-than-shocking news. (Salon)
  • Unfortunately, doctors don’t prescribe long-acting contraception for adolescents very often. (Healio)
  • A whopping 233 million women may need contraception by 2015. (NBC News)
  • In case you weren’t aware, the Catholic Church has quite the costly stance on contraception. (MSNBC)
  • Completely disregarding the ruined life of the victim, CNN instead expressed grief that the guilty verdict ruined the “promising” lives of Steubenville rapists. Uggghhh. (Rawstory)

The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Part 2

Last month we featured Part 1 of our interview with historian Stephanie Coontz about her book A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012). A Strange Stirring looks at the history of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which has been widely regarded as one of the most influential books of the last century.


“Work is still organized on the assumption that every employee will have a wife at home to take care of life.”


Published 50 years ago in February of 1963, The Feminine Mystique was Friedan’s response to the unease and dissatisfaction that she learned was common among American housewives at the time. Friedan hypothesized that the root of their unhappiness was their confinement to domestic roles, which prevented them from finding meaning and identity outside of their roles as homemakers, partners, and caregivers. Entering the workforce and professions, Friedan believed, would provide them the fulfillment they were missing.

Although social conservatives blamed The Feminine Mystique for sowing marital discontent, that was never Friedan’s intention. As Stephanie Coontz explained in A Strange Stirring, Friedan’s book “made a point of not criticizing husbands for their wives’ unhappiness.” Instead, it suggested that “marriages would be happier when women no longer tried to meet all their needs through their assigned roles as wives and mothers.” In Part 1 of our interview, Coontz discussed the accuracy of Friedan’s insight, noting that “today divorce rates tend to be lowest in states where the highest percentage of wives are in the labor force. Marriages where men and women voluntarily share breadwinning and caregiving tend to be very high quality.” Continue reading

The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview With Stephanie Coontz, Part 1

Award-winning author Stephanie Coontz has published a long list of books and articles about the history of family and marriage. She has written about the evolution of those two institutions from prehistory to today, in works that have been widely praised for their intelligence, wit, and insight. In her most recent book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012), Coontz takes us back 50 years to a breakthrough that changed the role of women in American households.


“Equal marriages require more negotiation than unequal ones.”


In 1963 it was clear that a revolution was beginning. After its approval by the FDA at the beginning of the decade, 2.3 million American women were using the birth control pill, the oral contraceptive that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger had been instrumental in pioneering. And on February 19, 1963, 50 years ago today, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that sold millions of copies in its first three years. It quickly became the object of both derision and acclaim for awakening women to aspirations beyond what discrimination and prejudice had long defined for them. If oral contraceptives were the breakthrough in medicine that finally enabled women to plan their reproductive lives around their educational and career goals, Friedan’s landmark book was the breakthrough in consciousness that gave many the resolve to do it.

Friedan was a magazine writer whose experience surveying women at a college reunion was the spark that drove her to uncover “the problem that has no name.” She was referring to the dissatisfaction and depression she found widespread among housewives, not just at the reunion but in many other encounters she had with them as a writer. Convinced that it would help married women — and their marriages — if they sought their own identities outside of the home, Friedan synthesized a wealth of research to make her case in The Feminine Mystique. Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring is a social history of The Feminine Mystique that takes readers from an era of far-reaching sex discrimination in the early 1960s when Friedan made her breakthrough, to the contemporary era when many of Friedan’s appeals have been realized but new challenges hinder equality. Continue reading