Women Fighting for Everyone’s Health

Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout the history of medicine, the health of women and children hasn’t always been prioritized. Safeguards might not have been in place to ensure drugs were safe during pregnancy, the right to abortion care has been under attack by both terrorists and lawmakers, and people haven’t had the tools they needed to prevent pregnancy. But throughout that same history, women have confronted these issues head on, creating a better world for everyone and keeping important conversations alive.

Let’s meet some of these incredible historical figures now!

Frances Oldham Kelsey

President Kennedy honors Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey with the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962.

In 1960, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey was evaluating drug applications for the FDA. When she received an application for a sleeping pill called Kevadon, she was unsettled by scant information on the drug’s safety and demanded additional data, triggering a game of tug-of-war between the pharmaceutical company and the FDA that persisted for more than a year.

In November 1961, Dr. Kelsey was vindicated. Kevadon — aka thalidomide — was discovered to cause severe birth defects. According to the New York Times, children “were born without arms or legs, some with no limbs or with withered appendages protruding directly from the trunk. Some had no external ears or deformities of the eyes, the esophagus or intestinal tracts.” One estimate holds that 20,000 babies were born with deformities, while 80,000 died during pregnancy or shortly after birth. But, thanks to Dr. Kelsey, thalidomide was never approved in the United States.

Frances Kelsey’s career might have been made possible by a misunderstanding. Her graduate advisor at the University of Chicago wasn’t a big booster of women in science, but he hired her after reading her name as Francis and assuming she was a man. Dr. Kelsey always wondered, “if my name had been Elizabeth or Mary Jane, whether I would have gotten that first big step up.” At the time, though, she wondered if she should even accept the offer to join the University of Chicago as a grad student.

“When a woman took a job in those days, she was made to feel as if she was depriving a man of the ability to support his wife and child,” Dr. Kelsey told the New York Times in 2010. Fortunately for an untold number of wives and children — and everyone else — she decided to claim her rightful place at the university, leaving behind an incredible legacy.

Sherri Finkbine

The Finkbines traveling back to Phoenix, en route from London.

Sherri Finkbine was known to thousands of children as Miss Sherri on the local edition of the children’s show Romper Room. But Finkbine entered the spotlight for another reason in 1962, when she learned during her fifth pregnancy that she was at risk of having a child with severe birth defects. Finkbine was using sleeping pills that her husband had brought back from Europe, and the pills, she found out, contained thalidomide. Wishing to warn others about the drug, Finkbine shared her story with a reporter from the Arizona Republic.

Though she had been promised anonymity, her identity was exposed and her story created a media firestorm. Continue reading

Women Harnessing the Law

Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout this country’s history, the law hasn’t been consistently fair across gender lines, classifying women as second-class citizens and making assumptions about people based on gender stereotypes. But throughout that same history, women have harnessed the law to right these wrongs, changing the national conversation around issues as varied as medical privacy, marriage, caring for family members, and sexual harassment.

Let’s meet some of these trailblazers now!

Estelle Griswold

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate their Supreme Court victory.

The birth control pill came onto the market in 1960, but in Connecticut, contraception was outright banned by a law that predated the birth of the Pill by more than 80 years, imposing fines and jail time on people using any type of contraceptive device. Additionally, anyone “aiding and abetting” would-be birth-control users — including doctors and pharmacists — could be punished.

In 1961, in an act of civil disobedience, Estelle Griswold, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, opened a birth control clinic — and was promptly arrested, prosecuted, and fined $100. Griswold immediately challenged the constitutionality of Connecticut’s anti-contraception law, but it was upheld in state courts. In 1965, however, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples had a constitutional right to make private decisions about contraception.

Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in contraception access — but it was only a first step. In restricting its ruling to married couples, the Supreme Court perpetuated the idea that birth control was only appropriate within the confines of marriage. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried people, too, had a right to birth control.

Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times

Richard Loving was white and Mildred Jeter was black. In 1958, the couple obtained a marriage certificate in Washington D.C., and were jailed for violating Virginia code 20-54, which prohibited marriages between “white and colored persons,” and code 20-58, which prohibited couples from marrying out of state and returning to Virginia to reside as husband and wife.

The Lovings pleaded guilty and were banished from the state, forcing the couple to leave their families and home behind. A series of court battles culminated in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1967 decision that Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause. Continue reading

Best of 2018: Bloggers Pick Their Favorite Posts

When 2018 began, we weren’t even a full year into the Trump administration, and we were staring down the barrel at another three years of it. Luckily, as 2018 got going, so did we. The Resistance injected new blood into politics, from the local to the federal levels, and by the end of the year we were celebrating the victories of candidates passionate about the rights of women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, and voters. Whether you want to call it a “blue wave” or a “blue ripple,” the country enjoyed record voter turnout in last month’s midterms, and Arizona is now officially a purple state. We’re looking forward to what 2019 will hold, and are ready to keep fighting!

Our bloggers were with us throughout the year, reminding us of what’s most important: advocating for health, justice, and dignity for all. They shared their favorite posts of 2018.

Anne has spent years on the front lines fighting abortion stigma, the sinister force that fosters silence and shame. She introduced us to one of her sisters in arms, Karen, who for 40 years kept her abortion a secret. When Karen finally unburdened herself of the stigma, her sons rallied to her side, realizing they can’t be complacent. This powerful story about a beautiful family will bring tears to your eyes, and remind you of the harm abortion stigma can cause. Reproductive rights aren’t just a “women’s issue,” and male voices are needed in this fight.

Matt wrote an incredible four-part series examining the link between white supremacy and opposition to abortion. His favorite piece was the final installment in this series, covering the 1990s. During this decade, the white supremacist, anti-abortion, and Patriot movements converged to give us terrorists like Eric Robert Rudolph, who bombed the Olympics, a gay bar, and abortion clinics. Fast forward a couple of decades, and by 2016, the stage was set for Trump’s misogyny, racism, transphobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

Mother and babyAnna examined the shocking, disturbing racial disparities in U.S. maternal mortality. The United States’ high maternal mortality rate is heartbreaking no matter how you look at it, but is especially pronounced for black women, who are 3.5 times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy than white women. In fact, in New York City, their maternal mortality rate is on par with that of North Korea, and Amnesty International considers high U.S. maternal mortality rates to be evidence of “significant systemic human rights failures” — not a distinction you’d expect for a wealthy nation like our own.

Rachel was alarmed by Supreme Court nominee — and now justice — Brett Kavanaugh from the start, and put together a withering indictment of him — and that was before the sexual assault allegations came to light. Kavanaugh’s judicial record reveals priorities aligned with religious doctrine rather than with the Constitution: He fought to save religious employers from the “burden” of a two-page form, but refused to recognize an undocumented minor’s unwanted pregnancy as representing any kind of burden. That seat needed to be filled by a justice who views women as equals, with full say over what happens to their bodies — instead, we got Kavanaugh, who will be an axe hanging over our heads for years.

Serena’s favorite piece was published back in March for Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on amazing women who changed history for all humankind. She introduced us to luminaries such as Wendy Davis, Shirley Chisholm, and Dolores Huerta to show us how much power one person can wield! She also used the opportunity to celebrate the right to vote, which millennials and Gen X’ers can wield to honor the suffragists who came before them. These generations cast the most ballots, and if a greater proportion of them voted, their voices would be impossible to ignore!

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