As part of the movement for women's liberation in the second half of the 20th century, women came together to question the way a medical elite has controlled and defined women's health and disease. They looked at the way a male-dominated medical profession - as part of the rise of the patriarchal church and state - was imposed over existing healing traditions in Europe.
In order for this new medicine to establish itself, it had to subordinate the knowledge, skills and autonomy of female lay healers who had been the main source of care up to that point. During the witch hunts of the 14th and 15th centuries, thousands upon thousands of women were burned, in part for their capacity to treat the sick, help women with birth control and abortion, and support women during childbirth. Women also looked at how indigenous healing practices had been (and continue to be) destroyed as a result of colonialism and imperialism.
Like the general consciousness-raising groups that formed the basis of the women's liberation movement, women created small self-help groups and clinics for the exchange of experiences and information around health. They saw the need to challenge existing notions of health and reclaim knowledge that had been destroyed or guarded by so-called experts. Women examined their bodies together, shared insights, found self-help remedies to many common health problems and began spreading ideas. Various groups of women also put together publications that really addressed women's needs, including realistic drawings and photos of their bodies, along with all the relevant information that had been explored.
A couple of years ago a few women in Brighton, inspired by so many of those ideas and publications, set up a women's health collective. Despite the many complexities, we met weekly and were able to share and explore some really radical things. We met to gather information and experiences around health (in the broadest sense of the word) and to understand it in a political context. We were looking at how capitalism, racism and patriarchy make people sick. We also looked at how the 'New Age movement' distorts the potential of alternative medicine by selling the idea that we can heal ourselves in isolation, without a larger collective movement for change.
It was the first time for most us that we had talked in depth about our health; about mental and spiritual health, anatomy, sexuality, sexual health, menstrual cycles, pregnancy, abortion, and experiences of the medical system, etc. As a collective we did self-examinations together and found ways to treat ourselves with herbs, massage and general support. We have also been able to support some women through herbal abortions, as we had access to important books and could give daily support. Although we do not meet weekly any more, we're still trying to produce some zines of information we've researched, and put on some more workshops. If you want more details of these, or to contact the authors of this article, you can email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
More InformationThis information is still very marginalised, so it's important that these ideas should be shared as much as possible. For more details on the women's health movement, radical critiques of health, as well as good DIY health advice, have a look at:
A New View of a Woman's Body by The Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers (Feminist Health Press, 1995). ISBN 0 96299 45 02. We cannot recommend this book enough. It's hard to get in the UK, but the authors of this piece will be able to supply copies soon. If you want more details get in touch with: Bookshop Collective, c/o The Cowley Club, 12 London Road, Brighton BN1 4JA, UK.
Herbal Abortion: A Woman's Guide to DIY Abortion complied and edited by Anwen (Godhaven Ink, 2002). Costs £2.50 (including postage) from: Godhaven Ink, Rooted Media, The Cardigan Centre, 145-149 Cardigan Road, Leeds LS6 1LJ, UK.
Hotpantz: DIY Gynaecological Herbal Remedies. Costs around US$3.00 from: Hotpantz CP, 871, Succ. C Qc, H2L 4L6, Canada.
Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (The Feminist Press, 1973). ISBN 0 91 2670 134. Available for £1.50 from: re-pressed distribution, 145 Cardigan Road, Leeds, LS6 1LJ, UK.
Also worth looking at are these two incredible web sites:
Sister Zeus is essential if you are ever thinking of doing a herbal abortion, and it also has an email support group.
For speculums contact: Women's Health London, 12 Featherstone Street, London EC1Y 8RT, UK.
Telephone: 020 7251 6333.
HerbsUsing herbs is a very important way of regaining some control over our health. Picking is easy as the common wild herbs like nettle, mint, elderflower, hawthorn, fennel and marigold grow almost everywhere in the UK. Remember to never pick from a plant that has no neighbour, and always leave enough for the plant to provide for itself, as well as for others (not just humans) to use.
Possibly the most useful and easiest herb you can get your hands on. Pick in the spring before it flowers and gets too hardy. The top few leaves are the best. Hang to dry in a warm dark place, and once dried, store in an airtight jar. Nettle is one of the best tonics, rich in iron and vitamin C. Drink lots of this if you are generally feeling weary.
This is by far one of the best uterine tonics. It stimulates menstrual flow by toning the ovaries and uterus, as well as improving their functions. Can relieve cramps and regulate flow, and it's also good for diarrhoea, hormonal problems and pregnancy. You can pick the leaves through the growing season, and dry them for use for the rest of the year.
The Complete Illustrated Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies by David Hoffman (Parragon, 1999). ISBN 1 84164 167 7.
Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: The Definitive Guide to the Herbal Treatment of Diseases by Thomas Bartram (Robinson, 2001). ISBN 1 85487 586 8.