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How the Second Wave of Feminism Advanced Women’s Healthcare

Beginning with the Women’s Suffrage during the mid 19th-century and leading up to the 1960s, women across the globe have come together to fight for social and economic equality. This global act of unity sparked what is known as The Second Wave of Feminism, a movement which lasted throughout the early 1960s and into the 1970s inspired by a myriad of social and political factors. During this time, women began to advocate for increased autonomy over their bodies and more research toward women’s health issues. The resulting women’s health movement played an important role in improving women’s reproductive rights and represented a monumental step toward breaking down sexism in the healthcare sector.

Background Causes of the Second Wave of Feminism

In the years preceding the Second Wave of Feminism, women began to see a need for integration into the power structure, better employment rights and an increased focus on women’s health. A major contributing factor was that women took over the workforce during World War II while men joined the armed forces to fight overseas.  When men returned from the war and returned to their jobs — often with higher salaries than the women had been earning working the same jobs — women gained a desire to fight for their place in the workforce and for equal pay among genders.

Familial structure greatly impacted women’s political and economic autonomy, and the Second Wave was shaped by a shift away from the nuclear family structure. Nuclear families at the time consisted of two married heterosexual parents and their children, with the husband as the breadwinner. These became the norm from the 1920s onward as industrialization increased, a shift from the large extended family settings common from the 1700s to the early 1900s. However, the nuclear family did not provide women with the support of living with extended family and left them with the burden of completing housework and child-rearing duties, shunning women from the workforce and thus negatively impacting their mental health.

Nuclear families of the 1950s saw higher rates of domestic abuse and marital unhappiness than the more diverse familial styles of the 1990s. In fact, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, released in 1963, describes her research showing that many women in nuclear families were unhappy with their lives revolving around housework and bringing up children. This book eventually became an important catalyst for the Second Wave.How the Second Wave of Feminism Advanced Women's Healthcare

Feminist protest during the Second Wave of Feminism. (Image Source: The Atlantic)

Furthermore, during the Second Wave, women began to question existing legislation which seemed to sustain the inequality between men and women in the workplace. For example, in the 1950s, it was still legal for employers to discriminate based on sex when hiring. The topic of inequality was already being discussed on a broad level due to the Civil Rights Movement, which consisted of an effort to end discrimination against Black citizens. These factors thus all led to the intersectional feminist movement that followed, which included the women’s health movement.

The Road to Improving Women’s Healthcare

Issues regarding women’s health abound during the years preceding the women’s health movement. It is important to note that in 1950, only approximately 6 percent of American doctors were female. Medical organizations would blatantly refuse to admit women or used flimsy tactics to avoid hiring them — for example, the New York Obstetrical Society did not accept women on the grounds that their meetings were held in the men-only Yale Club. Therefore, an important underlying issue was that women were victims of healthcare and legal systems dominated by men and therefore, had a restricted ability to make decisions about their own bodies.

A major problem faced by women was the limited access to contraception, and the limited control over family planning. Prior to the introduction of contraceptives, women were forced to choose between work and motherhood. A law introduced in 1892 made it illegal to sell or advertise contraception in Canada under the Criminal Code, despite the fact that frequent unplanned pregnancies posed a serious risk to women’s health. Canada’s first birth control clinic was established in Hamilton in 1932, directed by Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw.

When the clinic ran into legal trouble in 1936 because it was distributing information on contraceptives, a judge ruled in favour of the clinic, believing that it benefited the public — many families couldn’t afford to have more children during the Great Depression. Diaphragms and condoms became available throughout the 1940s and 50s, though they were not financially accessible to all women and had still not been legalized. In 1961, a Toronto pharmacist named Harold Fine was convicted and fined for selling condoms in his store.

How the Second Wave of Feminism Advanced Women's Healthcare

Plaque in Hamilton, Ontario commemorating Canada’s first birth control clinic. (Image Source: Read The Plaque)

Another prime example of the command that male healthcare professionals held over women’s bodies is evident in breast cancer treatment. Until the mid-1970s in the United States, the first-line treatment for early-stage breast cancer was a mastectomy, the complete removal of the breast — causing physical disfigurement and intense psychological distress. Surgeons would perform a biopsy on a breast tumor and if it was found to be malignant, would remove the breast in the same operation — without first informing the woman of the malignancy and without giving her a choice in the matter.

Terese Lasser, a woman who underwent a mastectomy in 1952 due to the discovery of a malignant tumor, recounts that her emotional state was further damaged by her surgeon’s lack of concern for her mental well-being. He failed to answer her inquiries regarding what to tell her children, how to obtain a prosthesis and regarding how her sex life would be affected.

The attitudes displayed by male healthcare professionals such as these, and the male policymakers restricting women’s access to contraceptives, inspired women to take control of their bodies and fight for a healthcare system that paid them the respect they deserved.

Advances Made from the Women’s Health Movement

The fight for the legalization of contraception was at the forefront of the women’s health movement.  In addition to preventing the health risks and financial strain that came with having many children, women wanted to escape their role as child-bearing vessels. Young women advocated for “free love” — sex outside of marriage — allowing women to explore their sexuality outside of their reproductive roles for the first time. This strengthened the need for reliable access to contraceptives.

How the Second Wave of Feminism Advanced Women's Healthcare

Image Source: Free SVG 

The contraceptive pill was introduced in 1960, though officially it was only meant for therapeutic purposes, such as hormone regulation. However, many took it as a contraceptive, to the point that it was largely forgotten that contraception was still illegal. The pill was not financially accessible to lower-class families at this time. Yet, more birth control clinics appeared in Canada throughout the early 1960s, and an increased mention of contraception in the media helped to normalize it in the eyes of the public. Additionally, many were warming to the idea of contraception due to the post-war baby boom.

How the Second Wave of Feminism Advanced Women's Healthcare

Protest in favour of contraception. (Image Source: You’re On the Pill, Right?)

Contraception also gained support from accredited organizations. The Maternal Welfare Committee of the Canadian Medical Association recommended the decriminalization of contraception in 1962. In 1963, birth control societies were formed in Canada’s major cities and became members of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.  Finally, in 1969, contraception was officially legalized in Canada — with the exception of non-medically necessary abortions which were not legalized until 1988. Despite restricted access to abortions, the legalization of contraception marked an important milestone in women’s sexual autonomy.

The issue of breast cancer treatment was also tackled during the women’s health movement, as women began to voice criticism toward the treatment. The aforementioned Terese Lasser founded a program called Reach to Recovery in 1954 that provided breast cancer survivors with necessary information and emotional support. The organization grew so popular that in 1969, it was integrated into the American Cancer Society. Other American women who spoke out about their experiences with breast cancer treatment were Babette Rosmond, an editor of Seventeen magazine and Shirley Temple Black, the famous child actress. Both women shared their experiences with breast cancer treatment, encouraging other women across the nation to talk openly about their breast cancer and to seek alternative treatments to immediate mastectomy.

Dr. M. Vera Peters, a Canadian physician, published the first research demonstrating that early breast cancer could be equally or more effectively treated with less invasive procedures such as a lumpectomy — the removal of the cancerous tissue — or radiation therapy. She studied breast cancer patient records throughout the 1960s and 70s before publishing a study in 1975.

How the Second Wave of Feminism Advanced Women's Healthcare

Dr. M. Vera Peters. (Image Source: University of Toronto)

Despite the important implications of her research on women’s health, Peters was not taken seriously for a multitude of reasons. Peters’ soft-spoken nature allowed the male-dominated medical community to overlook her work. Her study on treatment methods was also criticized, as it analyzed patient records of previous breast cancer patients rather than using randomized trials, which is considered the gold standard. However, a study using randomized trials would involve dividing women into groups to undergo mastectomies and alternative therapies to compare the results, and Peters did not believe that any woman should undergo a mastectomy if there was evidence indicating that it wasn’t necessary to do so.  Peters’ research became more widely recognized toward the end of the 1970s and contributed to a shift toward less invasive breast cancer treatment.

Cases, such as the fight for contraception and Peters’ research on breast cancer, highlight the importance of the perspectives of female doctors and researchers. The male-dominated field of medicine did not consider the devastation of unnecessary mastectomies or seek alternatives until Peters chose to do so. Her refusal to use randomized trials shows a sensitivity to the well-being of women that seemed not to have been prioritized by her male colleagues who criticized her work. Similarly, the health risks imposed on women by frequent pregnancies were not addressed until women began to fight for contraceptives.

The women’s health movement marks an immensely important chapter in women’s health — when women began to take control of their bodies. It shows that different perspectives are key for recognizing issues that need to be addressed. This includes women, people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. Only when all groups are represented in healthcare will the system be fair for everyone.


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