Chapter 1: Women’s Health Movement in Canada
WHM = Women health movement; WM=women’s movement
• WHM is not vitally covered in the general women’s movement.
• The key feature of the WHM (i.e. to expand on the definition if health) overlaps with
the key events and issues of the larger women’s movement.
• The women’s health movement is distinct body of theorizing and activism.
• WHM and the larger women’s movement both challenge dominant paradigms and
build theories and practice to influence policy towards women’s concerns.
• Prior to women’s movement in Canada, women’s health issues were ignored or
defined as being related to reproductive health concerns.
• This was a result of the dominance of male researchers and practitioners in the
medical and health sciences.
• The rise of biomedicine in the 19th century contributed to the occlusion by placing
greater focus on the needs and concerns of men and by neglecting to consider social
determinants of health and its affect on health.
• The way women’s bodies have been understood in the western history.
• The reasons for the rise of women’s health movement in Canada.
• The political and activist strategies used to educate health professional about
women’s bodies; to challenge androcentric; ethnocentric and racist research
paradigms; to develop women-centered care models; and to enhance women’s
reproductive rights and access to specialized care.
• The tensions that arise from women’s differing experiences in the health care
system (focus given to disabled, immigrant, aboriginal and colored women)
• Current challenges to Canadian health policy arising from national and
international trends such as globalization.
• The strengths that transnational feminist activism is bringing to women’s health
Women and the Body
• The fundamental differences between women’s and men’s bodies have influenced the
development of contemporary western science and medical practice.
• The western traditions saw the body to be the site of unruly passions that lead to
disrupt the pursuit of truth and knowledge and THUS ignored the body overall.
• The transcendence of the body over mind was a valued goal in western tradition.
• Women were associated with the body and men with mind and thus lead to a
transcendence of the body. Therefore, women are less capable than men.
• “Somatophobia: fear of the body” was related to women’s bodies as they are seen as
being out of control and in need of regulation.
• Association of hysteria with the womb is a historical example of the feminine body
being marked with irrationality.
• Women’s bodies have been associated with feminine but have been racialized and
classed; as irrational physicality has extended to working class people and to people
• Bodies of people of color and poor people were seen as embodying suspect and thus
the ability of transcendence (mind over body) was gendered marked as an attribute of
white, heterosexual, healthy men.
• Schiebinger (1999) states that scientific racism depended on the ‘chain of being
thesis’ >> that a hierarchy of species was natural and absolute. Whereas scientific
sexism depended on radical biological divergence. Therefore, men and women were
opposites and thus are relegated to different social spheres.
• Body is defined differently based on the different historical time periods.
• However somatophobia in association with feminine is a recurring phenomenon but it
varied in paradigms based on the time.
• The platonic thought was focused on the concern about the state of the
• The medieval times, there was a concentration on the physical aspects of
the body such as pain, death and decay.
• The enlightenment, focused on the transcendence of the mind over body.
• The present day, focused on the biological body, the genetic makeup of
the body and with prolonging life.
• The rise of medical science in the 19th century contributed to the medicalization of
• The key assumption of early medical science was that men’s and women’s bodies
differed biologically and that men’s bodies were standard by which women’s bodies
should be compared.
• Another assumption of medicalization is biological determinism which is people’s
abilities and roles in society are linked to be attributable to their biology.
• Freud’s dictum “anatomy is destiny” as been used to relegate women to gendered
specific roles like mothers, wives etc.
• This lead to women’s health focused narrowly on obvious physiological differences
from men like menstruation, the ability to give birth, lactation and menopause.
• Prior to medicalization, women were the primarily responsible for the health of
themselves and their families BUT medicalization overlooked women’s knowledge.
• Feminism has moved from the transcendence of the body, issues related to sexuality
and reproduction to the affirmation of the body and recognition of body politics.
• The influence of feminism has lead to focus on the relationship between embodiment,
power and knowledge.
Women’s health movement in Canada
• Women’s health movement was parallel and part of the women’s movement as a
• The driving force for the health movement was the way women’s bodies have been
understood historically in western intellectual tradition and the identification of
women’s subordinate social status.
• The key defining feature of women’s health movement is the recognition of women’s
health being more than reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics BUT
being defined by the social, psychological and economic environments and
• Therefore, health is a social issue and a social construct rather than a medical and
technical problem to be addressed by experts.
• The themes that are consistent throughout women’s health movement are:
• Women’s health issues
• Women’s roles as caregivers
• Women’s labor issues in the health professions
• Thus, the movement has been focused on grassroots community based organizations,
universities, hospitals, labor unions and government institutions.
• WHM occurred in waves of activity that happened in different historical times.
The first wave happened from late 1800’s to 1940’s
• Feminists focused on gaining access to formal political systems vis-à-vis the
campaign for franchise.
• The political power from this time period was given to white middle and upper
class women due to their involvement in the moral reform movement.
• The moral reform movement focused on social issues of housing, public health,
child welfare, temperance and religious instruction.
• The focus of women reformers was to their own race and class interest, which
meant that the working class women, immigrants and people of colour were
• The women had a two fold argument at this time:
(1) That their bodies should not prevent them from being able to participate in
political decision making.
(2) The idea that woman’s roles as mothers and wives placed them in a special
category via social norma and women should be able to bring this
knowledge/experience to political decision making.
• Poverty was considered in respect to single mothers and the health issues
pertaining to maternal and infant mortality
• The increased professionalization of medicine in this time pushed women out of
their caregiver roles and increased medicalization of the body.
• Women issues like childbirth, menopause and sexuality were medicalized and
their tradition knowledge was undermined.
• Women who did not follow the norms of femininity and traditional gender roles
were used to pathologized using medical science discourses in the form of
• First wave of feminist activism focused on the emerging analysis of male
dominance that looked at women’s right to bodily integrity and the right to say no
to sexual advances.
Example: The protest in Britain against government regulation of prostitution and
condemning the random medical examinations of women in the sex trade.
The birth control advocate Margaret Sanger in US.