Feministe Feedback: A Women’s Health Platform

A reader writes in:

I’m writing to ask a question about women’s health in general. My mum, who is not very political (politicised?) just got elected to her town board. I’m not sure what that means, politically (a small town in Australia, dominated by the defense industry). She said she might choose the women’s health platform.

Being the feminist that I am, I immediately shot back with ‘great idea! Here are some key areas:…’ and then kind of ran out of steam. I’m not a very good feminist. This is the list as I have it:

– reproductive health – access to contraception, abortion clinics, sex
education, ..
– maternity leave
– ..

Yeah. I can think of a bunch of other issues that are important, but I’m not sure how to summarise a few key areas in women’s health. I don’t know how my fairly conservative (on some issues, not on others) apolitical mum will take the list, but that’s cool. If you were offering advice to a woman in a similar position, what would you say? How would you frame women’s health issues on a general platform?

I don’t know what actual powers/responsibilities her position entails, I imagine fairly smallscale, but I guess this puts her in a position to at least publicly discuss these things. Any help would be appreciated :)

Leave your suggestions in the comments.

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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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20 Responses to Feministe Feedback: A Women’s Health Platform

  1. Meredith says:

    I would also say that prevention and diagnosis of women’s general health issues such as heart attacks which present differently in women is a key rallying point that almost everyone can agree on.

  2. AB says:

    Honestly, the major issues in women’s health that need the most attention are ones that aren’t linked to reproductive rights. (Not saying that reproductive rights aren’t important, just that they are important for reasons that have a lot more to do with women’s freedom/autonomy than health qua health.) I’d caution you against pushing your mom too far that direction, particularly if she’s not politically in agreement with those things anyway.

    If I had to rank the really important areas of women’s health to work on politically, here’s what I’d focus on:

    (1) Heart disease and stroke. This is the number one killer of middle-age and older women, but the vast majority of people don’t know it. Breast cancer gets far more press and educational dollars, and while that’s good in a way, it also means that women have a very skewed sense of what the actual risks to their health are. The result? Women are far less likely to recognize the signs of a heart attack or stroke in themselves, and when they finally get to the ER, are far less likely to be treated appropriately. There’s huge strides that need to be made in raising awareness about heart disease in women (on the local level, public education campaigns could make a real difference) and in understanding and ending disparities in treatment for women who present at an ER with the symptoms of an acute cardiovascular event.

    (2) Expanding community supports for the frail elderly. Not totally sure about Australia, but in the U.S. there has long been an institutionalization bias for elderly women–when they are no longer able to live independently, they are much more likely to end up in a nursing home, even when some social supports would probably allow them to continue living at home with a much better quality of life. On the other side, women are often the primary caregivers for older parents, and the lack of public programs (respite care, social and at-home medical services for older people) to support them in their caregiving role mean that the “second shift” is a lot rougher than it has to be.

    Anyway, those are the top two things that pop into my head, that would also be amenable to local-level political pressure or policy. In general, I think the whole issue of medical issues facing post-menopausal women is just woefully underrepresented everywhere, partially because of long-standing biases in the medical community, and partially because the women’s movement really has historically focused on issues that affect younger, childbearing women. Your mom, no matter what her political affiliation, could really do some good by focusing on areas that never get enough attention from the right or the left, but affect so many women in such a profound way.

  3. Jadelyn says:

    The two I can think of off the top of my head are the lack of research on how common conditions, such as heart disease and the like, affect women differently. Medications for conditions that affect both sexes are tested primarily, and sometimes only, on men. It’s assumed that women will react the same, when that has been shown to be untrue.

    The other thing would be the disparity in insurance rates between men and women – even discounting expenses for maternity and reproductive care insurance, women pay more on their insurance premiums than men for the exact same plans.

  4. Isabel says:

    I agree that it’s really important to raise awareness of things that manifest themselves differently in men and women, like heart attacks (which often don’t come with any sense of chest pressure in women).

    Also, the cancer that kills the most women, IIRC, is lung cancer (not, as a lot of women assume, breast cancer), which I feel like a lot of women don’t know, so that might be something else to raise awareness about.

    Health can also (and in my opinion should generally also) refer to mental health, so maybe eating disorders (which are not just a young women phenomenon though young women are more at risk)? or post-partum depression? & speaking of pregnancy – pregnancy?

    Or maybe she could set up some sort of support group(s?), for new mothers, or working mothers, or stay at home mothers, or all of them, since motherhood is stressful & stress is bad for your health & support systems are important in managing stress!

    speaking of working moms, how about things that might help them manage, most of which is probably not within the scope of her powers (though again, raising public desire for, say, flex time might be good) but maybe something like, making sure companies allow women to breastfeed on the job if necessary, or things like that?

  5. Aftercancer says:

    For women of all ages access to quality medical care is essential of course. She may want to look at testing and screening guidelines for all illness including Pap’s, mammograms, blood glucose, etc. I don’t know enough about how the system works in Australia but we all need more information on how the environment is effecting people’s health and being in a town “dominated by the defense industry” she may have the perfect place to encourage some research. Wishing her luck from the states!

  6. Trudi says:

    Access to childcare at doctor’s appointments (ever tried going for a pap when there’s no one to watch your 2 year old?) or when you take ill, or are on disability leave. Increased access to mental health services (again, try going to see a therapist with a 2 year old in tow).

  7. SoE says:

    I am not sure what small town means in this context but she’ll probably have only a small budget and unfortunately no major say when it comes to big decisions. (My mum is on a small town’s board in Germany. While she was primarily invested into schools and culture it’s fair to say nobody gave a shit until she became persistent.)

    So I’m guessing the best she can do is to listen to the concerns of clinic managers, nurses, other health workers first in order to know what they’re up to. Second she should figure out what really needs improvement (checking women for signs of strokes, having lactation specialists and midwifes at hand for pregant women, keeping doctors up-to-date on gender and race-specific medication differences… the list goes on, of course). Some might be easily implemented, other things will be a lot harder. Start with some small changes, from your agenda but also wishes from the workers involved, while following through something bigger and less “nice” at the same time. She will have to nag quite a few people and might get fierce resistance but in the end it’ll be worth it.

    My mum had this idea for an unused building to be turned into an exhibition for kids since even the history of toys exhibition was particularly unappealing to kids. Oh my gosh, the fights… Now they feature teddy bears, teach kids a lot about real bears at the same time and even created new job opportunities because it turned out to be a huge hit.

  8. Nancy Green says:

    in line with reproductive health, maternal and infant health services are very important.
    also, access to health care, screening for treatable diseases and promoting wellness.
    if there are elderly who are likely to become isolated and lacking care there’s transportation, home health care, visiting nurses and practitioners.

  9. Caroline says:

    What about mental health? I think that’s a key area.

  10. leah says:

    A lot of great ideas have been covered above, especially concerning bringing attention to heart disease, stroke, access to clinics for women and girls of all ages. I’d add maternity care in there, to help ensure women who are carrying to term have access to prenatal care and nutrition, as well as helping ensure that pregnant women have access to information about their birthing options, rights, and risks/benefits of medical procedures.

  11. Amanda says:

    I would imagine that the Aboriginal women in Australia suffer from some of the worst neglect. I found this website http://www.ranzcog.edu.au/indigenous-health/index.shtml that deals with Indigenous Women’s Health; it may be a good place to start doing some reading.

  12. annaham says:

    Long-term/chronic illness and/or disability?

  13. whatsername says:

    The only thing I haven’t seen covered yet is the issue of homebirth and midwifery which is an incredibly important topic in women’s health.

  14. Alba says:

    I lived in a small Australian town for a time (dominated by industry) and there were huge teen pregnancy numbers and a lot of statutory rape and teens with abusive boyfriends… all are related to one another. A lot of the teenage girls who gave birth, from what I heard, were pretty much told by their boyfriends or parents that they weren’t allowed to have an abortion. I think a lot of those macho-dominated towns need workshops or education for young girls on responsible sex practices, autonomy and empowerment and knowledge of where they can go for help if they find themselves in an abusive relationship (the police is the wrong answer – they won’t do anything about oftentimes) – and support services for if they decide to go through with a pregnancy.

  15. La Lubu says:

    All of the above are good ideas. I’d add an emphasis on the importance of healthcare professionals listening to women and taking our concerns and descriptions of our symptoms seriously rather than writing us off or assuming our illnesses or syndromes are “all in our heads”.

  16. UnFit says:

    @Caroline: yea, and depression, eating disorders and many more hit woemn in quite different ways from men.

  17. Rayna says:

    Thanks to all of you!! Thanks Alba – good point.

    She is a working woman who has struggled a great deal in the past with being able to afford to work, due to childcare and transport costs plus loss of certain welfare benefits – all cancelling out her income. But not being able to afford to not work. Hence, I was going to include things like childcare access/COSTS/parental leave etc in the list, even if they are obliquely health-related, plus maternal and infant-related services.

    I agree that general health issues are paramount, rather than those specifically feminist-leaning. I think I immediately went in that direction partly because of the things Alba wrote about. On the other hand – this is a very rural town. There aren’t permanent medical services (possibly there are temporary services, I don’t know exactly what they have). I believe you have to drive over an hour to get to permanent medical services. That is her primary concern right now, for the sake of the whole community. Distance is a huge logistical/financial barrier for the elderly, teenagers, and working mums especially, as well as non-working ones, and everybody else(!) so right now it’s pretty central to the issues cited above.

    Thanks so much for the tips and advice!

  18. Megan says:

    I would add violence against women (rape, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, etc.). I think every community no matter how small needs to address this, and this problem has huge ramifications for women’s mental and physical health over their lifetime.

    Also, access to affordable (physical and mental) health care (whether through insurance or a community clinic). And finally, poverty- I know it is a big one, but it has a lot of implications for women’s health.

  19. Angela says:

    Not sure if this would be a side issue, but in my rural area (in North America), the care of elderly or sick family members often falls to women, and there is not alot of support such as home care or private nursing available outside the city. Perhaps supporting the women as caregivers, who are not sick themselves but are often put in stressfull and demanding situations because they have to care for others could be an issue for her to address.

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