I walked past the nondescript storefront in my neighborhood for two months before I opened the door one Monday night and went in. I’d been to my first celebration of International Women’s Day and seen a demonstration of what the class I’d be attending would be about, knowing it would be scary and possibly life-changing. I walked in, and didn’t leave until six years later. I had found a home, a community, a way to look at myself, other women, and the world; this led directly to the career I would later pursue as a psychotherapist.
At the San Francisco Women’s Health Center, we taught self-health. We began with the introductory class on cervical self-exam, using plastic specula, flashlights and mirrors to see the most private parts of our bodies. We did this in groups to break down the isolation and self-criticism that plagued many of us. After each woman put in her speculum and looked at herself—a surprisingly thrilling experience—others looked too.
We taught class series which included breast self-exam, and we did bi-manual exams on each other to feel the uterus and ovaries. We talked about the social context of medical care, inspiring women to enter medical school at a time when it was mostly men; looked at the role of pharmaceutical companies before the term Big Pharma; and pressed for patients’ rights to information, support, and options. We had a menopause program at a time when talking about it was taboo, and had a program for pregnant women too.
Most of our work was volunteer. I learned bookkeeping, taught classes, wrote and produced pamphlets, spoke at medical conferences, and participated (silently for the first two years!) in our weekly meetings in which we collectively ran the center. I brought the excitement for personal growth to my new career as a therapist, and have used many of those skills in my private practice and in co-founding and helping organize Dharma Zephyr Insight Meditation Community.
PS As I was already mentally writing this post, I learned that this is National Women’s Health Week—so I’m happy to celebrate it by invoking this very moving and significant part of our history.