A Brief History of the NWHN
The Network was initially conceived in the fall of 1974 by two feminists, Barbara Seaman and Belita Cowan, who envisioned the day when the women's health movement would have a full-fledged lobby in Washington , D.C. They agreed to work toward making this a reality. In October 1974, Barbara shared their idea with Alice Wolfson, a long-time friend and health activist living in D.C. Alice's idea, on the other hand, was much "smaller" in scope. She envisioned a clearinghouse-type organization with a national registry of women's health groups. She felt that when things came up on Capitol Hill, groups around the country could be notified and then come to D.C. to take action. Alice remembers that in 1974 she was somewhat apprehensive about a large lobbying effort, being the only one of the founders living in D.C., and having to assume the burden of the work.
Barbara felt that a long-standing lobby effort was needed for the movement to successfully influence federal health policy. Belita wanted to see the women's health movement become a powerful counter force to organized medicine and the drug industry. Extensive discussions ensued, and Phyllis Chesler was invited to join in the debate and the founding of the Network.
The Washington and Boston Meetings
In February, 1975, Belita came to Washington , D.C. to testify at Senator Kennedy's DES hearings. She finally had the chance to meet Alice Wolfson. They continued to discuss the lobby and realized that the two ideas (a lobby and a clearinghouse) could be merged.
By March of 1975, the Women's Health Lobby had a name. In April of that same year, Belita met Mary Howell at Harvard Medical School during the Women and Health Conference sponsored by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective and other Boston women's groups. At the time, Mary was Dean of Students there. Mary recalls the lobby was not seen as a large membership organization, but rather as a small, strong lobby with a core staff and a published newsletter. Belita asked Mary to suggest individuals who might want to become sponsors of the lobby. Belita also spoke to members of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective about the lobby.
Later that spring, Mary moved to Maine to work at the Child Health Station. Discussion continued and gradually Belita and Alice began to promote the vision of a lobby with grassroots participation at the local level as well as a concerted effort in Washington , D.C.
The Five Founders
Barbara saw them as a good complement - an author/crusader, feminist pediatrician, a political activist, a community organizer, and a Ph.D. therapist. In 1975, Belita sent a letter on behalf of the five founders to over 40 women's newspapers and newsletters throughout the country. She asked women to join in the building of a National Women's Health Lobby effort with an emphasis on local activism.
The First Donation
In Spring, 1975, Belita received a request for Dalkon Shield information from a women's law firm in Pittsburgh, whose client had been injured by the device. Barbara suggested that all of the founders begin asking those who requested information to make a donation to the lobby. Sure enough, the lawyers sent a check made out to the National Women's Health Lobby in the amount of $15, enabling Belita to purchase over 100 postage stamps to divide among themselves to help facilitate communication.
Responses to the Letter
By fall, 1975, the newspaper letter had elicited a considerable response. Most women wrote directly to Barbara, though each founder received some correspondence. These responses were forwarded to Belita in Michigan. Because Barbara was well known from her prior books, The Doctor's Case Against the Pill and Free and Female, she had the opportunity to inform the hundreds of readers who wrote to her each year about the lobby.
The First Official Demonstration
In November of 1975, Barbara called Belita and Alice to say she had heard that the New England Journal of Medicine would be publishing several articles linking estrogen replacement therapy to endometrial cancer in postmenopausal women, and that the FDA was to hold a public hearing on the subject. She suggested that the lobby hold a demonstration at the FDA to protest the hazards of all estrogen drugs. Barbara spoke of Jim Luggen who had written to Barbara concerning the recent death of his wife, Donna Jean Walter. Belita suggested a memorial funeral service on the front steps of the FDA to coincide with the hearing. All was to happen in less than a month's time, and everyone had to move quickly to organize it.
The burden of local organizing fell to Alice, who contacted local D.C. women's groups, arranged housing for out-of-town women, and coordinated the media efforts and press releases, including contacting Off Our Backs. Barbara sent Belita a list of individuals and women's groups to notify. In addition, each person who had responded to the newspaper letter was informed of the demonstration. Barbara asked Reverend Betty Rosenburg, one of eleven newly-ordained women priests, and Mary Daly to officiate at the service. Barbara's daughters, as well as Alice 's young son (who wore a poster on his back) participated in the demonstration.
The demonstration served as a public "kick-off" for the lobby, and was held December 15, 1975. The event opened with music by Terry Clark, followed by speakers Reverend Betty Rosenberg, Mary Daly, Barbara Seaman, Judi Stein (Community Women's Health Center ), Sherry Leibowitz (DES Action Project), Doris Haire (ICEA), Belita Cowan (HerSelf Newspaper), and Jim Luggen, whose elegy for Donna Jean brought the crowd to tears.
Marlene Sanders of ABC Television was on hand to cover the event, and therefore the lobby's first public effort appeared on ABC Close-Up.
Congressional DES Hearings
By coincidence, the U.S. House of Representatives Sub-committee on Health and the Environment (Interstate and Foreign Commerce) was holding hearings on DES the next day following the FDA demonstration. Nancy Belden (from the Coalition for Medical Rights of Women) was already scheduled to speak at the hearings. Belita called the committee staff and arranged for Doris Haire and Sherry Leibowitz, to testify with her on DES as part of the consumer witness panel. Jim Luggen, Catherine and David Neill, Judy Norsigian, and others attended the hearings. The lobby distributed press releases to the media concerning the testimony. Throughout the days of the lobby's activities, the organizers were "loaned" the offices and typewriters of Jessie Halpern and Romaine Rose, two FDA employees who were directly responsible for the success of the demonstartion at the FDA.
The National Women's Health Lobby Network Meets in Washington, D.C.
The demonstration participants and others interested in women's health, including Mary King, Judy Lipshutz, Catherine and David Neill, JoAnne Fischer, Marion Banzhaf, and Ann Sablosky, met in Alice's basement to discuss the lobby and its future plans. Ellen Hill represented Mary Howell who was not able to attend this historic meeting. The lobby changed its name to National Women's Health Lobby Network, and at the advice of attorneys, the groups reevaluated its status through the avenue of becoming a tax exemption organization. It was agreed that a nonprofit educational organization could best accomplish the group's goals. Plans were made to call a general meeting for May 1976.
The May Meeting
On the Friday night prior to the weekend meeting, a small group met once again at Alice's house to help develop a structure for the next day's meeting. Many more women from D.C. became involved with the Network, including Marian Sandmaier, Anne Kasper, Anita Johnson, Sue Tennenbaum, and Vickie Leonard. The group opted to drop the word "lobby" from the organizational title, but continued to support the concept of representing the women's health movement at Congressional hearings. The group discussed a possible 12-member Board of Directors to run the organization, with the five founders as ex-officio members. Each person attending the meeting at Alice's house was asked to contribute $25.00 to help get the Network some operating funds. Further income was generated the next day when participants at the meeting were asked to pay a registration fee.
The May general membership meeting was held at George Washington University. Over 150 women (representing about 30 groups) attended. The all-day meetings on Saturday and Sunday focused on 10 issue areas, and most of Saturday was spent in small discussion groups. Each group came up with recommendations on how the Network could address the particular health issues discussed. The Network's first Board of Directors was elected (anyone attending the meeting could vote). They were: JoAnne Fischer, Judy Norsigian, Linda Teizeira, Anne Seiden, Anne Kasper, Marian Sandmaier, Doris Haire, Marion Barzhaf, Nancy Belden, Ann Sablosky, Cathie McClary, and Belita Cowan. Anne Kasper and Ann Sablosky were chosen co-chairs. A steering committee was organized including the two co-chairs of the Board and Network members at-large, including Vickie Leonard and Marcia Boyles.
By August, 1976, the Board met in Washington to draw up by-laws and to begin the long struggle to build a strong women's health advocacy presence in the nation's capital.
And the rest is herstory!