Young Feminist: Response to Women’s Health and Reproductive Justice for All Conference

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Women's Health Activist Newsletter
May/June 2010

By Gina Smith

As I took a seat in the front row for the Women’s Health and Reproductive Justice for All conference, I had the tingly feeling in my stomach that usually accompanies the entrance of a favorite rock band at a packed theater.  Having spent the past several months reading about the women’s health movement, Susan Wood and Laura Kaplan (to name just a few of the conference participants) have reached rock star status in my mind.  Actually, the term “rock star” does these women a disservice, since they have done more to fight for women’s health and reproductive justice than any singer I can think of.  The conference, held in Santa Cruz, California, on March 5th, was more inspiring than any concert I’ve seen. I am delighted to report that I was not the only young feminist who left feeling excited by the prospect of filling even one square inch of the speakers’ shoes.

In the recent wave of protests and activism surrounding education reform, it is easy for undergraduates like myself to forget about health care reform.  In fact, many of us see health care as a distant issue. We are, for the most part, still covered either by our parents’ or the university’s insurance.  On March 4th, the day before the women’s health conference, hundreds of University of California, Santa Cruz students, faculty, and staff rallied on campus, shutting down the entire university from 5:00 am to 6:30 pm. Sadly, students did not storm the Women’s Health and Justice for All conference the following day with equal fervor.  Right now, the consequences of cuts to education are visible to undergraduates in public universities at every turn, but the way the deficits in our health care system affect us is not always as clear.  It may be easy for us to push health care reform to the back of our minds for now but, as graduation approaches, many of us will find ourselves without insurance as our parental or university coverage ends and our entry-level jobs fail to pick up the slack.(1)  Finally, in the historic signing of the health care reform bill, students will have a little piece of mind when it comes to health coverage, since they will be able to stay on their parent’s plan until age 26. The March 5th conference was extremely successful in illustrating the pressing need for health care reform by showing how this issue impacts women of all ages, races, sexual orientations, and income levels.  For the students attending the conference, like myself, it is clear that health care reform can no longer take a backseat.

One of the conference’s most compelling moments was when Malika Redmond, an inspiring young activist and the founder of the Black Youth Summit, spoke about the marketing of Gardasil, the vaccine to prevent Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.  As she spoke, I could feel the young women in the audience leaning in.  We had all seen the “One Less” Gardasil ads and experienced aggressive marketing of the vaccine both in the media and in our doctor’s offices.  When the moderator’s timer beeped, indicating that Redmond’s presentation was over, the audience actually protested. That moment was just one of many in which the feeling of consciousnesses being raised was palpable in the air.  Redmond explained how the much-lauded vaccine was rushed through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and then marketed directly to young women (particularly young women of color) through commercials specifically targeting these groups.  In a country where a new and relatively experimental vaccine can be tested on the bodies of young women of color — much like the way birth control methods were historically tested on this same group — it is necessary to raise our voices and advocate for our bodies.

In the final session, Susan Wood addressed the way that abortion has been addressed in the health care reform process.  As a young feminist, this was another pivotal moment in the conference for me. Many young women who have grown up in a post-Roe v. Wade culture see legal abortion as a given. Wood showed us that the fight for abortion rights is not over, as first the Hyde Amendment prohibited Federal funding for most abortions, and now the Stupak and Nelson Amendments chip away at this essential reproductive right. While abortion may not be a controversial issue in the minds of most young people, Susan Wood cautioned, it is a different story entirely on Capital Hill.  When health care reform finally became a reality this week, women across the country celebrated a victory, but also had to face the sad reality Wood described, as the reform measure included new and onerous restrictions on abortion coverage. 

Despite the fact that some of the biggest hot-button issues in the health care debate surround reproductive justice, health care reform (and particularly women’s issues within health care reform), is not a cause around which college students typically rally. Health care is not seen as “our” issue, yet one-quarter (25.7%) of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 lack health insurance.(1) Young women are at particular risk because they are the least likely to be covered through their employers, even though lack of insurance can have dangerous consequences during a woman’s childbearing years.(1) While young people may not always be well-informed about health care reform, the excitement on the part of the young women involved in the conference, and the general buzz of the audience when each new issue was raised, show that we are members of a group that is ready and willing to get involved and take up the activism of the inspiring women who started this movement, beginning with efforts to repeal the expansion of the Hyde Amendment.

The conference not only offered new perspectives on health care reform and women’s health, but also seamlessly tied these issues to the history of the women’s health movement.  Health care reform is not something that has just sprung up; it is the result of a movement that has been building since before the Jane Collective was founded or women of color organized against sterilization abuses. The speakers connected health care reform to its roots and showed us its future, inspiring not only the older people who work in the field, but also the young college students in the audience.  Health care reform is as relevant to us as are cuts to education.  And, as I learned when I finally got up the courage to talk to some of my “rock stars” one-on-one, what may seem intimidating from the outside could be more approachable than we imagined.  I have a feeling that women’s health activists will welcome more of us, just as Susan Wood (the Susan Wood!) welcomed me, a stunned and humble undergrad, chatting amicably about the classes I was taking and the location of the best 24-hour diner in town.


1. Raising Women’s Voices for the Healthcare We Need, “What You Need to Know: Young People and Health Insurance.”  No date.  Retrieved Mar. 12 2010 from

Gina Smith just graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in American Studies.  After working on the Reproductive Health and Justice for All Conference she is thinking about graduate work in public health in the near future.