Can We See Land Yet?

Taken from the November/December 2012 issue of The Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

Erdele was a skilled swimmer who won medals in the 100- and 400-meter events at the 1924 Olympics. She knew she was strong and could see a race through to the end – when the race was in an indoor pool and was over in a few minutes.  How did she know she could complete a swimming challenge that was over 20 miles long… when she couldn’t see the finish line (land) for most of the way?

We can’t ask Erdele herself (she passed away in 2003 at age 98) but I can imagine her answer: she was willing to do something no woman had done before because she: made her attempt when conditions were favorable; was well-trained; had a team supporting her; and, maybe most important of all, was willing to persevere even when conditions turned against her.

Trudy Erdele’s English Channel swim is a wonderful metaphor for women’s struggle for health reform. We threw ourselves into the water when the conditions seemed favorable. (Remember when we talked about the “window of opportunity” back in 2007? That was our version of a day with calm water and clear skies.) We knew we would be in the water for a long time. (Remember how frustrated we were that Congress didn’t really start to work on health care reform until 2009?) We knew we might be driven off course by high winds and choppy water. (Remember the raucous 2009 Town Hall meetings? The Stupak Amendment? The Tea Party?)  And, we knew we wouldn’t be able to see land most of the way. (Remember how intolerably long the implementation timeline seemed?) Through it all, we’ve persevered, knowing we were accomplishing something important that hadn’t been done before.

Unlike Trudy Erdele, who had to make her entire swim without ever grabbing hold of anything solid, we health reformers have had a few touchpoints along the way: the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Supreme Court decision upholding the law. Those victories weren’t the end of our journey, but they let us know we were making progress towards our real goal: universal health care that meets the needs of diverse women. Full implementation of the ACA in all 50 states won’t get us all the way to our goal either, but it will be dry land at last, with millions more women covered through private insurance and Medicaid.

As we near the end of this journey, we’re facing tough conditions again. The attacks on the health care law are escalating, and some candidates are promising to repeal it if elected. Television ads mislead viewers about changes to health care and Medicare. Governors threaten to block Medicaid expansion. The waves are definitely choppy. Trudy faced unfavorable winds in the last two hours of her swim as well. Her trainer tried to pull her out, but she refused. And she was right – she persevered and saw her swim through to the minute she stepped out of the water onto dry land.  As this issue goes to print, I don’t know whether the high winds and choppy water will last for another two weeks or the next two years.  I do know we’ll keep going; with a team of supporters like our members, how can we do anything else?

To read more about our journey to universal health care, visit our “Raising Women’s Voices for the Health Care We Need” project’s website:

Cindy Pearson was the NWHN’s Executive Director from 1996 to 2021. One of the nation's leading advocates for women's health, Cindy often testified before Congress,  NIH and the FDA and was frequently featured in the news as a consumer expert on women’s health issues. When she retired, Cindy received a Congressional Resolution in honor of her outstanding contributions to the health of women and girls.

Read more from Cindy Pearson.