Politics and Issues in Women's Health: A Women's Studies Course

Article excerpt

We all know that good health is important; that it is important for women (and men) to stay fit, to exercise, to eat the right foods, to have coping mechanisms for stress, and to see a doctor for regular checkups. We may also know that women have "special health needs" because of pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause. But how do we know? What counts as good health? How is it decided? Who makes the decisions? What passes as health information, and who has access to it? When we say "women's health," which women do we mean? What notion of health "counts"? How do we recognize ill health? How do we adopt practices of wellness? Are women's health needs "special?" If so, why and how are they special; if not, why not and how do we know they are not? Who benefits from these various decisions, who does not, and why? These are political questions about knowledge, power, and control; and the ways in which they are answered can have important political and health consequences.

Recently, the Department of Women's Studies at the University of South Florida changed the title of the upper-division undergraduate course that addresses these issues, Woman's Body/Woman's Mind, to Politics and Issues in Women's Health, a feminist course about women and health-mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, social, economic, and political. Of course, feminism does not mean only one thing; however, it does mean, in part, a perspective that values women's experience as a featured consideration. Given this, the course structure and material contain elements that address the multiple concerns of class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, physical ability and sexual preferences as vital points for discussion.

Course Description

In an exploration of current issues and concerns in the conceptualization and delivery of health information and health care for women from a feminist perspective, with a special emphasis on ways in which we can inform and help ourselves, the materials and discussions in this course pose questions about what has and has not been asked in the past; what has counted as fact and fiction; and who and what has been accepted as natural, normal, and abnormal, and why. In short, the course provides information about women's health issues and examines how our own health knowledge is shaped.

Overview of Course Content and Requirements

Topics about the politics and issues of women's health cover a large terrain and change over time; therefore, the structure of each class results from my past experience and student response in previous courses as well as an assessment of the current resources available. Generally, however, specific course content in any given semester is fashioned through attention to a mix of six flexible and interrelated domains.

1. Discussing the history of, and need for, the women's health movement; some of the ways in which health care is defined as a system; a few of the issues that the health care system addresses; and some of the images it uses and promotes

2. Addressing a variety of topics, including self-help, mental health, disability, contraception, childbirth, violence against women, aging, caregiving, nutrition, AIDS, and body images

3. Emphasizing the politics of health care, including the medicalization of women's bodies, cultural stereotypes, women's access to health care, women as providers and consumers of health care, and alternatives to standard health care

4. Challenging purely biomedical definitions of women's health and drawing attention to social, cultural, and behavioral elements that are crucial to a broader understanding of issues

5. Focusing particularly on how race, class, gender, ability, and culture shape and in turn are shaped by treatment options and health care

6. Considering women's health not only in terms of women's bodies but in terms of the public health of entire communities and, therefore, reaching out to individuals and to the community for examples of healthy practices

The flow of the course extends from the introduction of basic notions of feminism and health care and a history of women and the health care system, to a series of more specific women's health care topics and, eventually, to individual student presentations. …