Milestones in Women’s Health

40 years of our bodies ourselves      11.2.11

In 1940, Paul Popenoe, a eugenicist and marriage counselor wrote,  “…feminists may be described as women who have inferiority complexes based on the fact of their sex.” (Modern Marriage: A Handbook for Men, The Macmillan Company)

Thirty-one years later, a group of feminists managed to overcome their inferiority complexes and penned the first issue of Our Bodies, Ourselves. The booklet provided information about women’s health and sexuality and challenged the medical establishment to improve healthcare for women. Forty years and nine editions later, Our Bodies Ourselves (the organization) continues to promote women’s health and rights in the U.S. and beyond. The book has been adapted and translated in more than 25 languages by women around the globe and thousands people read Our Bodies Our Blog.

Women’s health has enjoyed plenty of medical and political breakthroughs, but the path has been far from straightforward. Read on for some of the key milestones in women’s health of the past 40 years.

The Seventies

The FDA issues a warning against DES, a synthetic form of estrogen widely prescribed to pregnant women to prevent miscarriage.

Title IX requires schools and colleges that receive federal assistance to provide the same athletic opportunities to girls as they do to boys.

In Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court determines a woman’s access to legal abortion is a basic privacy right and not to be determined by state law.

The Hyde Amendment passes, barring the use of federal Medicaid funds to pay for abortion. This legislation continues to restrict poor women’s access to abortions to this day.

The Nurses Health Study begins. With 238,000 nurse subjects, it is the largest and longest running study of women’s health.

Home Pregnancy Test The FDA approves e.p.t., the first over-the-counter pregnancy test kit.

Six years after the passage of Title IX, the percent of girls participating in sports increases from 4% to 25%.

National Cancer Institute declares that Halsted radical mastectomy is no longer the preferred treatment for most cases of breast cancer.

The Eighties

FDA requires all tampon packages to include inserts explaining the risk of toxic shock syndrome and how to prevent it. 

Calvin Klein publishes ad featuring 15-year-old Brooke Shields, “You wanna know comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”

Congress funds “chastity education programs” through the passage of the Adolescent Family Life Act.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence establishes day of unity in October to mourn battered women who have died, celebrate survivors, and honor all who are working to defeat domestic violence.

The CDC reports that women who use the Dalkon Sheild have a 5-fold increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease compared to women who use other IUDs.

The Reagan administration introduces the Global Gag Rule, disqualifying any overseas organizations from receiving U.S. Family Planning Funds if they provide legal abortion services.

Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, convenes a “Surgeon General’s Workshop on Violence and Public Health” to examine the epidemic of violence against women, children, and the elderly.

Photo by Tristan Savatier

More than 200,000 gay men and lesbians march in Washington DC to demand equality.

The Nineties

The NIH establishes the Office of Research on Women’s Health to address the inequities in women’s health.

Teen pregnancy in the U.S. peaks at 117 per 1,000 teens.

Anita Hill
testifies at Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and brings the problem of sexual harassment out into the open.

The NIH establishes the Women’s Health Study to examine the most common causes of death, illness, and quality of life after menopause.

Congress passes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” banning openly gay men and women from serving in the U.S. military.

President Bill Clinton repeals the Global Gag Rule.

Marital rape becomes a crime in all 50 states.

1993 – 1998
Wave of violence targets abortion providers:

Violence Against Women Act establishes federal penalties for spouse abusers and provides federal money for rape crisis centers and women’s shelters.

FDA approves “the morning-after pill”. It can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.

Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act requires group health plans that cover mastectomies to also cover certain reconstructive surgery.

A New Millenium

The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, 68,000 women die from unsafe abortions each year.

Photo by NARAL Pro-Choice America

President George W. Bush reinstates the Global Gag Rule.

The U.S. Institute of Medicine determines that gender should be an important consideration in medical research.

Women’s Health Initiative clinical trial of estrogen-progestin hormone treatment ends early because the risks outweigh the benefits.

Teen girls spend over $8 billion a year on beauty products alone.

Teen pregnancy rates hit historic low, due in part to more teens using birth control effectively.

FDA approves HPV vaccine for girls and women to prevent cervical cancer. It later extends approval of the vaccine to prevent some vulvar and vaginal cancers.

Federal funding for abstinence-only and abstinence-only-until marriage sex education reaches $176 million per year.

Photo by Julie Kertesz

Life expectancy increases for white women from 75.6 to 80.8 years.
Black women’s life expectancy goes from 68.3 to 76.8 years during the same period.

The American Psychological Association links sexualization of girls in the media to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.

Abortion rates in the U.S. decline — except among poor women, for whom the rate increases 18%.

President Barak Obama reverses the Global Gag Rule

Anti-abortion extremist murders Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of his church in Wichita, Kansas.

Congress passes the Affordable Care Act.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports nearly 219,000 cosmetic surgeries on people between the ages of 13 and 19. Common procedures include nose reshaping, breast reduction, and acne and acne scar treatment.

Photo by James Davison

Title IX linked to a 40% rise in employment for women between the ages 25 and 34. About 50% of high school girls participate in sports, however, daughters of poor or uneducated parents are less likely to play sports and reap the benefits of Title IX.

Major strides in gay and lesbian rights:

Time Magazine names Our Bodies Ourselves one of the most influential non-fiction books published since 1923.

40 years after the first edition, the ninth edition of Our Bodies Ourselves is published.


Deepest gratitude to the board and staff or Our Bodies Ourselves, as well as to Betsy Friauf, whose post on Women’s Health Milestones provided endless inspiration and insight.

About Joanne Barker

Joanne Barker is a healthcare writer and editor who lives in Somerville, MA.
This entry was posted in barker health blog and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Milestones in Women’s Health

  1. Ayesha says:

    Joanne — thanks for this incredibly informative timeline!

  2. This is exactly the information I needed about how far women have come so I can remind the need for pay equality during Women’s History month 2012. Thanks you.

    • Joanne says:

      It’s amazing, isn’t it? Researching this also reminded me how we can’t take anything for granted. Thanks for your comment, Brenda.

  3. AR says:

    Nice job, difficult to choose among so many things what should be included as a highlight. Btw, Title IX was and is Not only about athletics — its to make equal ALL educational opportunities, including athletics.

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