Feminism | Posted by Fiona L on 03/9/2012

How Far We Haven’t Come: Remembering the Nelson Pill Hearings

Barbara Seaman

After attending a recent event commemorating past voices of the women’s health movement, I turned on the news to watch the recent contraceptive hearings, and realized just how far we haven’t come.

As has been pointed out by many over the course of the past few days, there were no women on the first panel of witnesses at the contraceptive hearing on February 16. “What I want to know is, where are the women?” asked Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney at the hearing on Thursday. “When I look at this panel, I don’t see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive healthcare services, including family planning. Where are the women?”

Where were the women? Congresswoman Maloney was one of several representatives who advocated for the placement of Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke on the panel to testify, but were denied. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa argued that the contraceptive hearings are a matter of religious freedom, rather than a women’s health issue, and that therefore there is no need for a woman on the panel.

In my opinion, it matters not whether this is an issue of religious freedom or women’s health (although I believe it is probably a little of both)—neither is an excuse for an all-male panel. In fact, I find it ridiculous that in 2012, a serious issue such as this (which obviously effects women) would be considered without any female witnesses. It seems completely archaic.

As I mentioned earlier, I recently attended a talk and book signing for an anthology, Voices of the Women’s Health Movement compiled by Laura Eldridge and the late Barbara Seaman. Barbara, who passed away in 2008 was a women’s health advocate as well as a close family friend and mentor to me, and it was wonderful to get to hear women speak about topics she was so passionate about. Unfortunately, the stories of Barbara’s early struggles that were discussed seemed all too familiar.

Barbara Seaman led the fight to warn women about the dangers of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, a campaign that led to the Nelson Pill Hearings in 1970 and a patient package insert. Upon first entering the Nelson Pill Hearings, Barbara and her female compatriots were shocked to find that the only witnesses on the panel were men—who, of course, had never taken the pill. Barbara, Alice Wolfson and her colleagues jumped up, asking why there were no women testifying (sound familiar?).

At one point, Alice Wolfson is said to have stood up and yelled, “Why [did] you [assure] the drug companies that they could testify? Why have you told them that they could get top priority? They’re not taking the pills, we are!” Senator Nelson replied, “We are not going to permit the, uh, proceedings to be interrupted in this way… If you ladies would, ah…sit down…” to which Alice said, “I don’t think the hearings are any more important than our lives.” For the rest of the Nelson pill hearings, Barbara and Alice protested outside of Congress and from the audience. It is due to their activism that the dangers of the pill were ultimately taken seriously.

I have grown up hearing this archaic story of sexism my entire life—and although I realized the heroism and activism on the part of Barbara, Alice, and their colleagues, I never felt that the story was all that relatable.

The idea that our government would consider discussing contraceptive drugs for women without consulting women always seemed insane and outdated to me. Now, I am watching it happen once again, and all I can think is how far we haven’t come.

In 1970 it took the strong words of women such as Barbara and Alice to ensure that the tens of millions of women across America were heard. In the past few days criticism from women like Congresswoman Maloney has led to several women witnesses being placed on the next panels. This is good news, but what will it take for this mistake to never be made again? What will it take for our government to recognize the importance of women’s voices, and never forget them again? When will girls my age be able to look back, sigh and say, “How far we’ve come.”

Originally posted on Rachel Simmon’s blog. Fiona also writes for her own blog, Barbara’s Angels.

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