The Healthsharing Connection

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By Anne Rochon Ford

The Healthsharing Collective and Healthsharing magazine form a critical chapter, not just in the history of the CWHN, but also in the women’s health movement in Canada.

Rewind to 1979. A small group of women, all actively committed to social change and to empowering women with knowledge about their bodies and their health, met in Toronto to start a small revolution in the form of a 20-page magazine they called Healthsharing. They operated primarily on their own volunteer efforts, a small grant from Secretary of State, and a strong conviction that they could make a difference.

Healthsharing magazine is now online and searchable using the CWHN e-Library

These were heady times. It was an era when women’s centres and women’s health collectives were forming in a growing number of cities and towns across Canada. The then-bible of women’s health, Our Bodies, Ourselves, now 40 years old, was less than a decade old when the first issue of Healthsharing went to print. And the Montreal Health Press’ Birth Control Handbook had been around since 1968!

The seeds for Healthsharing magazine had been planted in fertile ground. The second wave of the women’s movement was in full swing. Notions like “backlash” were in the distant future. Women had begun making strides forward in opening up the medical profession to women (though admittedly most of the truly ground-breaking work on this front was done over 100 years ago). The times were ripe for the activities and energy that the women’s health movement and a magazine like Healthsharing generated.

Healthsharing … insisted on a holistic view of women’s health which always considered the context of women’s lives, not just the sum of their body parts.

In its 14 years of publication (the last issue appeared in 1993), the magazine provided a true alternative to what was then referred to as “the medical model” of women’s health. Although doctors and other health-care professionals wrote for and supported Healthsharing, the magazine challenged conventional medical authority by questioning many existing practices. It insisted on a holistic view of women’s health which always considered the context of women’s lives, not just the sum of their body parts. It offered new solutions to women’s problems (like support groups instead of medication for post-partum women), and perhaps most importantly, it gave credence to women’s stories. It provided a space for the voices of women who didn’t often make it into mainstream press: women whose medical concerns (such as PMS) were often dismissed by unbelieving physicians, women who spoke freely about the mistreatment of some groups of women in the hands of the health-care system, including  women of colour, lesbians, women with disabilities, Aboriginal women and incarcerated women.

The Healthsharing Collective that produced the magazine held strong convictions to a feminist process and collective decision making. Members came and went. Issues were hotly debated, but the magazine always came out. New blood and new experiences brought new ideas and ways of presenting issues. The Collective tackled issues which got their public airing often for the first time in a national publication—like the debate over the use of Depo Provera as a contraceptive, the harms caused by the drug  DES, pesticides in breast milk, and the need for an expanded role for nurses—all before they appeared in the popular press. Young women and students who got involved over the years learned that there were many ways of resolving conflict ... and still get a job done!

Struggling to keep afloat, the Collective transformed into a Community Board in 1990, after the group agreed to take on the role of co-ordinating the launch of the Canadian Women’s Health Network. The newer Community Board, mindful of raging debates about lack of inclusion  within the women’s movement, made considerable effort to cover issues specific to immigrant and visible minority women, lesbians and women with disabilities—a legacy readily infused in the creation of the new Network.

This legacy has born fruit and led to some of the successes we have experienced as a movement over the past 20 years. Menopause came out of the closet, breast cancer finally got the attention it had long deserved, and the relationship between violence against women and a wide range of health issues is finally recognized. The key messages of the women’s health movement—the need for women to have control over their own bodies, the need to view and understand women’s health in a broader social context, the need for other than biomedical approaches to women’s health, and the importance of being wary of quick solutions like surgery and pills—have filtered through to some key decision makers and have clearly influenced the practices of some health-care providers and medical curricula.

The CWHN’s founding Executive Director, Madeline Boscoe , and its current ED, Anne Rochon Ford, were both members of the Healthsharing Collective in its early years and have brought the lessons they learned there to the running of the organization. Healthsharing is gone but not forgotten ...the magazine ceased publication a full 20 years ago but its legacy lives on as the CWHN now faces the same funding challenges faced by the women of the Collective.

Thank you to all the many women who over the years contributed to the vision that started Healthsharing magazine, the writing that sustained it, and the wisdom to know when its time was over.

Anne Rochon Ford is the Executive Director at the Canadian Women's Health Network.

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