“Absurd Quackery”: The Canadian Women’s Health Movement, Vaccine Attitudes, and Healthsharing

Kathryn Hughes

A magazine page titled "Shots in the Dark: The Risk of Infant Vaccination." The page includes a picture of a child in a crib.

Image extract of Healthsharing Spring, 1989 article “Shots in the Dark” by Anna Kohn, Rise Up Feminist Archive

In 1989, the popular Canadian women’s health magazine Healthsharing published an article entitled “Shots in the Dark: The Risk of Infant Vaccination”. Echoing the anti-vaccine movement of this period (the title borrows from the 1985 influential anti-vaccine text DTP: A Shot in the Dark), the article discussed the risk of the DPT-P vaccine, quoted personal stories from mothers whose children had been impacted by the pertussis vaccine, and alluded to the larger Canadian anti-vaccination movement. At a glance, a feminist health magazine seems like an odd place to express anti-vaccine attitudes, but, as shown in Elena Conis’s seminal text Vaccine Nation (2014), the American feminist and women’s health movement shared overlapping ideas with its anti-vaccination movement of the 1970s and 1980s, as maternalist and feminist ideologies that emphasized bodily autonomy and were critical of medical authorities helped shape parental reactions and resistance to vaccines. The question remains: did the women’s health movement in Canada have similar attitudes and influences to their American sisters?

The modern anti-vaccination movement in Canada arose in the early 1980s as a response to the 1982 Compulsory Immunization of School Pupils Act in Ontario. Vaccine hesitant parents, outraged by the lack of conscientious exemption for the act, quickly formed the Committee Against Compulsory Vaccination, which would result in the Association of the Vaccine Damaged Children and the Vaccination Risk Awareness Network (now Vaccine Choice Canada). This is not the first time Canadian parents reacted poorly to governmental and school mandates regarding immunization – the 1887 Vaccination Act of Ontario and the implementation of one its bylaw by the Toronto Board of Education in 1894 is proof of this – but I would argue that the lasting power of the current movement was undoubtedly influenced by changes in parenting and the rise of the alternative health movement throughout the twentieth century.

A nurse wearing a blue pillbox hat, white blouse, and dark blue skirt holds a young girl's arm. The nurse is using a needle and bottle of fluid to administer a skin test.

Nurse Winnifred Smyte giving a skin test to Jennifer Barbour to ascertain whether vaccination is needed. Newfoundland. Credit: Library and Archives Canada. Copyright: Expired

The Le Leche Leagues, for example, an international pro-breastfeeding organization that emerged in the 1950s emphasized both a return to mothers as experts over their children’s wellbeing and the promotion of breastfeeding as natural and thus “good” while vilifying formula, feeding schedules, and bottle feeding.[1] The women’s health movement, the alternative health movement, and these changes in mothering have used similar language and ideologies to reject the authority of traditional medicine and to condemn the doctor for their paternalistic and often condescending attitudes towards patients and sufferers. These movements also emphasized the natural as good while painting anything “unnatural” as untrustworthy.

Feminists were also critical of the figure of the patriarchal doctor and the overmedicalization of processes like breastfeeding and childbirth, and they too used the language of natural versus artificial to reclaim their authority over their own bodies and health. Famously, Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book by and for Women (first published in 1971 by the Boston Women’s Health Collective) embraced alternative health practices, emphasizing the alternative in relation to traditional medicine – though they never took an outwardly anti-vaccine stance. Critical of the paternal and hierarchical nature of medicine, Our Bodies, Ourselves warned readers against relying too heavily upon advice from alternative health leaders, stating in the 1984 edition that “some alternative practice practitioners, like conventional doctors, are setting themselves up as experts in such a way that they keep power for themselves, and are unwilling to share their knowledge with you and try to get you to keep returning to them for additional services.”[2]

Still, the 1984 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves included far more references to alternative medicine than prior editions and held up popular theories that were also shared by anti-vaccine leaders. Drawing on philosopher Ivan Illich, the authors argued that: “Many dreaded infectious diseases were ‘conquered’ in the past century, but this was most likely because of improved nutrition and sanitation, not medical care. Their incident rates are already falling when medical treatments and vaccines were introduced. With the exception of smallpox, vaccines helped speed the decline of the disease only minimally.” This theory would be found in an array of anti-vaccine literature across both borders including the influential anti-vaccine text DTP: A Shot in the Dark, Leon Chaitow’s Vaccine and Immunisation: Dangers, Delusions, and Alternatives to Canadian anti-vaccine physician Zoltan Rona’s Natural Alternatives to Vaccination and in modern parenting guides like Lauren Feder’s The Parent’s Concise Guide to Childhood Vaccinations.

With the Canadian women’s health movement, vaccine hesitancy would crop up, but not to the same extent as their American counterparts. Canadian women have and continue to operate under a very different healthcare system than their American sisters, and the women’s health movement here reflects this in how it approached vaccines and the wider anti-vaccination movement. In an examination of Healthsharing, the aforementioned Canadian women’s health magazine that ran from 1970 to 1993, there was only one explicitly anti-vaccine article in the 52 editions that were available in the Rise Up Feminist Archives – the 1989 article “Shots in the Dark: The Risk of Infant Vaccination”. Outside of this article, the closest to anti-vaccine sentiment I could find was a letter written by a Vancouver homeopath who read the article with “great interest” and a few responses that indicated vaccine hesitant or critical stances.

This lack of response is, in part, surprising. Healthsharing encouraged women to think critically about their medical care and to discuss the barriers they faced as women trying to navigate the Canadian healthcare system. Articles like “Undoing Medical Conditioning,” “The Power of Science and Medicine,” and “Naturopathic Medicine: A Radical Orthodoxy” and the Alternatives to Allopathy series presented strong critiques of traditional medicine and offered empowering alternatives to readers. In comparison, the Canadian alternative health magazine alive, which ran at the same time as Healthsharing but was not a specifically feminist publication, discussed vaccines more and often in a negative light. The doctors and health practitioners who wrote for alive regularly diminished the value of vaccines and pushed parents to do their own research before vaccinating.

The lack of overt anti-vaccine stances in Healthsharing likely comes from the fact that while the magazine was critical of traditional medicine, it maintained a distrust of any claim of expertise. As one writer put it, “since most of us in Women Healthsharing are skeptics by nature, we do not trust something simply because it is an alternative, a turning away from something with which we are dissatisfied.”[3] Another article found in the Alternative to Allopathy series argued: “In our search for alternatives, we must not make the mistake of totally rejecting the importance of science and contributions scientists can make to healing. Our tasks should be to make science the liberating force that our foresisters in the feminist movement hoped it would be.”[4]

This critical stance and healthy skepticism can be found throughout multiple editions of Healthsharing and was something shared by both the writers and readers of the magazine. The magazine published letters from readers who were quick to condemn alternative healing methods that they felt went too far or were not helpful. In one instance, a letter writer in 1986 said they were cancelling their subscription because they believed the magazine was “unable to discriminate between useful alternative medicine and absurd quackery.”[5] Another reader wrote in to correct Healthsharing on the DPT article, providing statistics relating infant death and brain damage to whooping cough and stating that: “I feel you did your readers a disservice by not pointing out that the disease, Pertussis or whooping cough, has a high mortality rate and a risk of permanent brain damage.”[6] I would suggest that the skepticism, distrust of authority, and this form of peer-review within Healthsharing served to keep anti-vaccine sentiments minimal. Or, perhaps, feminist and women’s health movements in Canada simply were not interested vaccines or held mostly positive attitudes towards them. Analysis of other Canadian feminist newspapers of this period demonstrate similar conclusions, as I located rare-to-no discussion of vaccines. The popular women’s magazine Chatelaine almost always remained firmly positive regarding vaccination, often encouraging its reader to get themselves and their children vaccinated.

Examinations of Healthsharing, other feminist magazines, and popular magazines aimed at the Canadian public like Chatelaine demonstrate the Canadian women’s health movement largely did not engage with or was un-interested in the anti-vaccination movement. While both the American and Canadian women’s health movements shared a similar ideology of distrust towards the mainstream medical profession and a desire for an alternative health system in which patients had more control and input into their health choices, the writers and readers of Healthsharing pushed back against blindly trusting anything perceived as an “alternative” method of healing. Science, as seen within the pages of Healthsharing, should work with the Canadian women’s health movement’s understanding of health, medicine, and bodily autonomy, and not against it.

Kathryn Hughes holds an MA in History from the University of Guelph. Her research interests lie in gender, health, and political activism in Canadian society during the nineteenth and twentieth century.

[1] Deborah Gorham and Florence Kellner Andrews, “The La Leche League: A Feminist Perspective,” in Delivering Motherhood: Maternal Ideologies and Practices in the 19th and 20th Centuries, ed. Katherine Arnup, Andree Levesque, and Ruth Roach Pierson (London & New York: Routledge, 1990), 244; Jessica Martucci, “Why Breastfeeding?: Natural Motherhood in Post-War America,” Journal of Women’s History 27, no. 2 (2015), 111.

[2] The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book by and for Women, 2nd ed (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 56.

[3] “Collective Notes,” Healthsharing Vol. 1, no. 4 (Fall, 1980), 2. https://riseuparchive.wpenginepowered.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/1980_Healthsharing_Vol_1_No_4_Fall.pdf

[4] Rhonda Love, “The Power of Science and Medicine,” Healthsharing Vol 2, no. 2 (Spring, 1981), 9-12. https://riseuparchive.wpenginepowered.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/1981_Healthsharing_Spring.pdf

[5] Kirsten Emmott, “Letters: Absurd Quackery,” Healthsharing Vol 7, no. 1 (Winter, 1986), 4-5. https://riseuparchive.wpenginepowered.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/1986_Healthsharing_Vol_8_No_1_Winter.pdf

[6] Frances Berkman, “Letters: Vaccine Controversy,” Healthsharing Vol. 10, no. 3 (June, 1989), 4. https://riseuparchive.wpenginepowered.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/1989_Healthsharing_Vol_10_No_3_Summer.pdf

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