Public Health 582

Women’s Health/Reproductive Health

Day/Time: Tuesday 2:30 – 5:00pm

Place: Arnold House, Room 136

Professor: Aline Gubrium

Office location: 304 Arnold House

Office phone: 413.545.2244

Office hours: Tuesdays 12:30 – 2:30pm or by appointment


Course blog:

PDF of syllabus

Course Overview

Women’s Health/Reproductive Health is a three credit hour course designed to explore, in an in-depth fashion, ethnographic and community health education approaches to women’s reproductive and sexual health issues.  In particular, we will explore the gendered, ethnic, culture and class dimensions that underlie the patterning of disease and illness, with special attention to the long-term health effects of racism, poverty, and sexism.

Course Goals

Students in this course will gain broad exposure to a number of women’s reproductive health issues and the interdisciplinary theorizing of feminist, medical social scientists, and public health scholars.  Topics highlighted in some of these works include the social construction of social/health problems and the female body; the essentialization of women as reproducers; reproductive health rights and choices; the effects of racism, poverty, sexism, violence, and inhumane conditions on reproductive health; sexual pleasure and desire and how this might fit into a public health framework; and how women make meaning of their health experiences.

Learning takes place at multiple levels in this course:  theoretically and empirically, though the readings we will do for this class and through our class discussions; and experientially, through the blog posts you will write for this class, through class presentations, as well as through the linkages we draw between our own life experiences and classroom activities. We will use what we learn about women’s reproductive health to critically explore the intersection of academia and reproductive rights activism. We will see that multiple levels of interrogation intersect in providing a better understanding behind the meanings of reproductive health issues for women and their communities, as well as for those in the academy researching and writing about them.

Course Objectives

Upon completion of this course, students should be able to:

  • Analyze the reproductive health situation of women in different cultural and national contexts from an interdisciplinary perspective;
  • Demonstrate understanding of the interactive nature of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and sexuality as they pertain to beliefs, behaviors, and outcomes of reproductive health;
  • Be able to link global reproductive health issues with local concerns;
  • Identify and deconstruct the patriarchal and racist bias in the historical and contemporary construction of medical knowledge and disciplinary areas of inquiry in connection with women’s reproductive health;
  • Demonstrate enhanced critical thinking, reading, writing, and oral presentation skills.

Readings will be assigned and made available on the course blog or through class handouts.

Course Format and Requirements

Given the interdisciplinary nature of women’s studies and public health, and the broad utility of a gendered analysis/consciousness, this course engages a broad range of information sources and presentation modalities, e.g., lecture/discussion, student presentations, interactive group exercises, scholarly texts, film/video, websites, and guest speakers.  The course uses the notion of the classroom as a “community of learners” as its foundation.  As such, each class member is expected to participate in both learning and teaching as the semester unfolds.  This not only assumes pre-preparation, but also active engagement.

Attendance policy: Class attendance is imperative for effective class participation. You have registered for this course and I expect you to construct your daily schedules accordingly. As we meet only one time per week, time is precious—please do not miss class!

Academic honesty: Academic dishonesty includes but is not limited to submitting work that is not one’s own, copying material from websites or blogs, not properly citing resources, and plagiarism. Academic dishonesty will not be tolerated and will be dealt with in accordance with UMass policy.

Cell phone policy: Please try to turn your cell phones off during class. Ringing/loudly vibrating cell phone disturb the flow of the class.

Evaluation and Assessment

Evaluation of class performance will be based on performance in three areas: active class engagement, blog posts, and group presentations. An “A” or evaluation of excellence in the course will be based on an exemplary performance in all of the following course components. Students are expected to read all assignments prior to the class for which they are assigned.  This class will be primarily discussion based/seminar format. The course discussions are intended to supplement, not replace, the readings.  That is, assigned readings are expected to be read, and at times responded to, despite the possibility that time will not permit us to discuss them all.  Class participants may be asked to prepare questions and/or discussion points on aspects of the readings that are particularly interesting or difficult to understand.

Assignments: All students are required to complete the following assignments on time.  Your final grade will be based on the following percentages as indicated below:

1.         Active class engagement = 20%

2.         Blog posts = 30%

3.         Group presentation = 30%

4.         Contraception assignment = 20%

Most course assignments will be graded on the following letter grade scale:

A+ = 100            B+ = 89             C+ = 79            D+ = 69            < 60 = F

A = 95                 B = 85               C = 75               D = 65

A- = 90               B- = 80             C- = 70             D- = 60

1. Active class engagement: Active class engagement comprises 20% of your final grade in the course. As you can see, this component of the course makes up the majority of your grade. Requirements in this area include regular class attendance; reading assigned readings on time and in a critical manner; and active participation in class discussions and group exercises.

2. Blog posts: Blog posts comprise 30% of your final grade. Over the course of the semester you will be writing blog entries on the course blog ( Each of you will choose a blog name, which will allow for your virtually anonymous posting on assigned topics. Your blog posts essentially serve as reaction papers to the readings. Make an effort to draw connections between the readings in your blog posts.  Blog posts are due online the night before class (Monday by 9:00pm). I would also like to encourage each of you to respond to others’ blog posts—the blog is a forum for creating a community conversation on the assigned topics.

Blog posts will be graded using a “check-minus,” “check,” or “check-plus” format. Blog posts receiving a “check-minus” are those that appear to be written hastily, without much thought given to the course readings beyond a brief summary and without linking course readings or activities to your daily lives or the ways you have learned about course materials/activities in other settings. Blog posts receiving a “check” are those that review course readings, discussions and activities in a summary fashion, but do not expand much beyond a summary format. Blog posts receiving a “check-plus” are those that review course materials, link course materials to outside experiences and alternative ways of learning about course materials, and critically consider what is learned from course readings, discussions and activities.

3. Group presentation: A group presentation will count for 30% of your final grade. Over the course of the semester each of you will participate in a group class facilitation, in which you are responsible for guiding a thematic discussion developed around that week’s assigned readings. You are also invited to incorporate outside material into your presentation. Your presentation will be evaluated on the quality and accuracy of its substantive content and the organization and creativity embodied in the form of the presentation.  Your presentations should be gender knowledge-based, creative, and interactive (presentations will be assigned after the semester has begun, when I can gauge how many students are registered in this class). We will review a presentation guide (PDF) and presentation grade sheet (PDF) in class. 

4. Evaluating methods of contraception assignment (PDF) and presentation: This assignment will count for 20% of your final grade. I will review this assignment in class from a handout describing the assignment. You are expected to produce both a written document for this assignment that I can grade and to present information about your chosen contraception informally in class. Due September 29th at the beginning of class.

Course Outline

(Subject to modification and revision as the semester unfolds.  Readings are listed according to the date they are due to be read.)

Week 1

September 8th:  Introductions

  • Introductions to each other/ice breaker
  • Review of syllabus

Week 2

September 15th: Women’s Health, Sexual and Reproductive Health, and a Humanistic Perspective

  • Harper’s Magazine: “Dehumanized”
  • Telling Sexual Stories: “The culture of sexual story telling”
  • Medical Anthropology Quarterly: “Defining women’s health: A dozen messages from more than 150 ethnographies”
  • Medical Anthropology Quarterly: “Gender, body, biomedicine: How some feminist concerns dragged reproduction to the center of social theory”

Week 3

September 22nd: Birth Control as Population Control

  • Reproductive rights and wrongs: “Security and survival” and “The Malthusian orthodoxy”
  • Babies, Burdens and Threats: “10 reasons to rethink ‘overpopulation,’” “Old roots, new shoots: Eugenics of the everyday” and “Population-environment programs: Problematic assumptions and contradictory approaches”
  • Revisioning Women, Health, and Healing: “Will the ‘real’ mother please stand up?: The logic of eugenics and American National Family Planning”

Week 4

September 29th: Contraceptives

  • Contraceptive Methods Assignment Due
  • Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies: “Contraception in Context”
  • Devices and Desires: “Searching for something better” (the IUD)
  • differenTakes: “Flagging an invisible difference in a cost-benefit analysis of Depo-Provera” and “Quinacrine sterilization in India: Women’s health and medical ethics still at risk”
  • Social Science and Medicine: “Racial differences in Norplant use in the United States”
  • Off our backs: “Implanon: A new and improved bullet?”
  • Medical Anthropology Quarterly: “The social life of emergency contraception in the United States”
  • Film: The Pill (90 mins.)

Week 5

October 6th: Claudia Mitchell guest lecture

Campus Center Room 803

Week 6

October 11th:  No Class (Columbus Day Holiday, Monday class schedule followed)

Week 7

October 20th: Valuations of motherhood

  • Film: Unnatural Causes: When the Bough Breaks (29 mins.)
  • Human Organization: “A glass half empty: Latina reproduction and public discourse”
  • Conceiving the New World Order: “On the outside looking in: The politics of lesbian motherhood”
  • Voices: “The politics of regulation: Adolescent mothers and the social context of resiliency”
  • The Paradox of Natural Mothering: “Introduction: Five women, five stories” and “Interrogating the ideology of natural mothering: Choice, nature, and inevitability”

Week 8

October 27th: Women’s Reproduction as Body Politic

  • Guest speaker: Dr. Elizabeth Krause, Department of Anthropology, UMass
  • Feminist Studies: “Hijacking global feminism: Feminists, the Catholic Church, and the family planning debacle in Peru”
  • American Anthropologist: “Fertility politics as ‘social viagra’: Reproducing boundaries, social cohesion, and modernity in Italy”
  • Peace and Change: “‘Our women’/‘Their women’: Symbolic boundaries, territorial markers, and violence in the Balkans”
  • Infertility around the Globe: New Thinking on Childlessness, Gender, and Reproductive Technologies: “Infertile bodies: Medicalization, metaphor, and agency”

Week 9

November 3rd: Is there Room for Sexual Pleasure and Desire in Health Promotion?

  • International Family Planning Perspectives: “The pleasure deficit: Revisiting the “sexuality connection” in reproductive health
  • Harvard Educational Review: “Sexuality education and desire: Still missing after all these years”
  • Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education: “‘Looking at the real thing’: Young men, pornography, and sexuality education”
  • Feminism Psychology: “Discourses of desire as governmentality: Young women, sexuality and the significance of safe spaces”

Week 10

November 10th: Menstruation and Menopause:  Beginning and End?

Group 1 Presentation

  • Film: Period: The end of menstruation? (54 mins.)
  • Feminist frontiers: “Hormonal hurricanes: Menstruation, menopause, and female behavior”
  • Gender and the Social Construction of Illness: “If a situation is defined as real: Premenstrual syndrome and menopause”
  • Menopause: A Biocultural Perspective: “Introduction”

Week 11

November 17th: Breast Feeding

Group 2 Presentation

  • Human Organization: “Infant agency and its implication for breast-feeding promotion in Brazil”
  • Social Science and Medicine: “Being a ‘good mother’: Managing breastfeeding and merging identities”
  • Topic: “Sucker: Who in God’s name said breast is best?”
  • Medical Anthropology Quarterly: “Maternal bodies, breast-feeding, and consumer desire in China”

Week 12

November 24th: Abortion

Group 3 Presentation

  • The Black Women’s Health Book: “Abortion: A matter of choice”
  • Feminist Anthropology: “Procreation stories: Reproduction, nurturance, and procreation in life narratives of abortion activists”
  • Abortion under Attack: “Sex, unintended pregnancy, and poverty: One woman’s evolution from ‘choice’ to ‘reproductive justice’”
  • Women Images and Realities: “Abortion in the U.S.: Barriers to Access”

Week 13

December 1st: Challenging Technocratic Conceptions: The Women’s Health Movement, Fertility Awareness, and Midwifery

Group 4 Presentation

  • Into our Own Hands: “On their own: Women of color and the women’s health movement”
  • Birth as an American Rite of Passage: “The technocratic model: Past and present”
  • Reproductive rights and wrongs: “Barrier methods, natural family planning, and future directions”
  • Taking charge of your fertility: “Fertility awareness: What you should know and why you probably don’t,” “Taking control of your reproductive health” (p. 11-17), “There’s more to your reproductive anatomy than your vagina” and “Finally making sense of your menstrual cycle”
  • Medical Anthropology Quarterly: “Claiming respectable American motherhood: Homebirth mothers, medical officials, and the state”

Week 14

December 8th: Reproductive Justice Movement and Reproductive Rights

Group 5 Presentation

  • Film: Listen Up! New Voices for Reproductive Justice (21 mins.)
  • Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics: “Our bodies, ourselves: Reproductive rights”
  • Policing the National Body: “Just choices: Women of color, reproductive health and human rights”
  • Off our Backs: “LGBT reproductive rights: An interview with Carmen Vazquez”
  • Off our Backs: “Immigrant rights are women’s rights”