A leader in the movement of self-help and women's true liberation
Carol Downer was active in the late 1960’s in the struggle for civil rights and local politics. She joined the women’s liberation movement in 1969, and worked with a group of women in Los Angeles to make abortion available under California’s liberalized abortion law.
She took a vaginal speculum from an illegal abortion clinic and figured out how to do vaginal self-examination, and shared this revolutionary news with her women’s liberation group on April 7, 1971. That fall, Carol and Lorraine Rothman traveled across the United States with boxes of speculums bringing vaginal self-exam and menstrual extraction, to women of the United States. They launched the idea and shared the tools for women to control their own reproduction, at a time when abortion, birth control and fertility information were not available.
After Carol and Lorraine returned, the group, which then included new members who traveled from various parts of the country to join them, incorporated as the Feminist Women’s Health Center. The FWHC established the Women’s Abortion Referral Service. In 1972, The Board of Medical Examiners and the police department raided the health center and arrested Carol and Colleen Wilson for practicing medicine without a license. This case became know as the Great Yogurt Conspiracy, or "The Yogurt Case” for short, because one of the so-called crimes committed by Carol was helping a woman insert yogurt into her vagina to relieve a yeast condition. Colleen Wilson pled guilty to one count of fitting a diaphragm and Carol went to trial and was acquitted by a jury of all charges. Sixty days after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973, the FWHC in Los Angeles opened the first women-controlled abortion clinic.
The Federation Of Feminist Women's Health Centers Begins
Carol was a founder of the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers in 1975, and under her leadership, the federation members were crucial in helping other woman-controlled clinics open across the country. Carol coordinated the "Book team”, and edited the unpublished manuscript,Women’s Health in Women’s Hands. This manuscript was the foundation for three books by the Federation of FWHC: A New View of a Woman’s Body, edited by Rebecca Chalker,How to Stay OUT of the Gynecologists Office, and Woman-Centered Pregnancy and Birth, with Ginny Cassidy-Brinn, R.N. Carol also co-wrote A Woman’s Book of Choices: Abortion, Menstrual Extraction, and RU486 with Rebecca Chalker. Carol is a founder and former board member and Vice-President of the National Abortion Federation.
Carol has traveled extensively with other FWHC members throughout the US and beyond its borders. In 1974, Carol went to Europe to share self-help with women. Carol went to International Women’s Year in Mexico City in 1975 and shared self-help with community women. Carol was a part of the US Nicaraguan International Health Colloquia in 1985. In Nicaragua, Carol and Lynne Randall showed their cervices to nurses and women doctors, and they shared information about safe post abortion care in an arena where illegal abortions were performed.
Carol’s stand against US imperialism and the patriarchy led her to go to Iran in 1979 as part of a US delegation, "Send Back the Shah”. Upon her return, Carol criticized the US-executed coup against a democratic leader which gave rise to Americans being held hostage by Iranian militants. Carol has actively supported people’s right to self-determination, criticized US policy, and sees women’s oppression being perpetuated by US imperialism. Carol has shown her cervix to women in the US and around the world, and has continuously defended women against oppressive governments.
In 1976, Carol was featured in the Outstanding Womenedition of Life Magazine, and in Ms. Magazine in 1996. She received the National Abortion Federation’s highest award, the Christopher Tietze Humanitarian Award in 1998. The Women’s Caucus of the American Public Health Association honored her in 1989 for her contributions to women’s health. In 1994 she received the Wiley W. Manuel Award for Pro Bono Legal Services from the California State Bar.
Her Work Today
Carol is an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Feminist Women’s Health Centers of California, which operates eight Women’s Health Specialists clinics.
In 2007 she, Lorraine Rothman and other self-helpers are recognized in the new book Feminists Who Changed America: 1963-1975, along with friend, visionary and sister activist Dido Hasper. Currently Carol is promoting women’s liberation, doing speaking presentations and working on her next book in which she advances the belief that women’s collective efforts to achieve their sexual and reproductive liberation is a fundamental strategy for social change.
Carol Downer's Website: WomensHealthInWomensHands.org