Susan Gage’s New View of a Woman’s Body

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Bloomington-Normal is the location of Illinois State University,
a college in a remote location with a thriving arts
program. It is where Suzann Gage went to study art in the
1970s. It is also where she had an epiphany. Gage was
born in Rock Island, Illinois and had a typical Midwestern
childhood, participating in school and community activities
like the Rainbow Girls, the girls auxiliary of the
Masons. Interested in visual arts from a young age, her
parents encouraged her by providing creative materials for
drawing and collage. She studied studio art in college. Balancing
ceramics classes with waitressing at the Town and
Country Restaurant and activism with the campus chapter
of the National Organization of Women.
It was the NOW chapter that brought in Lorraine Rothman
and Carol Downer, two reproductive rights activists
from Los Angeles, to speak to the young Illinois feminists
one rainy day in 1972. Rothman and Downer were on a
national tour to raise awareness about the Women’s Health
Movement, showing films and leading discussions about
the need for safe and legal abortions, and respectful doctor
patient discourse. During their presentation that 19-yearold
Gage attended in her black and white waitress uniform,
Rothman and Downer taught how to perform a cervical
self-examination. In a movement about developing
respect for one’s own body while agitating for respect for
the needs of female bodies from the medical establishment,
the cervical self-exam was a direct action technique
that put activist women in direct contact with the subject
of the movement. When Suzann Gage saw her cervix, her
life changed. For the always visually oriented Gage, the act
of seeing her cervix with a mirror, a flashlight, and a room
full of other curious and concerned women, was enough
to radicalize her. Shortly after the experience, Gage came
out as a lesbian, dropped out of art school, and took a
flight west to join Rothman and Downer at the Women’s
Choice Clinic in Los Angeles.
The Women’s Choice Clinic was a feminist health center,
run by women like Gage who were trained as layhealth
workers. They had activist doctors on staff who
would take on more serious diagnoses, but for the most
part the lay-health workers would check blood pressure,
lead women through cervical examinations, and talk to
women about health care concerns like sexually transmitted
disease and menstruation needs. Most importantly
they were creating an environment of mutual respect that
made patients feel comfortable in participating in their
own health care. Gage says of her experience, “I just couldn’t
stand to see people suffering and to not have human
rights and I felt absolutely compelled to take some kind of
action. To get involved… to remedy these wrongs.” She
and the other women at the clinic wanted to spread the
idea of the feminist health center nationally, and knowing
that they could not be everywhere at once, they decided to
write a book. The project started in the 1970s was finally
published in 1981 as A New View of A Woman’s Body.
A New View of A Woman’s Body was written by the team of
women, who would take time out of clinic work to research
medical illustrations, medical texts, and interview doctors to
write chapters like “The Clitoris, a Feminist Perspective.” The
book’s main goal was to bend, shape, and change what the
definitions of normal where in relationship to women’s bodies
and women’s medical concerns. In the research process the
women discovered that images of the female body in the
existing medical literature were for the most part non-existent,
and what was there focused on pathology. Gage thought
she left art behind in Illinois, but when the Book Team, as the
working group was called, figured out that there were no
good images available, Gage was asked to pick up a pencil
once again. She made drawings from life at the clinic and
worked through a combination of medical textbooks and
direct observation to create the medical illustrations of the
female reproductive system. Her drawings shape the character
of this handbook that is still used in feminist health centers
today. In addition to Gage’s drawings, the Book Team collected
photographs of their cervixes over several months to
show the changes in color and shape that were part of a normal
cycle of menstruation and ovulation.
When I first saw A New View of A Woman’s Body, Gage’s
earnest illustration style showing women of all shapes,
sizes, color, and age performing breast exams, and cervical
exams it was attractive to me. The urgency expressed in
her drawings is reflected in her direct conversational manner.
Her drawings to me reflect the character of a movement
that focused on encouraging women to be comfortable
with their bodies and to take responsibility through
self-education and discussion for their health and wellbeing.
Gage, a perpetual activist spreading the word about
health care justice, is just as direct as her drawing style.
She would go on to become a certified OB/GYN nurse
practitioner, a nationally certified licensed acupuncturist
and a nutritionist. She now owns and runs Progressive
Health Services in San Diego, California where she lives
with her partner and their dog. I interviewed her in May of
2009 via telephone while she was working at the clinic.
She often put me on hold to answer telephone calls from
patients. Though she is no longer a practicing artist, her
visual sensibilities and contribution to the visual culture of
feminist health movements remains influential.
To read more about Suzann Gage email me at lefortune at
gmail dot com and I will send you a copy of the full interview.

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