Anti-feminism in Kevin Davies’s and Michael White’s Breakthrough

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One word: Meh. Then a few more: what the hell?

First, the “meh.” Kevin Davies’ and Michael White’s Breakthrough: The Race to Find the Breast Cancer Gene (1996) is a boring book, even for someone as thoroughly obsessed with BRCA1/2 as myself. Breakthrough was published in 1996, so it must have been rushed into publication pretty fast after the discovery of BRCA1 in 1994. In fact, it barely covers the discovery of BRCA2–by the book’s end, BRCA2 has been “localized” on chromosome 13, but not yet located (as it would eventually be in 1996). The book may have been stronger if the authors had taken some more time to write it.

Davies and White trace the competition among scientists to find the breast cancer gene in the early 1990s, but while the discovery itself is historically important, many of the players involved are not that interesting. What’s more, the authors largely adopt an “objective” journalistic tone and they frequently miss the chance to engage in some down and dirty cultural analysis or critique. For example, they discuss Mark Skolnick’s founding of Myriad Genetics, but largely let him off the hook for allowing the profit motive–AKA his greed–get in the way of affordable mass testing and research. Gene patenting was the hot button BRCA+ issue for over 15 years before the Supreme Court invalidated Myriad’s patents on our data in 2013. Davies and White barely touch the surface of this issue.

Much of the information that the authors present on breast cancer and BRCA1/2 is out of date by now. It’s been 17 years since it’s publication, so that’s to be expected. Still, the book is often painfully and self-consciously 90s with its frequent comparisons of BRCA1 to HIV, Hillary Clinton’s attempts to establish universal healthcare in the United States, and an overwhelming sense of optimism. All that’s missing is references to the “global village” and a rhapsody about the World Wide Web. The authors believe that the discovery of BRCA1 is going to revolutionize breast cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. In the end, I’m struck by how much hasn’t changed about breast cancer treatment in nearly two decades.

Now for the “what the hell?!” parts. The book ends with a rumination on the state of breast cancer culture in 1996. The authors opine that breast cancer has taken center stage and is receiving more funding than ever. And then, bizarrely, they start attacking feminism.

For instance, in one baffling passage they note: “Curiously, the preventive mastectomy option is significantly more common in the United States than in any other country in the world, but the reasons for this are unclear. It has been said that the preventive mastectomy response smacks of hysteria or is an expression of some convoluted radical feminism” (245). The passage begs the questions: who actually said these things that have “been said”? The passive voice of this quote (“it has been said”) makes it so that Davies and White can make this ridiculous argument without seeming to make any argument at all. I can only imagine that the convoluted logic here is that feminists supposedly reject femininity and therefore want to destroy the secondary sex characteristics that seem to define femininity. That, of course, is absolutely absurd, since feminists have long fought for women to have the freedom to make uncoerced decisions regarding their bodies and health.

And then things get more weird. The authors critique Gloria Steinem for not speaking out more about her own experiences with breast cancer, as though she’s obligated to discuss the details of her health with the entire country. And this bit of what-the-fuckery:

“According to conservative author Midge Decter, NOW is simply not interested in breast cancer, ‘Theirs is a leftist, radical agenda–not a woman’s agenda,’ she claims. ‘And what’s wrong with cancer as a cause from the point of view of the feminist movement is that they can’t identify anybody who did it to them. They’re therefore just not interested.’

Feminists have been used to taking control of their own destiny, of fighting and issue head-on. When it came to breast cancer, they were trapped by their own philosophy. Feminist lore during the 1970s made it clear that the way forward was for women to look after themselves and to control their own future, so any movement endeavoring to funds from the establishment to help cure women of a disease over which they have naturally had no control was anathema to the feminist ideal” (256-7).

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Davies and White need a lesson in breast cancer history: as I’ve said before, second wave feminism started the breast cancer movement via the women’s health movement of the 1970s, which was an explicitly feminist enterprise. This is well documented. Furthermore, feminism is not about individual women taking control of their individual destinies. It’s about achieving equality and opportunity for women as a class–that is, for all women, not just individuals. For this reason, feminists have a huge stake in breast cancer culture and research.

It’s also pretty funny to hear the National Organization for Women being called a “radical” organization, when it is frequently attacked for being too mainstream. It is, in fact, a “liberal feminist” organization and by definition not radical. But hey, what else can you expect when the authors consider an anti-feminist wingnut like Midge Decter to be citable expert. Decter, by the way, wrote a book called The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation (1972) and founded the reactionary Independent Women’s Forum. She about as much of an authority on feminist attitudes towards breast cancer as Anne Coulter or Fox News.

Adding to the annoyances of the book, Davies and White seem to have an anti-abortion agenda as well, and the issue of abortion pops up repeatedly throughout the book in odd places.  It turns out Frances Collins, another BRCA1/2 researcher and current director of the National Institutes of Health, is also anti-abortion. They all seem concerned that BRCA+ women will start aborting BRCA+ fetuses, because clearly women can’t be trusted to make sound ethical decisions about their bodies and their fetuses. This fear has not panned out over the last 17 years at all.

There are more problems with this book, but I’ll spare you the details. To summarize: Breakthrough sucks and is annoyingly anti-feminist. Learn from my mistakes and don’t read it. It’s a waste of time.

Feminism and the BRCA+ Community

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Andrea over at Brave Bosom has a post about labels in the BRCA+ community: “advocate” versus “activist,” “feminist,” and “previvor.” I’ve already talked about my hesitation to use the “previvor” label, but I realized that despite the fact that this is a feminist BRCA+ blog, I have not yet posted about why the HBOC community needs feminism.

First, some twentieth-century American history (courtesy of Barron H. Lerner’s Breast Cancer Wars).

Decade after decade, surgeons continued to disfigure women’s bodies with the Halsted mastectomy despite the fact that it was not saving lives. Women who received Halsted mastectomies did not have better survival rates than women who did not have the surgery. Still, doctors continued to push the procedure. Surgeons were the macho heroes of the medical world and the Halsted was the masterpiece that showed off their skill. Nevermind that it left women physically and psychologically scarred or that medical evidence indicated that the Halsted mastectomies were unnecessary or unsuccessful.

At that time, doctors didn’t even have to tell women their true prognosis, and thanks to infantilizing paternalistic attitudes within patriarchal medicine, many  doctors thought women couldn’t handle the truth about their health, so they just didn’t tell them. In fact, women were rarely even offered the opportunity to make choices about whether or not to have surgery: if breast cancer was suspected, a woman was put under anesthesia for the biopsy and if the biopsy found cancer, then a mastectomy was immediately performed without consulting the patient.

Nowadays, women diagnosed with breast cancer have more options. They can have lumpectomies. They can have chemotherapy or radiation. They can choose from a range of mastectomies–skin sparing, nipple sparing, simple, etc.–and  reconstructive procedures. They make these choices through informed consent. They have a variety of resources, support groups, and networks to turn to. They can often tell their stories without shame or censure. You can thank feminists for all this (not that anyone ever does).

I don’t mean, of course, that feminist doctors invented these procedures. I mean that feminist activists spent decades demanding that doctors stop needlessly hacking into women’s bodies with the Halsted mastectomy and seek alternatives based on objective medical evidence like randomized clinical trials. Feminist activists were relentless in advocating for women patients. And when the deeply conservative medical community resisted change, feminist activists created their own networks to share information, lobby, and provide support. In this way, the modern breast cancer community emerged out of the Women’s Health Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which was itself a product of Second Wave Feminism.

In recent years, the feminist roots of breast cancer activism are often overlooked, as conservative anti-feminist organizations like the Komen foundation and other pinkwashers have co-opted and sanitized feminist rhetoric and iconography. At the same time, pink ribbon culture pushes  conventional gender roles on survivors and previvors alike, often ignoring the experiences of women who don’t fit the optimistic breast cancer warrior model (women of color, the poor, queers, etc.). The medical industry remains a strongly patriarchal establishment. There is much work to be done.

At the moment, mainstream feminism largely ignores the issues BRCA+ women face. This leaves BRCA+ feminists like me out in the cold: without a feminist discourse to guide our thinking on HBOC and alienated by the conventional gender roles and pinkwashing endemic to the breast cancer community in general and the BRCA+ community in particular. Thus this blog. Still, feminists were among the earliest commentators questioning the ethics of genetic testing and they have been at the forefront of the fight against gene patenting for many, many years. Most BRCA+ women already believe in the feminist tenet that a woman has the right to bodily autonomy and integrity.

Despite the fact that I firmly believe the BRCA+ community needs feminism, I highly doubt the feminist label will catch on there. It is rather notoriously the other “F word.” Too many women strive to distance themselves from it. They think feminists are shrill (heaven forfend!). They think feminists hate men. They think we already live in a world of gender equality (ahaha!). They don’t know women’s history well enough to know what feminism has already done for them. Nonetheless,  most women enjoy rights that feminist activists fought decades to win: things like voting, having credit cards in their own names without their husband’s consent, and having legal recourse for sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking, etc. In other words, women of all political backgrounds have benefited from the hard won gains of feminist activism, even women who have dragged their heels to resist change. That’s true within the breast cancer and HBOC communities as well.