Inside the three days that redefined black women’s health

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Four decades ago, nearly 2,000 black women gathered in Atlanta for a conference at Spelman College. As Dara Mathis recently reported for Headway, The New York Times’ initiative to capture the world’s challenges through the prism of progress, this event was a milestone in the then-nascent movement.

Black women gathered en masse from across the United States to share with one another the experiences that affected their well-being. I spoke to some of the women who attended the event to find out what drew them there, what they discovered and the impact the conference had on them. A few things stood out from our conversations.

I was amazed at how many aspects of their lives the attendees discussed openly for the first time. When she went to the conference, Brenda Smith had just graduated from Spelman and was studying at Georgetown University Law Center. “I think that was probably one of the first places I heard about abortion,” Smith told me. “I think it’s the first time I’ve heard open conversations about sexual abuse, that people are really talking about domestic abuse. I think it was probably the first time that people admitted, or that I felt like people discovered that they loved other women.

Nancy Anderson was a young doctor working at an Atlanta county hospital at the time. “I had read a book called ‘This Bridge Calls My Back,'” Anderson said. “That’s when I realized that, ‘Oh, there are people who really describe what it’s like to be a black woman.’ They had all kinds of perspectives. I realized I could find other people like this in Atlanta. Reading the book, a collection of writings by women of color, helped start a research process that led her to the Spelman event. Thousands of such discreet catalysts led women from all over the country to organize buses and cars and come to Georgia.

Perhaps the most resonant and novel message from the conference was that women’s well-being is worth time, attention and care. Black women in particular otherwise face pervasive messages that they must endlessly sacrifice their own needs for their families and communities.

“It taught us not to be ashamed of our bodies, not to be ashamed of pleasure,” Smith said. “That health was not the currency we had to pay for our family or the well-being of our communities. That really our thriving and not being traumatized was actually more generative and beneficial to our communities than lying on the rails every time something came up.”

The event spawned a national organization—the National Black Women’s Health Project, now the Black Women’s Health Imperative—as well as dozens of local chapters across the country, which would go on to hold their own conferences.

The circumstances that brought so many black women to Spelman in 1983 remain as relevant as ever. In 2018, nearly two decades after Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported for The Times on the astonishing rate at which black mothers die during or after childbirth, Linda Villarosa recorded in deep and intimate detail what is known about black resilience maternal and child mortality.

Years of careful research and academic review solidified a conclusion that would have echoed on this Georgia scene 40 years ago. As Villarosa said in her article, “For black women in America, the inescapable climate of societal and systemic racism can create the kind of toxic physiological stress leading to conditions—including hypertension and preeclampsia—that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal mortality . And this societal racism is further expressed in widespread, long-standing racial biases in health care—including the dismissal of legitimate concerns and symptoms—that may help explain poor birth outcomes even among the most advantaged black women.”

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