Inside the Three Days That Reframed Black Women’s Health

Forty years ago, Black women convened to discuss how race affected their health, inspiring remarkable changes.

An audience of Black women are mostly standing and clapping inside a vaulted room
In June of 1983, Black women gathered for the First National Conference on Black Women’s Health Issues.Photo Illustration by Alanna Fields; Photograph, via Spelman College Archives

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

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

I was struck by 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 the Georgetown University Law Center. “I think that was probably one of the first places I heard about abortion,” Smith told me. “I think it was the first time that I heard open conversations about sexual violence, that people really talked about domestic violence. I think it was probably the first time that people acknowledged, or that I got the sense that people were open about, loving other women.”

Nancy Anderson was a young doctor working at a county hospital in Atlanta at the time. “I had read a book called ‘This Bridge Called My Back,’” Anderson said. “That was where I realized that, ‘Ooh, there are people who are describing, really, what it’s like to be a Black woman.’ They had all kinds of points of view. I realized that I could find other people like that in Atlanta.” Reading the book, a collection of writings by women of color, helped begin a process of exploration that brought her to the event at Spelman. Thousands of similar discrete catalysts led women all over the country to organize buses and car pools and make their way to Georgia.

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

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

The conference reframed health as being inextricable from racism.via Spelman College Archives

The event gave rise to 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 that would go on to hold conferences of their own.

The circumstances that led 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 were dying during or after giving birth, Linda Villarosa chronicled in deep and intimate detail what was known about the persistence of Black maternal and infant mortality.

Years of careful studies and academic reviews reinforced a conclusion that would have been resonant on that stage in Georgia 40 years ago. As Villarosa put it in her article: “For Black women in America, an inescapable atmosphere of societal and systemic racism can create a kind of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions — including hypertension and pre-eclampsia — that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death. And that societal racism is further expressed in a pervasive, longstanding racial bias in health care — including the dismissal of legitimate concerns and symptoms — that can help explain poor birth outcomes even in the case of Black women with the most advantages.”

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