Sneak Peek 3: Introduction

An excerpt from the collection’s Introduction

by Jamie White-Farnham and Cathryn Molloy

“The best doctors are not intimidated by knowledgeable patients.”
–Donna Laux, this volume

At a time when women’s health concerns are at the center of national debate, women strive to influence matters of research, funding, policy, and everyday access to healthcare. Public examples include Angelina Jolie’s announcements of her prophylactic mastectomy and oophorectomy in The New York Times as well as Lady Gaga’s recent announcement of her fibromyalgia diagnosis, which she shared on social media and in an HBO documentary (Fallon, 2017). We take these personal, yet public rhetorical acts as the type that constitute health activism, or “how the discourses of health and bodily well-being [circulate] among different social movement sectors and [create] grounds for coalition and conflict (Loyd, 2014).

In 2019, discourses around women’s health and bodily well-being are rife with conflict; elaborate legal, corporate, and activist organizations support, provide, govern, require, and often limit women’s knowledge, power, and participation in their own health and healthcare. A constant stream of commentary from politicians, government officials, and media pundits analyzes and scrutinizes women and their health choices. Rather than critique the unfair and/or limiting structures in place regarding women’s education, access, and options, these comments often over-simplify the complex rhetorically-rich contexts of health choices, often focusing their attention on the women as pathetic victims, righteous feminists, or worse. In one compelling example, McMillan’s chapter in this volume (Chapter 15) points to Rush Limbaugh’s slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke–a law student who had the audacity to ask in public for the US government to pay for birth control.

In such a context, the writers and participants whose situations and problems are represented in this volume report that they are unheard, excluded, and disenfranchised. They express discontent with the low level (and sometimes absence) of rhetorical and material control they have over their own bodies. It is no coincidence, given the thrust of arguments against women’s health rights heard from Washington.

However, the evidence in the studies herein demonstrate that women do not always accept such treatment. Rather, the research participants, advocates, and activists in this book use surprising and perhaps sobering rhetorical strategies to interrupt, subvert, and affect change in health and healthcare arenas. These practices not only resist threats to women’s agency regarding their own health, but they also expand our understanding of rhetorical activism in health and healthcare. Specifically, the writing, arguments, and communication strategies these women rhetors and activists use constitute what we are calling rhetorical ingenuity–the practice of creating one’s own rhetorical means in highly charged, often technical, yet extremely personal rhetorical situations. We qualify rhetorical ingenuity as distinct from Aristotelian “available means” of persuasion, which typically necessitate the process of inventing arguments, arranging evidence, and considering counter-arguments. The distinction is necessary because, in the many discourses of healthcare, there is no template, no model, no “rhetoric” for how to gain what patients and activists often say they cannot get from the medical establishment: support, information, other people’s narratives, options outside mainstream medical advice, even certain products to bring relief. Still, rhetorical ingenuity involves uncovering latent sources of oppression in women’s health and medicine and employing tactics that successful women’s health advocates use to push for the care they want for themselves and for other women–all goals that align with RHM.

For instance, our contributor Qadri began her online platform to support patients with Lupus because literally nothing else like her site existed online. In Chapters 3 and 4, McKinley and Pengilly respectively explain how women with PCOS and Lupus seek and share information on online patient forums when medical authorities can’t provide them relief. These women work, sometimes in quite modest and unnoticeable ways, to expose inequities with an eye toward eliminating barriers and rectifying disenfranchising practices. We assert that these rhetors and activists are not only drawing on available means for persuasion; instead, they’re forging ahead with inventive uses of language to affect particular and urgent material changes on behalf of their own and others’ health and lives, but they also recognize the need to play the “long game” in terms of women’s health activism.

Joining the efforts to catalog and understand the ways that such writing and rhetoric are deployed within the context of women’s health activism, this collection has two main goals:

  1. to critique the institutional and public discourses that represent, position, or otherwise control women’s experiences in healthcare
  2. to enumerate and make available to a wider audience of patients, advocates, and activists the discourses women use to act and advocate on behalf of their own and others’ health and healthcare

get the book to read more


Fallon, N. (2017). Fibromyalgia: The pain behind Lady Gaga’s poker face. Retrieved from

Loyd, JM. (2014). Health rights are civil rights: Peace and justice activism in Los Angeles, 1963-1978. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press.


This work is copyrighted and may not be used without citation.

White Farnham, J, & Molloy, C. (2019). “Introduction.” In White-Farnham, J., Siegel Finer, B., & Molloy, C. (Eds). Women’s Health Advocacy: Rhetorical Ingenuity for the Twenty-first Century. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from

First edition published 2020 by Routledge
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Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
© 2020 Taylor & Francis
The right of the Jamie White-Farnham, Bryna Siegel Finer, and Cathryn Molloy to be identified as the authors of the editorial material, and of the authors for their individual chapters, has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

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