The 20 Best Moments in Women's Health
Gallery of the most important moments in women's health history of the past 20 years
The best of times
From epidurals to tampons, here's Health magazine's list of famous highs in the last 20 years of female wellness.
The (modern) tampon
Look, we’re not trying to knock the ancient Egyptians, who used softened papyrus to stem the monthly menstrual flood. (That definitely beats the lint wrapped around a piece of wood that the ancient Greeks favored.) But if Earle Haas, who devised the modern tampon in 1929, were alive today, we’d all wear white pants in his honor. Haas adapted a cotton surgical plug ("plug" translates to "tampon" in French) with two concentric cardboard tubes for easy insertion; he filed for the first patent for his "catamenial [menstrual] device" in 1931. Haas, a Denver osteopath, dubbed his new invention Tampax.
The Pap smear
The next time your gynecologist tells you to "just relax" as she pokes at your cervix with a cotton swab, lie back and think of George Papanicolaou, the guy behind the roughly 75 percent drop in mortality rates from cervical cancer in the United States since 1941. Papanicolaou invented the Pap smear in 1941; the screening susses out iffy-looking cervical cells before they have a chance to become full-blown cancer.
Mastectomy loses stigma
Back when cancer was the whispered "C word," before Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller spoke out about their breast-cancer diagnoses, former child star Shirley Temple Black revealed that she’d had a mastectomy in 1972. Her action helped lift the disease’s stigma. Since then, the Pink Ribbon campaign has raised awareness and research dollars to find a cure, and women worldwide know to get screened.
The epidural is born
After his wife almost died from complications with anesthesia during the birth of their first child, John Bonica, MD, invented the epidural in the 1940s and used it on his wife the second time around. Nice, right? Tell your husband that the least he could do is take out the recycling.
The Pill declared safe
On May 9, 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pill as a safe form of birth control. Forty-eight years later, it’s the most popular form of reversible birth control.
Get this: Until 1969, a woman couldn’t elect to have her tubes tied unless she fit a formula—her age multiplied by the number of children she’d delivered had to equal 120 or more. (What that means: If you were 30 years old, you would have to have had four kids before a doctor would have agreed that you’d done your share of "women’s work" and sterilized you, unless another pregnancy would have posed a health risk.) But in 1970, tubal ligation got the green light for all and is now the leading method of birth control.
If you need to know something about your body, what do you do? Look it up, of course. But before 1970 there weren’t any good resources. That year a group of Boston women published a stapled-together bookletthe precursor to Our Bodies, Ourselvesand fueled the burgeoning idea that women should be full participants in their medical care. Three years later, the radical publication (which discussed such issues as sexuality and birth control) was beefed up and released by Simon & Schuster. It’s now in its eighth edition.
Body talk for girls, too
Periods, flat chestedness, masturbation, sex. No topic stressing the teen girl was off limits for revolutionary writer Judy Blume. In 1970s classics like Deenie, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, and Forever, Blume gave readers fictional alter egos that reassured usyou are so normal.
Edith Bunker's change
All in the Family’s put-upon Edith Bunker goes through menopause in front of a live studio audience in a landmark 1972 episode. When she couldn’t contain her mood swings and other symptoms, her small-minded husband, Archie, nearly blew a gasket and hilarity ensued. More important, women could now point at the TV and say, "See, it’s not just me."
Billie Jean King wins
In a 1973 match billed as The Battle of the Sexes, tennis pioneer Billie Jean King fries self-proclaimed male-chauvinist pig and ex–tennis champ Bobby Riggs. Coming on the heels of Title IXwhich mandated that female athletes be given the same resources on a college level as male athletes—her win encouraged more women to go out for sports. "She has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise," Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated.
The sports bra
Lisa Lindahl, a female grad student, (with the help of two classmates) sews together two jock straps in 1977 and harnesses the power of the very first Jogbra. Bounce is effectively banished.
Betty Ford opens up
These days, addiction is seen as a treatable, if tenacious, illness. But back in 1978, it was viewed as a character flaw. First Lady Betty Ford’s openness about her addiction to painkillers and alcohol after a family intervention in 1978 sent her to rehab was nothing short of revolutionary. She later founded the Betty Ford Center, a facility that that’s helped tens-of-thousands of women recover from drug or alcohol dependency.
Demi poses pregnant
These days we practically expect a woman to show off her gorgeous pregnant shape, but in 1991 a very expectant Demi Moore made news when she sat sans clothes for a Vanity Fair cover shoot. "You’re either sexy or you’re a mother," Moore said in a 1996 Interview magazine profile. "I didn’t want to have to choose, so I challenged that."
Marge makes Me Time
After überselfless Marge loses it from stress in this classic 1992 episode of The Simpsons, she runs away to a spa for rejuvenating treatments and Thelma & Louise on demand. She returns home less wiggy, and Homer and the kids survive (just barely) without her. Score one for Me Time!
Trials include women
After years of conducting clinical and drug trials on white men and crossing their fingers hoping that the results would apply to women and everyone else, the National Institutes of Health in 1993 finally adopted the official policy to include more women and minorities in their testing. This paved the way for breakthroughs like discovering differences in men’s and women’s heart attack symptoms.
U.S. World Cup win
Brandi Chastain fell to her knees and whipped off her jersey after her penalty kick scored the winning goal against China in the Women’s World Cup soccer final in 1999. She later called the exposure "momentary insanity," but the win inspired little American girls to not cut gym class.
Kathleen Turner bares all
The ever-sexy actress shows what 45 looks like by going au naturel onstage in the London tour of The Graduate in 2000. Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson!
Sure, colon cancer affects men, too. But you didn’t see any of them undergoing a colonoscopy on live television like Katie Couric did in 2000 to raise awareness after her husband died of the disease. Colonoscopy rates jumped 20 percent following the show, showing that the journalist’s gutsy move made a difference.
Everyone’s obsessed with how quickly celebrities rebound back into their prebaby premium jeans. But flat-bellied actress Sarah Jessica Parker made us mere mortals feel better by pointing out that she has a private in-home yoga instructor and child care that enables her to have long workout sessions. "Not only is the standard too high for most normal women, it’s too high even for us," she said six months after delivering her son, James, in 2002.
HPV vaccine emerges
Gardasil, the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer—or any cancer—was approved by the FDA in 2006. The vaccine wards off certain types of human papillomavirus, including two that cause roughly 70 percent of cases of cervical cancer, which kills nearly 4,000 women a year.