THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Ginny Cassidy-Brinn, MSN, ARNP
“The Movement Gave Me a Life.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, July 2021
GCB: My name is Ginny Cassidy-Brinn. And I was born at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
JW: And when was that?
JW: Tell me what your life was like as a child, before the women’s movement.
GCB: I was the oldest of five children in a very strict Catholic family, and my father was a military officer. I went to Catholic school throughout all my years of school through high school. And only after I left my family and went to college, did I even meet anybody who wasn’t white and looked just like me. At one of the Catholic schools I went to, every year, they would put us into the Church, and they would read us a story that was written supposedly in the first person by a fetus. And the fetus would say, today I can feel my fingers and toes are forming. It was kind of like each week the fetus would tell us about its development, and I can hear my mother’s heartbeat and I love her so much. And then the last sentence would be today, my mother killed me. And we would all be so upset and horrified. I would say that my upbringing did not encourage me to go into the women’s movement.
JW: Well, what did encourage you to go into the women’s movement?
GCB: When I left home to go to college, I went to San Diego State College, which was a local public college. And suddenly I learned that there were all these serious moral people out there who didn’t believe in the Catholic Church’s teaching. There were other ways of looking at things and kind of the whole structure I’d been brought up with just fell away. And I was looking for something to replace it. And I guess for me it became Marxism at first. But there was also all this joy and meaning in the youth culture and the music, the anti-war movement. And I was really inspired by the black liberation movement and the whole idea of identity politics, in which by working on your own liberation, you would eventually change the whole world and everyone would become free.
And I would read the Village Voice every week, and I also went to marches. I worked on the alternative newspaper. But at least as far as I knew, there was no women’s movement in San Diego. And then in 1971, I read an article in the Village Voice written by Ellen Frankfurt about the self-help movement. Carol Downer and Lorraine Rothman from Los Angeles had gone around the country showing women how to look at their own cervixes. By learning about your own body and liberating yourself that that could lead to change for myself, but also for the whole world. I found that really inspiring.
I was pretty young and I was in San Diego at that time. Why didn’t I just drive up to Los Angeles and meet them? But I waited for them to come. And eventually someone did come and showed me my cervix. And then I saw what the doctors had been seeing. And then eventually there was a big meeting in the gym at San Diego State for everyone who was interested in women’s liberation. And there were a bunch of signs and you went to the sign of what you were interested in. I went to self-help and rape crisis. Then we started a rape crisis hotline where volunteers would go out if someone called. And also, a self-help group.
JW: You stayed connected to Carol and the others through that work, I assume?
GCB: Yes, eventually everything I was doing was our self-help group. And it was really scary at first. We must have met for six weeks before anybody even tried to look at their cervix. But somebody had gone to a conference, and they heard that Francie Hornstein had just jumped up on this table and showed everybody her cervix. So finally, we took the plunge, and one of us got the speculum in, and it took a while for us to all work together to find our cervix. But it was just this amazing thing that we could do this. And gradually we began talking and sharing experiences.
And like other self-help groups, we figured out that the range of normal was much larger than we had been taught and that our bodies were beautiful. And for me, this was just a really incredible experience, because I would say always before this, if I was naked with another person, it was anxiety producing in some way. But this was just totally safe. And it was a celebration. I think I, and I think the others, too, we just developed this feeling of confidence that flowed from the center of our being, where our genitals were and feeling that we were powerful and good enough and just a really wonderful kind of psychological experience.
And then right around the time of Roe vs Wade, the women came down from LA, a group of women from the LA Feminist Women’s Health Center. The health centers had been started by Carol and Lorraine and Francie. And they told us that we had to open an abortion clinic, that clinics needed to be controlled by women. Before Roe vs Wade, in California, if you wanted to get an abortion, you could get an abortion. But it had to be done in a hospital and had to be done to save the life of the mother.
So, these former maternity hospitals came and just did abortions. They kind of facilitated the process. The woman would sign a paper that said she would kill herself if she didn’t have an abortion or something like that. And then she would get the abortion, which everyone knew was just kind of a pro forma thing. But we learned later that having to sign that paper caused a lot of really long-term damage to women’s psyches. But anyway, we idolized these women. If they told us to do something, we were going to do it. And if they told us we could do it, then we believed them. So, we did. We started a clinic. They helped us find a doctor. They lent us instruments. And in January ’73, there were seven of us. We each put in $100, and we opened our clinic in San Diego.
JW: Now, did the doctor do all the abortions, or did you have equipment that you could do what people called menstrual extraction at the time?
GCB: Well, that wasn’t part of our licensed clinic, but on our own, [we] continued to do menstrual extraction that we had learned in the self-help group. At that time when you got a pregnancy test, it couldn’t even show positive until you’re about six weeks pregnant, and you had to get it through a doctor. And often it would take about a week for the results. By this very gentle process that we had learned of extracting a menstrual period, or whatever was in our uterus, you could do that before you even knew if you were pregnant or not.
It was kind of like a way of saying we’re not doing anything illegal. It’s not an abortion, but whether we’re pregnant or not is irrelevant to us at this time. We thought it was really important before Roe vs Wade. And then after Roe vs Wade, we thought it was important to have that skill. And then we also, by the learning to do that had learned this much safer method abortion than what was being taught. First of all, when abortion became legal, there were very few people who had ever been trained to do an abortion except those that were doing illegal abortions.
There were some physicians who had done illegal abortions, but there weren’t really enough of them to meet the demand for legal abortions. We would take physicians who had been trained to do a procedure called D & C, dilatation and curettage, which is more dangerous and more painful. And it’s a sharp knife, a round-ish knife. That’s the curette that scrapes the inside of the uterus. But in Japan and other countries, they had been using a much gentler procedure, which was the same as what we did for menstrual extraction of a soft cannula that gently suctions out the uterus.
This model of clinic that was pioneered and created, we would hire the physicians. They were our employees, and we would train them in this gentler technique. It was very unusual for the physicians that decided to work for us because the person who was their assistant was actually telling them what to do. And then there was a woman advocate in the room with the woman who is having the abortion to help her to relax, but also to make sure that the physician treated her respectfully. It was kind of a switch in the power dynamics in women-controlled clinics.
JW: Just curious, were all of these doctors, men?
GCB: Every so often there are some women, very few. And they were amazing. I remember one, Jane Patterson. She was one we worked with in LA. She was a feminist and a lesbian and just a wonderful person. But mostly they were men and not as familiar as male physicians are today with how women should be treated.
JW: And how about racially? Was it mostly white women that you were able to treat? Or did you have a mix of races?
GCB: I would say the women who came for abortions were a mix of white women and women of color. In San Diego, many more white women. But I later went to work up in LA at the LA Feminist Women’s Health Center. And that clinic was in the middle of an area, what’s now Koreatown on the edges of the black area. And a large portion of the women who came there were women of color.
JW: What was your role at the clinic?
GCB: Well, the clinic in San Diego was a collective. We all did everything, although one of the women in our group, Edie Berg, she had just had a baby at home, with a physician. And she was a childbirth educator, and she really wanted to offer a childbirth program. And I was really deeply interested in that. I think I really wanted to have a child. I helped Edie set up this clinic, this part of our program, and all the prenatal business were in groups. Our goal was to just let the women connect with each other and talk to each other and kind of facilitate that process.
And then after the baby was born, they would have their well child checkups in a group also. There was a lot of closeness and support that developed. And then the women could choose either have a home birth or a hospital birth, and they could even choose up to the very end of the pregnancy. It was a wonderful program in addition to the abortion program and the gynecological services.
JW: At what point did you move to LA?
GCB: In ’76. And that was really exciting because the LA Feminist Women’s Health Center was a place where health activists came from all over the world to work and to learn. And it was just really exciting. I met so many amazing women who were doing amazing things and continue to throughout their careers.
JW: And what was your role there?
GCB: It was also a collective. We called ourselves directors, and we rotated all the duties. There was clinic administration and there was advocacy with the government, the state government and the federal government. I was so lucky to be part of that movement because I got to do things I would have never done.
JW: Give me an example.
GCB: Well, first of all, just all the education we did going to college classes and talking to women about health care. But also, we were always under attack in our clinic. We would have sometimes the state, sometimes news organizations would send in fake clients to try to trap us. And we were often under threat of being arrested for practicing medicine without a license. And so there came a point where it looked like they were going to close down our clinic and arrest all of us. And we organized a big opposition to that.
Women were writing to the state government. At that time, Jerry Brown was a very liberal governor. But there were a lot of civil service employees who had been in state government forever, who were anti-abortion. And through that, there was enough outcry among feminists and recognition of the importance of our work, that they backed down from arresting us. And then Jerry Brown was looking for a radical nurse to serve on the nursing board. And because they knew us because they almost had arrested us, I got appointed to the board that regulates the practice of nursing.
JW: You were trained as a nurse academically?
GCB: While we were doing the clinic, I was also in nursing school. So much of what we were doing was in opposition to established medical practice. And I remember I’d be in the clinic or where women were having babies. And I would just go to a pay phone and call and say, okay, this is what they’re doing now. This is crazy, right? And they’d all go, yeah, yeah, that’s crazy. They shouldn’t be giving that medication or they shouldn’t be treating the woman this way. I said, okay, thanks.
JW: Did you become an RN?
GCB: Yes. I became an RN. But my role in the clinic at that time was pretty much the same as everybody else. We had this clinic – this was one of the reasons for some of the legal problems – called the Participatory Clinic, where women who came in for gynecological care would come in a group. And we would show them how to look at their cervix and they would share with the group what their problem was. Maybe they thought they might have a vaginal infection. We’d show women in the group how to take samples, and we’d set it up under the microscope so they could look at it.
They were actually participating in their own diagnosis. And there were no physicians involved. And what we believed was that normal gynecological care was geared towards women’s normal functions, pregnancy, menstruation, puberty, menopause, making them into diseases. We don’t need surgery and drugs. We just need information and education. We were framing the healthcare as not diagnosing and treating, but there were people that disagreed with our assessment.
JW: Tell me about your role then on the state board. What year was that?
GCB: Probably ’78. One of the things about health care that is still true, but not as bad now, but is still a big problem, is that the higher paid parts of the healthcare workforce are white and the lower paid, lower responsibility parts tend to be people of color, and this affects every part of health care. People of color get inferior healthcare. There’s a huge difference in maternal mortality between white women and black women, for example. Part of what makes this happen is discrimination, both in education, nursing education, medical education, and also in the licensing exams.
When I was in nursing school, I had really seen firsthand some of the racism where the first black people to be in the nursing program at San Diego State were basically driven out by the faculty. They were constantly being told that you’re not really RN material. Maybe you should become an LVN. And my friend and I, who were kind of close at that time, talked to them. We set up a table and we wrote a petition, and we started trying to get people to sign the petition to do something about this. But they told us they just really weren’t up for this. They didn’t want us to do it. They were not up for the fight. They just wanted to leave, which I could totally understand.
Then when I got on the nursing board, there was a chance to really question all these nursing programs that we were accrediting about how they were handling having a more equitable and more diverse student body. But one of the things that one of the attorneys brought to our attention was that there was a law passed in the very progressive ’30s in California, that if a licensing exam has an adverse impact on a particular minority, then the burden is on the licensing exam to prove that it’s actually measuring the skill that is supposed to be measured.
We took the licensing exam to first look to see if there was an adverse impact. And not surprisingly, black people, mostly women, but of all genders, scored much lower on the exam than whites. And the rate of passing was much lower for people of color. Then we decided we wanted to look at this exam and evaluate whether it was really measuring skills required for nursing. It’s a national exam. It’s administered by a private company. It’s kind of weird, this private entity has sort of a governmental function, really.
We told them we needed to open up the exam and have some clinical experts look at it. Well, they said there’s absolutely no way you’re opening this exam. There are all these security issues. No one is allowed to see this exam. And we said, well, we pay you for this exam, and aside from New York, we’re your biggest customer. And if you’re not going to let us open the exam, we’re going to go to another company. And they quickly changed their opinion. And this was this big sacred cow in the nursing profession.
We had all these security measures that we went along with. But we got clinical experts and really importantly for us politically, the nurse consultants who had been working in that department all their lives, who thought we were crazy for opening the exam, and that the exam was perfect, and we should just leave it alone. But we had them there also. And we went through the exam question by question, and everybody said what they thought the answer should be. We voted. And then we read the real answer. And everyone’s really shocked because the clinical questions, many of them were wrong. The answers were wrong.
And I later found out why. Because those questions were all being written by academic nurses who hadn’t maybe ever practiced in their whole lives. And they had no clinical people writing the questions. There are a lot of questions that had to do with, how would you answer, such and such, if a patient tells you this, what would you do? It was about just being non-judgmental. And if you’re kind of good at test taking, you would know all those answers. But the clinical answers were pretty crucial. So, we re-scored the exam, and it turned out the adverse impact was way less. It basically meant that a huge proportion of people of color who had failed the exam were now able to be licensed.
JW: Even though you’re saying most of the problems were with clinical, you think that had an adverse effect?
GCB: I just have a theory on that. But I think that a lot of the people of color who were becoming registered nurses had previous clinical experience. They maybe had other positions. They were able to go back to school and become an RN, whereas the white people more tended to be like, I’ve always wanted to be a nurse all my life and just went straight to it. They had very little clinical experience. I mean, I graduated from my nursing program, I had given one injection, and I had never done any other clinical procedures. I just had to learn that on the job. I didn’t have a lot of clinical knowledge when I got out.
I think it’s really changed. And we were able to pressure the people who made the test to have clinical people on their question writing. And I went back to, I think Chicago, but I was the first clinical nurse to be on a question. We reviewed the questions and picked the ones that we’re going to have. And that was quite an experience, too, because they didn’t like me. Whatever I voted on, they would vote against as a group. What I ended up doing was saying, “Okay, now I see this answer will be really good for the Filipino nurses because they’ve had this experience in the Philippines. I think this is a good answer because it won’t discriminate against them,” and then they’d all vote against it. But really, I was just doing that to trick them. I mean it was ridiculous.
JW: Do you think the exams are less discriminatory now?
GCB: I do think so. Yeah. I think that had a big impact, having clinical people review the questions. When I was with the people who had for years been reviewing the questions, I would say, “How do you know this is right, because this isn’t what we do in clinical practice.” And they would just quote another book written by another academic person who had never practiced. I’ve seen a lot of change in nursing.
JW: Was that the late seventies that you did that?
GCB: I think it might have been 1980 by the time we were reviewing the exam.
JW: Then did you stay with the clinic in LA for a while?
GCB: Yes. until I think 1985. I became a nurse practitioner. So basically, I got a license to do what I’d been doing all along in the women’s movement. That part of my career was really wonderful, having one-on-one interactions with people and showing them their cervix and being able to give them agency in their own exam and being a part of these big decisions that people make in their lives when they’re pregnant.
Later, about six years ago, I started learning about care for transgender and gender non-binary people from a really wonderful colleague who was themselves trans. And that’s been really inspiring, too, because the trans and non-binary people are really making huge changes in the world. And also for myself, just personally to explore my own gender and how I arrived; what brought me to identify as a woman. I think that’s been a real chance for learning a lot more about myself.
JW: And are you still practicing?
GCB: Yes, I practice part time. And I also, after leaving the LA Health Center, got more involved in education for healthcare providers. I moved to Seattle, and up here in the Northwest, I worked for a group that organized all the conferences and the training for Title X providers. Title X is funding for family planning. And most of those are nurse practitioners, and they’re just a wonderful group of people. And we were able to do a lot of really good training that affected the whole standard of practice in the Northwest. Title X was passed, I believe, under Reagan.
JW: Even before that, early ’70s.
GCB: Yes. Anyway, under a Republican. It was voted for by Republicans and Democrats together. It’s funding for family planning, health care. And that money is used to reimburse clinics for people that can’t afford health care. It’s the way that birth control became widely available in the US. And I was trained as a nurse practitioner using Title X funding. A lot of it is used for training of health care providers, clinic administrators. It’s a large amount of the funding. And I was involved in the training part.
And one of the issues that we dealt with in the women’s health movement was population control. And what I mean by that is there are the right-wing people that don’t want women to get birth control, who want everybody to just be barefoot and pregnant until they are too old to reproduce, and then there are also forces that just want to lower the population by getting women to use birth control, whether they want to or not, basically, convincing them or pressuring them. And there’s been a lot of emphasis on just getting these people on birth control versus giving the power over to the person who is able to get pregnant.
A lot of the education we did when I worked in the Title X education that I was really inspired by, was teaching providers about all the range of birth control methods that there are for women to choose from, women and other people who can get pregnant, including diaphragms, condoms, even withdrawal. It’s gotten really bad press because people don’t like the fact that it isn’t 100% effective. But many people have used that their whole lives and it can be very effective.
So, putting the agency back on the woman or the person who can get pregnant and helping them to choose the method that’s right for them, for their values. And being skilled in providing it, because there’s not a lot of training on these lower tech methods. Most of the training focuses on the methods that aren’t under the person’s control, like the IUD, which has to be removed by a medical professional or the implants that go in your arm. I think that’s a really important legacy of the women’s movement to continue trying to make sure that those methods are offered and that we really have a choice.
JW: And you said you arranged conferences for providers?
GCB: Yes, and then as it started moving to online training, creating online trainings.
JW: Are you still practicing a couple days a week? Is that what you’re doing?
GCB: One day a week. I’m also working on a regional conference coming up here in Seattle for nurse practitioners and primary care. And I and another person are doing a workshop on self-managed abortion, because now that the abortion pills are available, a lot of people are having their abortions at home, after taking a pill. And with abortion becoming much less accessible, a lot of people are ordering the pills online without even going to a doctor. In the olden days, before Roe vs Wade, people did die of abortions. But it was different, I think, than people think now.
Most of the serious issues after abortion were due to the fact that the person who had the abortion didn’t have any access to care. Any time people have abortions, there’s always a chance they will get an infection. And there’s always a small chance that some tissue could be left inside and you could bleed heavily or even hemorrhage. Before Roe vs Wade, you would be scared to go in and get care. And if you did get care, it might be really bad care. What women died of wasn’t usually the procedure itself. It was the lack of access to good care.
And one of the things that I hope can happen now that abortion is legal, but much less accessible, is that providers can learn to provide care to people who have had self-managed abortions, to provide a safe space where they feel that it’s okay to even reveal what they’ve done and that they can be treated and taken care of. And I think it’s really important at this time to have those skills get into the healthcare workforce. So that even if abortion becomes illegal, it will be much, much safer than it was before Roe vs Wade. And now we’ve got so many wonderful women doctors and feminist providers, that it is a perfect time to do this kind of training.
JW: How would you say the movement affected your life?
GCB: The movement gave me a life. I can’t even imagine what my life would have been without the experience of self-confidence and without the chance to engage in these battles and win some and lose some. But have an experience of power, collective power, and also of my own personal power. And then just all the interactions I’ve had over the years with women who are pregnant or also transgender and gender non-binary people. But people going through big, important life transitions and just seeing the wisdom and courage of people in their everyday lives.
It’s really been inspiring. And then also to be here long enough to see these younger feminists come, and they are just up for this battle. I mean, things are bad right now, but good luck with these. And my own two daughters, too. I just feel a lot of optimism about the future, even though we may be in for some really tough times.