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Doohickey Project opens minds, cervixes

by Amy Kingsley

The women grouped cozily in a Westerwood living room on a chilly Saturday evening passed pots of peppermint tea and plates of vegan chocolate chip cookies. Upstairs, children rattled around and shouted.

“First we’re going to do a little go round,” said Lea, a presenter from the Doohickey Project, a women’s health collective in Portland, Ore. who wished to remain anonymous. “We’ll all introduce ourselves and say what most interests us. Oh, and if you want to answer the question, what did your mom call the down-there zone?”

The collection of about a dozen women, which included mothers, lesbians and single girls in their early twenties, didn’t offer much in the way of creative nomenclature.

“A term that my stepmom used with my stepsister that I never liked was ‘Minnie’ in reference to Minnie Mouse,” said Margie.

“My mom called it the Kit Kat,” A said. “I always liked that term. It was so loving and positive.”

A, who has a distinctive first name, also wanted anonymity. Other members of the group offered more standard suggestions. Lea and Jess, the other project member who also requested anonymity, presented the exercise as an icebreaker, but it proved an instructive undertaking. As the women plumbed their memories trying to recall their mothers’ terminology, the logic behind the organization’s name – doohickey as a term for the unnameable – became clear. The two young women, both in their early twenties, charged forward with the goal of at least demystifying, if not renaming, the taboo organ.

To that end, Jess and Lea toted a large handbasket filled with speculums and thin mimeographed pamphlets. It sat in the center of a table crowded with mugs and teapots. The project, currently comprised of the two speakers who visited Greensboro, has been on the road for some seven and a half weeks. They started their trip with 550 vaginal speculums and a mission to educate women on how to take charge of their own gynecological health.

By the time they hit Greensboro, weeks of sleeping in strangers’ houses, eating road food and driving nonstop had caught up with them. Lea fought a sniffle and Jess battled the twin affects of early Lyme disease and an intense antibiotic regimen.

Greensboro, unfortunately, would not be the town that gave them a pass. Instead, the women of Mimosa House and their guests talked for almost four hours about female health issues. They started with an anatomy lesson; Jess rolled out giant laminated illustrations of what A’s mom called the “Kit Kat.”

Jess and Lea busted out a rhyme about the organ’s various parts, dwelling on its positive attributes and emphasizing the broad range of female sexual response.

“During sexual stimulation the uterus and ovaries move upwards in the body,” Jess said. “And that pulls the muscles tight.”

After the anatomy lesson, the participants dwelt at length on the physical and spiritual aspects of menstruation. Women traded stories about how their unique menstrual experiences and how they honor that part of the fertility cycle.

Another hot discussion topic was fertility method, a type of birth control in which women monitor their body’s ovulation cycles. The women traded pros and cons of non-hormonal, non-medical types of family planning. Jess said they intended the workshops to emulate the tradition of women trading information about natural methods of birth control.

“As long as there have been people having sex there have been people having abortions and using birth control, either by using herbs or fertility,” Jess said. “As we’ve gone away from that to a medical model, we’ve lost a lot of knowledge.”

Self-knowledge, to the ladies of the Doohickey Project, includes personal familiarity with reproductive organs. At one point Lea dropped trou, grabbed a hand mirror and a headlamp and settled on the floor to demonstrate a do-it-yourself self-examination. Attendees rummaged through the basket trying to find the proper size speculum to try it themselves at home.

The ladies of the Doohickey Project cover a broad range of female health concerns, from access to prenatal care to forced sterilization, and they tailor their presentations to each group. But their most controversial program topic, and the one of most interest to the Greensboro group, concerned alternatives to clinical abortions. Jess and Lea encouraged women considering herbal abortions to research the success rate and side affects of each method before attempting to perform one. They also displayed a picture of a Del-Em device for menstrual extraction commonly used before the legalization of abortion in 1973.

For all their radical advocacy, the women urged deference to medical professionals for annual pap smears and for an abortion backup plan.

“Cervical cancer is something to be taken seriously,” Lea said. “Getting a pap smear is something I highly recommend.”

It was almost 10 p.m. when the group disbanded. Jess and Lea shouldered their supplies – now lighter by more than a dozen speculums – and departed into the cold. Inside the house, the women warmed another pot of tea and continued the conversation.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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