By 1973, the U-M obstetrician-gynecologist J. Robert Willson had been at the top of his field for years.
As chair of obstetrics and gynecology in the Michigan Medical School since 1964, he had built the department into one of the best in the country. He had published dozens of scientific studies. As an officer of national organizations of ob-gyns in the years before Roe v. Wade, he had been a strong proponent of women’s right to abortion. And he was co-author of a leading textbook for medical students, Obstetrics and Gynecology, already in its fourth edition.
Then, in the spring of that year, Willson learned that a small group of local activists calling themselves Advocates for Medical Information (AMI) planned a ritual burning of a copy of his textbook in the center of the Diag.
AMI’s indictment against Obstetrics and Gynecology: It was “sexist.”
To most Americans of the early ’70s, the word “sexist” was new. It had been coined only a few years earlier. Like a racist judging people by their race, the writer Caroline Bird said in 1968, a sexist “judges people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter.” As the modern feminist movement gathered force in the early ’70s, the assault on sexism was spreading.
In Ann Arbor, Dr. Willson was its latest target.
“Boorish and disgusting”
When AMI’s activists announced their plan, debate flared in the pages of The Michigan Daily. But the argument was over the tactic more than the target.
Whatever the merits of AMI’s complaint, the Daily said, its protest would be “boorish and disgusting.”
“The Nazis burned books by Jews and Communists,” the editors declared. “The Russian Communists burned ‘counter-revolutionary’ books . . . AMI could hardly have chosen a worse tactic to express their distaste for the book . . . [It] symbolizes the destruction of the right to freely express ideas, whether people find those ideas repugnant or not. Burning a book is an act of censorship that strikes to the heart of an academic community and any society that wishes to call itself free.”
AMI fired back.
“If you think symbolic book burning is ‘boorish and disgusting,’ try reading the book,” wrote Kay Weiss, AMI’s co-founder, to the Daily.
She offered a catalog of quotations from Obstetrics and Gynecology, including:
- The traits that compose the core of the feminine personality are feminine narcissicm, masochism, and passivity.
- The normal sexual act . . .entails a masochistic surrender to the man. . .there is always an element of rape.
- She is likely to. . . think of the vagina as a “dirty cavity.”
The day of the protest approached. Dr. Willson was “deeply distressed,” according to a spokesman for the Medical Center, but he wouldn’t speak to Daily reporters.
The Medical Library put its six copies of Obstetrics and Gynecology out of reach.
“The books have been placed in the rare book cage until they’ve finished burning somebody else’s copies,” said David Maxfield, head of the library. “When they cease to be hot we’ll put them back on the shelves.”
On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 11, members of AMI dressed in white lab coats dragged a barrel labeled “Trash Burned Here” to the middle of the Diag. About 150 students gathered to watch. Some cheered, some hissed as the protesters incinerated a copy of Obstetrics and Gynecology and several other books, including David Reuben’s Any Woman Can, a best-selling guide purporting to advise women on the secrets of sexual fulfillment.
“We’re burning more than just a book today,” declared Nancy Lessin, of Ann Arbor’s Free People’s Medical Clinic. “We’re symbolically destroying a tool used by medical schools to kill and maim and bring suffering to women in this country.
“No one would mind if we burned a textbook that taught doctors to use unsterile methods, to abandon anesthetics, and to rip into the skin with dirty instruments.”
Public fires violated a city ordinance, but two Ann Arbor cops just looked on from the edge of the crowd. President Robben Fleming said he disapproved, but only after the fact.
Dr. Willson’s response
Over in the Medical School, Dr. Willson pondered what to do. Nearly two weeks after the protest, he put his thoughts in a letter addressed to the editors of the Daily.
“I have no concern that there is disagreement with parts of the book,” he wrote. Other ob-gyns had already voiced some of the same concerns to him.
What bothered him, he said, was that AMI’s activists had not addressed him directly, as his colleagues had — and that others “have not made the effort to examine the book itself.”
The protested passages looked different in context, he said.
For example, the full passage about “dirty cavities” came from “a discussion of douching in which we say that douching is almost never necessary,” he wrote. “The rest of the paragraph is as follows: ‘Some women will protest that they feel cleaner after a douche, and a few will hesitantly tell us that they are aware of an unpleasant odor unless they douche regularly. Both of these reasons express a psychologic rather than a physical need for cleanliness. The physician should explain . . . that the organ is neither unclean nor malodorous . . . This explanation is particularly helpful to the obsessive woman who tends to think of the vagina as a ‘dirty cavity’ that needs careful cleansing once or several times a day.”
The only copy of Willson’s letter is a typescript in his papers at the Bentley Historical Library. Either he chose not to send it, or the Daily’s editors chose not to publish it. The latter is unlikely, since they had published many letters on the book burning and had sought Willson’s comments. So perhaps he thought it better to let the matter blow over and filed the draft of his letter away.
In private, he confided to a colleague that the key chapter in question “probably should be redone completely” for the next edition of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and that a woman should write it.
When the next edition was published in 1975, it included this note: “The women’s liberation movement has been an important influence in altering sexual roles in a most dramatic way. [T]he new ideal places a woman’s position as equal to that of the male . . .”
Five revised editions of Obstetrics and Gynecology were published after the book burning, the last in 1991.
Dr. Willson remained chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology until 1978. He retired from the faculty in 1983 and died in an auto accident in 1993. A professorship in the Medical School is named in his honor.
Sources included The Michigan Daily; the J. Robert Willson papers in the Bentley Historical Library; “The Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology” in The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey (forthcoming); and “Feminism Friday: The Origins of the Word Sexism,” in Finally: A Feminism 101 Blog.