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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 512

Records of the Women's Community Health Center, 1953-1987 (inclusive), 1973-1981 (bulk)


Records of the Women's Community Health Center, a women-owned and women-controlled health center which provided medical services, primarily gynecological exams and abortions, and educational programs advocating the concept and practice of self-help, the sharing of skills and information to assist women in gaining control of their own health care.


  • 1953-1987
  • Majority of material found within 1973-1981

Language of Materials

Materials in English.


Access. All readers must sign a special form. Folders #4.11 and #5.5 are closed until January 1, 2050. Patient forms and records have been redacted and the originals are closed until January 1, 2050. Individual items, particularly those containing personnel information and patient names, are closed as noted to protect personal privacy. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the records of the Women's Community Health Center is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


7.51 linear feet ((18 file boxes) plus 6 oversize folders, 3 folio + folders, 1 photograph folder, 3 audiotapes, and 2 videotapes)

The collection contains committee meeting notes, correspondence, financial records, staff schedules, staff writings, press releases, public service announcements, printed material, and mailings. Also included is training material for staff on women's health issues, workshop and conference planning material, as well as patient forms, questionnaires, and evaluations. In addition, the collection contains material from other women's health clinics and organizations concerned with women's issues.

Folder headings created by the staff of the WCHC have been retained; the archivist’s notes are in square brackets. Loose materials were sorted and combined with the existing record system.

The records of the WCHC document the work of many women. Their efforts can be witnessed throughout the collection, particularly in the areas of correspondence, meeting notes, and writings. Because so many women were involved in the WCHC, an organization that functioned as a collective, evidence of their work appears throughout the collection and their names are not indicated on individual folder titles. Some of the women whose work is documented in this collection are listed below. Please note that this is not a complete list of WCHC staff.

Judy Abelow, Cookie (Frances) Avrin, Susan Bell, Davi Birnbaum, Jennifer Burgess, Joan Caly, Terry Courtney, Catherine DeLorey, Paula Garbarino, Gail Goldstein, Barbara Johnston, Martha Kleinerman, Devra Krassner, Terry Plumb Mason, Tavia Mead, Martha Radford, Janice A. Singer, Elizabeth Sommers, Sherry Weingart, Sally Welsh, Jill Wolhandler, and Ana Valente.

Series I, Administrative (#1.1-7.3), contains material relating to the administrative functions of the WCHC. Series I is divided into seven subseries:

Subseries A, History (#1.1-1.12), contains case studies and overviews of the WCHC, some written by staff members. Also included are meeting notes from the founding meeting, notes regarding the 1979 restructuring of the WCHC, and correspondence, audiotapes, notes, and clippings relating to the closing of the WCHC. The records are arranged chronologically. Information regarding the history of the WCHC can also be found in the annual reports (Series I, Subseries B).

Subseries B, Annual Reports (#1.13), contains annual reports for the WCHC, 1975-1977, and 1979.

Subseries C, Committees and Meetings(#1.14-4.2), consists of meeting notes and minutes from the WCHC's various committees. Included in this subseries are "business," "general staff," and "full group" meeting notes (which were meetings attended by the entire staff). Correspondence, articles, printed material, reports, etc., are mixed in with many of the meeting notes. Two sets of notes were found for the advisory board. The notes were combined and an attempt was made to keep supporting documents with the notes. Supporting material that could not be matched to a particular meeting has been retained in a folder following the advisory board notes. Meeting notes were kept in binders for viewing by other staff members. Some curriculum and training meeting notes can be found with the business meeting notes. The records are arranged alphabetically. Meeting notes for the founding meeting, as well audiotapes of a meeting with WCHC staff and the community regarding the closing of the center can be found in Series I, Subseries A. Meeting notes for the personnel committee can be found in Series I, Subseries E; meeting notes for the the licensing committee can be found in Series I, Subseries F; and meeting notes for the conference committee can be found in Series II, Subseries D.

Subseries D, Financial (#4.3-4.6), contains two ledgers detailing the finances of the WCHC and federal quarterly reports. In addition, it contains copies of grant applications and accompanying correspondence, as well as letters from donors, many who were patients of the clinic (their names have been redacted to protect their privacy). The records are arranged alphabetically.

Subseries E, Personnel (#4.7-5.14), contains job postings, staff lists, charts of work statistics, staff skill evaluations, and notes from personnel committee meetings. Also included is a transcript of an interview which was part of a lawsuit brought by a patient against the WCHC and a letter regarding the termination of an employee; both are closed until January 1, 2050. Staff work schedules are documented through personal time, or "tally," sheets (mostly undated), and monthly and weekly wall calendars. These monthly and weekly wall calendars show job assignments, committee meetings, and WCHC events. Many of them were oversize, on acidic paper, taped with pressure sensitive tape, and damaged by insects or rodents; these calendars have been trimmed for storage purposes, and the most fragile were photocopied and the originals were discarded. Documents containing the names of job applicants have been redacted or removed and are closed until January 1, 2050. The records are arranged alphabetically. Health workers' experience-sharing meeting notes can be found in Series I, Subseries C.

Subseries F, Licensure (#6.1-6.13), contains correspondence, applications, certificates, memos, committee meeting notes, and forms related to the clinic licensure process. Also included are mailings and chronologies sent to WCHC supporters and press coverage of the center's efforts to obtain its license, including clippings, radio transcripts, and a press release. The records are arranged alphabetically.

Subseries G, Correspondence (#6.14-7.3), contains correspondence from patients, women who attended WCHC presentations, former staff members, and women's health activists from various organizations. In addition, there are requests for information and replies from the center, and well as mailings providing updates on activities at the WCHC. Patient names have been redacted to protect their privacy. Also included are two logs of incoming mail. The records are arranged chronologically. Correspondence can be found throughout the collection; for example, correspondence related to the clinic licensure process can be found in Series I, Subseries F, and correspondence with members of organizations can be found with their organizations in Series III. General mailings for publicity purposes can be found in Series II, Subseries E.

Series II, Activities (#7.4-13.13), contains material related to the medical and educational programs and activities of the WCHC. Series II is divided into five subseries:

Subseries A, Patient Forms and Evaluations (#7.4-11.5), consists of completed medical forms and patient evaluations of WCHC medical services. These included general evaluation forms, which covered all types of medical services, and specific evaluation forms for abortions and participatory health sessions (for group healthcare). These evaluation forms provide insight into the patient's feelings regarding her experiences at the WCHC. In addition, there are pregnancy screening forms, medical "herstory" forms for pregnancy screenings, telephone counseling forms, and patient referral forms. There are also staff notes analyzing the feedback provided by the abortion questionnaires. Forms and evaluations with visible patient names have been redacted and the originals are closed until January 1, 2050. The records are arranged alphabetically.

Subseries B, Staff Training (#11.6-12.2), contains material used to train WCHC staff, including articles, clippings, printed material, and papers. Also included are notes from curriculum meetings and staff training schedules, instructions, and job responsibilities. The records are arranged alphabetically, with a folder of printed material about various women's health issues listed at the end of the subseries.

Subseries C, Workshops and Presentations (#12.3-12.9), contains teaching outlines, charts, printed material, participant intake forms, and class handouts related to various workshops and presentations offered by the WCHC. Forms with class participant names and medical information have been redacted and the originals are closed until January 1, 2050. Also included are meeting notes regarding health services and programs, and a folder with correspondence and a position paper related to the pelvic teaching program. Finally, there are two video tapes used in WCHC presentations: the "Well Woman Exam," created by the WCHC, and the "Woman Controlled Abortion," created by the Los Angeles Feminist Women's Health Center. The records are arranged alphabetically.

Subseries D, Conferences (#12.10-12.20), contains material related to conferences presented by the WCHC, particularly Women's Health Weekend. Included is planning material, budgets, notes, programs, correspondence, session feedback and evaluations, and conference committee meeting notes. In addition, there are notes, letters, and printed material from conferences attended by staff. The records are arranged alphabetically.

Subseries E, Outreach (#13.1-13.13), contains publicity, such as advertisements, pamphlets, stickers, flyers, press releases, and mailings. Also included are staff writings, press releases, public service announcements, and medical fact sheets, as well as articles and clippings about the WCHC. Finally, there is testimony by the WCHC regarding the Massachusetts State Health Plan. The records are arranged alphabetically. Publicity related to the clinic licensure process can be found in Series I, Subseries F.

Series III, Related Organizations (#14.1-18.20), contains material related to feminist health clinics and organizations. Series III is divided into two subseries:

Subseries A, Feminist Health Clinics (#14.1-15.14), contains correspondence, printed material, mailings, press releases, notes, minutes, budgets, statistics, grant applications, and lists of members of women's health clinics. Most of the material is related to the federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers, a network with which the WCHC had close ties. Included here is material documenting the "harassment" of these clinics by government and media, such as the investigation of the Los Angeles Feminist Women's Health Center by the California State Department of Consumer Affairs. The records are arranged alphabetically, with a folder of material regarding various health clinics listed at the end of the subseries. Material from the FWHC providers is located throughout the collection: training material can be found in in Series II, Subseries B; the "Woman Controlled Abortion" videotape can be found in Series II, Series C; and conference material can be found in Series II, Subseries D. In addition, there is some overlap with Series III, Subseries B, as many of these clinics were involved in WATCH (Women Acting Together to Combat Harassment).

Subseries B, Organizations (#15.15-18.20), contains correspondence, printed material, mailings, reports, notes, minutes, budgets, press releases, member lists, and testimonies. Most of the organizations are devoted to women's issues and health, and range from small, local, grass roots groups to large national organizations. Included here is information about WATCH (Women Acting Together to Combat Harassment) and Abortion Rights Movement of Women's Liberation (ARM). The records are arranged alphabetically, with two folders of material regarding various organizations listed at the end of the subseries.


The Women's Community Health Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was incorporated in February 1974 as a women-owned and women-controlled health center. A year earlier, in August 1973, self-help proponent Jennifer Burgess met Cookie Avrin at a self-help presentation in Worcester, Mass. Avrin informed Burgess that there were many women in the Boston area eager to start a health center. The women joined with other feminists to organize the First Annual Women's Health Conference at the Boston YWCA. By December 1973, a core group of women were meeting weekly to organize the center, and chose to form a collective. They filed for incorporation in February 1974, and in April moved into their new office at 173 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The core philosophy of the WCHC was self-help. Writing in 1976, staff stated that the WCHC was "a feminist institution which seeks radical social change by implementing the concept of self-help; the sharing of skills and information so that women can regain control of our health care and our lives." The WCHC sought to provide high quality, low cost health care for women. Initially, staff offered self-help programs and gynecological services, including pregnancy screenings, but by May 1975 they were performing first trimester abortions. Self-help programs covered topics such as paramedical skills, lesbian health issues, menopause, herbal self-help, and natural birth control. Staff gave presentations to groups, including a video presentation on well-woman healthcare, and slide presentations on the components of a good gynecological exam and women-controlled abortions. The WCHC maintained a library and produced medical fact sheets on women's health topics; literature was translated into Spanish and Portuguese. In conjunction with the Cambridge YWCA, the WCHC hosted annual Women's Health Weekends. In 1976, the center operated a pelvic teaching program for the Harvard Medical School in which WCHC staff acted as instructors and patients for medical students learning to perform gynecological exams. The program broke down, however, because WCHC staff felt that they were only valued by the medical school in their role as informed patients while their ideas on self-help and women-controlled exams were being ignored.

The WCHC maintained close ties with women's health clinics and organizations on a national level, particularly the network of Feminist Women's Health Centers. Staff were also members and supporters of WATCH (Women Acting Together to Combat Harassment), a national organization of women's health activists. In addition, they were involved with numerous pro-choice organizations, including Abortions Rights Movement of Women's Liberation (ARM) and the National Abortion Council (later Federation).

In 1975, the WCHC began a lengthy process for clinic licensure. Legally operating under the licenses of their doctors, the clinic license was needed in order to allow the WCHC to apply for third party payments, such as Medicaid, and to advertise their medical services. The center underwent numerous building inspections, navigated a zoning dispute with the city of Cambridge, and repeatedly re-filed paperwork that the city had lost. In 1977, the process was further hindered by the Massachusetts Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, which had launched an investigation of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's procedures and records relating to abortion. The Committee challenged the WCHC's ability to provide medical services, particularly abortions, while it was in the process of obtaining a license. To counter negative attention from the press, the WCHC responded with advertisements and a letter writing campaign. As a result of the Committee's actions, the DPH set a deadline for the WCHC to obtain its license. Rather than working to adapt their Hampshire Street location to meet code, the center looked for a new location, a process that was complicated by the negative media attention the center had received. The WCHC moved to its new location at 639 Massachusetts Avenue in April 1978, and received its license on April 25, 1978. Writing in the annual report for 1978, staff maintained that the "difficulties encountered [during the clinic licensure process] reflect ways that bureaucratic red tape can be used for conscious harassment. WCHC was subjected to this harassment because as an anti-capitalist, feminist self-help center it threatens the medical establishment and ultimately our political and economic system."

Founded as a collective, the WCHC operated on this consensus-driven model during its early years. Staff were expected to participate in the administrative, educational, and medical programs of the center; they rotated jobs, served on committees, and attended the weekly business meeting where major decisions about the center were made by consensus. This structure, however, was under constant review and the WCHC was reorganized several times. Because of the pressures of the process for clinic licensure, the WCHC created a steering committee in 1977, and ceased operating as a traditional collective. In 1978, an advisory board consisting of staff and feminists from the community (friends of the WCHC, former staff members, and other health workers) was established.

The WCHC operated on a suggested fee system of payment, and funding often depended on contributions from supporters. The WCHC did receive small grants from local organizations, including the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, but strove to fund the center through fees from medical services and honoraria from self-help presentations and groups. Until it received its clinic license in 1978, the center could not accept insurance payments. Throughout the WCHC's existence, finances were limited and its existence tenuous. On August 3, 1981, the WCHC closed and filed for bankruptcy. The closing was largely due to financial instability created by a decline in numbers of patients and past debt. In addition, staff maintained that the conservative political climate and the depressed economic conditions of the early 1980s made it difficult for their small, non-profit business to survive.


The collection is arranged in three series:

  1. Series I. Administrative
  2. ___Subseries A. History
  3. ___Subseries B. Annual Reports
  4. ___Subseries C. Committees and Meetings
  5. ___Subseries D. Financial
  6. ___Subseries E. Personnel
  7. ___Subseries F. Licensure
  8. ___Subseries G. Correspondence
  9. Series II. Activities
  10. ___Subseries A. Patient Forms and Evaluations
  11. ___Subseries B. Staff Training
  12. ___Subseries C. Workshops and Presentations
  13. ___Subseries D. Conferences
  14. ___Subseries E. Outreach
  15. Series III. Related Organizations
  16. ___Subseries A. Feminist Health Clinics
  17. ___Subseries B. Organizations

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 99-M101, 99-M109, 99-M153, 2001-M207, 2002-M39, 2002-M92, and 2005-M59.

These records of the Women's Community Health Center were given to the library by the Women's Community Health Center (via Cookie Avrin) in 1999. Related material was given by former staff members Cookie Avrin in 1999, Judith Stein in 1999, Paula Garbarino in 2002, and Susan Bell in 2005.

Processing Information

Processed: March 2005

By: Paula K. Aloisio

Women's Community Health Center (Cambridge, Mass.). Records of the Women's Community Health Center, 1953-1987 (inclusive), 1973-1981 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
Processing of this collection was made possible with gifts from members and friends of Women's Community Health Center in memory of Jill Wolhandler (1949-2002) and by a gift from the Radcliffe College Class of 1968.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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