header image

Paging the Papmobile: Southern Jewish Women and the Women’s Health Movement

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | June 2, 2020 | No Comment |
Hadshot of Jillian Hinderlier

Jillian Hinderliter

Guest Post by Jillian M. Hinderliter, Pearlstine/Lipov Center Research Fellow and PhD Candidate in History, University of South Carolina

In late October 1975, the Papmobile rolled into the parking lot of the Edisto and Orangeburg plants of Greenwood Mills. Female textile employees could take advantage of this “gynecologist’s office on wheels,” for pap smears and breast and pelvic examinations carried out by specially trained nurses. The Papmobile, emblazoned with the words “American Cancer Society” and “Medical University of South Carolina,” offered free pap tests and other screenings in an effort to reduce deaths from breast and uterine cancers.[1] Plant managers across eastern South Carolina could request the Papmobile visit their operations, as could churches and colleges.[2] In November, the Papmobile visited Francis Marion College and the Florence-Darlington Technical College. Newspaper articles heralding the arrival of the Papmobile stressed that no appointments were necessary, and all women could utilize its services.[3]

Newclipping from 1975 announcing Papmobile

Newspaper coverage of the Papmobile in Orangeburg, SC, 1975

By 1976, the board of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Charleston Section recommended the purchase of a projector and educational film for the Papmobile that could teach women about breast self-examinations.[4] Although the NCJW Charleston does not often appear in histories of the women’s health movement, I believe that its support of local women’s health initiatives connects its members to broad networks of activists who called for feminist revisions to women’s health care in the late twentieth century. While the history of the women’s health movement often focuses on organizations with national reach or reputation such as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (authors of influential health manual Our Bodies, Ourselves), there is also a great deal of women’s health history to be discovered in the records of local and regional women’s organizations.[5]

Beginning in the 1960s, activists of the women’s health movement widely critiqued misogyny and sexism in American medicine. They worked to redefine the relationship between women and their doctors, their bodies, and their health policy makers. Activists called for accessible health information, feminist clinics, greater access to formal medical education for women, stronger standards for informed consent, and much more. The cause was also shaped by Jewish women, as they were remarkably prevalent among the founders of the women’s health movement and the women’s movement at large. Influential health journalist and activist Barbara Seaman wrote that eight of the twelve founders of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective were Jewish, as were four of the five founders of the National Women’s Health Network, a women’s health advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.[6]

Yet, this is not only a story of Jewish women impacting women’s health reform through secular feminist avenues and organizations. I believe that long-established Jewish women’s organizations formed another access point for Jewish women to participate in the women’s health movement, often by adapting their women’s health messaging and approach to meet local needs. This past January, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks exploring Charleston’s robust history of Jewish women’s activism and I began to discover how Jewish women’s organizations complicate the history of women’s health activism on the local level in this period. Rather than showing the evolution of women’s health initiatives though secular organizations alone, the archival records I found in Charleston suggest that women’s health activism in the South was also advanced by Jewish women’s organizations shaped specifically by Jewish social justice values. For historians to create a fuller record of the women’s health movement in the United States, we must understand how activists could be compelled by a multitude of social justice traditions.

Hinderliter on front porch of KKBE

Hinderliter at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Hasell Street, Charleston, SC

As a Charleston Research Fellow supported by the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture, I turned to the records of organizations such as the NCJW Charleston Section, synagogue sisterhoods minutes, and personal papers for narratives of health organizing. Dr. Dale Rosengarten and the supremely helpful staff at Addlestone Library’s Special Collections also directed me towards family histories and oral history interviews which showed the diversity of health initiatives in Charleston. Though regional narratives are often overlooked in broader histories of women’s organizing, I am determined to include southern Jewish women in my doctoral dissertation, “Patients’ Rights, Patients’ Politics: Jewish Activists of the U.S. Women’s Health Movement, 1968–1988.”

Among the collections I accessed, I was particularly interested in the records of Charleston’s NCJW in the 1970s and 1980s, as some council chapters vocally supported reproductive rights and issues like the Equal Rights Amendment. Before visiting the archives, I learned that Janice Karesh represented the Charleston Section in 1969 during a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Columbia considering the liberalization of abortion laws in South Carolina. “I feel that no woman should be forced to bear a child at the expense of her own life or at the expense of the health of her other children,” Karesh said in her testimony. She added that a woman should not be forced to carry a child “conceived in hate – for that is what rape is.” The bill, introduced by state senators Hyman Rubin and Frank Owens, would extend abortion access on the grounds of “substantial risk” to the physical or mental health of the mother or child and permit abortion in cases of rape, if the assault was reported within seven days. A panel of three physicians would have to certify that an abortion was necessary.[7]

Though I am still working through my research from January, I see evidence that Jewish women’s organizations in the Charleston area like the NCJW took on women’s health as a key feature of their activism by the 1970s. While it can be difficult to identify the full extent of NCJW Charleston’s views on the issue of reproductive rights before Roe v. Wade, some members were publicly backing a more liberal abortion law in South Carolina. Based on the copies available in the archive, it seems that the NCJW Charleston Section’s newsletter, The Councillor, rarely used phrases common in the women’s health movement such a “taking our bodies back” or “demystifying” the body. Nonetheless, their continued investment in women’s health is evident in their support for a rape crisis center and the work of the “Papmobile.”

The women’s health services supported, at least in part, by the NCJW Charleston in the 1970s addressed issues central to the work of women’s health activists nationwide. The crisis center “People Against Rape” provided a number of services to women including counseling by center volunteers who were trained by a psychologist. The Councillor called for volunteer counselors and interested NCJW members to fill support roles for the rape crisis center.[8] The board’s recommendation to purchase an educational film on breast self-examinations for the Papmobile in 1976 suggests that the leadership of the NCJW Charleston supported women’s increased access to health information and a deeper understanding of their own bodies.[9] While breast cancer awareness is essential to this purchase, we should not overlook the importance of self-help in the revisioning of American medicine advanced by the women’s health movement.

In the twentieth century, the NCJW Charleston had a long history of supporting services for patients with health issues like tuberculosis and diabetes. They also organized events such as Tay-Sachs screening drives to help meet Jewish community health needs. Their support for women’s health programs in the 1970s is part of this extensive organizational tradition. The archival and oral history collections at the College of Charleston provide a vital link to this aspect of southern Jewish women’s history. My fellowship at the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture helped me connect with Charleston’s remarkable history of Jewish women’s activism. I look forward to including the NCJW Charleston and other Jewish women’s organizations in my dissertation and exploring how their southern stories nuance the history of women’s health in the United States.


[1] “Papmobile Offers Free Examinations,” The Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, SC), October 31, 1975.

[2]  Bonnie Pleasants Dumas, M. Clinton Miller III, Paul Underwood, Jr., et al., “The South Carolina Papmobile Program: A SAS Application,” SAS Conference Proceedings: SAS Users Group International ’79 (SUGI 1979),

January 29–31, 1979.

[3] “Papmobile to Visit Area,” Florence Morning News (Florence, SC), November 25, 1975.

[4] The Councillor Newsletter, February–March 1976, p. 7. National Council of Jewish Women Charleston Section records (Box 4, Folder 8), College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, SC, USA.

[5] For an excellent study of Jewishness and the Jewish founders of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, see Chapter 4 of Jewish Radical Feminism by Joyce Antler (New York: NYU Press, 2018).

[6] For these statistics, see Barbara Seaman, “Health Activism, American Feminist,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. March 20, 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/health-activism-american-feminist

[7] Al Lanier, “Abortion Law Change Pushed; Only One Witness Opposes S.C. Plan,” The Greenville News, March 13, 1969. Note: In the newspaper article, she is listed as “Mrs. Irwin Karesh.” I learned of Mrs. Karesh from Dr. Jennifer Gunter’s dissertation Sex and the State: Sexual Politics in South Carolina in the 1970s (University of South Carolina, 2017).

[8] The Councillor newsletter, July–August 1975, p. 5. National Council of Jewish Women Charleston Section records (Box 4, Folder 8), College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, SC, USA.

[9] The Councillor newsletter, February–March 1976, p. 7. National Council of Jewish Women Charleston Section records (Box 4, Folder 8), College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, SC, USA.

under: Charleston, Health Care, Research Projects, SC, Social Activism in the South, Southern Jewish History, Women's Organizations

Leave a response -

Your response:


Skip to toolbar