Video version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Lz1vamBjFA&t=615s
They’re the punchline to jokes on late night talk shows, subject of memes and general scorn. Along with flat earthers, people who don’t vaccinate their children— dubbed anti-vaxxers— are increasing in numbers and visibility.
But: I have some questions. I mean, how did this movement even start? Why did it begin in the US? And why does it seem that so many outspoken anti-vaxxers are women? Where are the anti-vax dads?
Instead of complaining about women making bad choices, I’m going to look at how Oprah, Facebook and big pharma screwed up. Bonus: deconstructing Karen memes. Also, if you’re after the science of vaccines, I’ve linked to some Ted Talks by doctors discussing this in the video description.
A crucial key to understanding anti-vaxxers is to realize: it’s not that people don’t believe or understand the science. It’s that they fundamentally do not trust it. Which begs the question: Why would a group of people stop believing in scientific research?
A great article in Medium by Wyatt Edward Gates explains why:
“My argument in summary: The core issue driving anti-vaccination attitudes is a lack of trust, rather than a lack of knowledge. Since nearly all anti-vaxxers are women, it’s likely this lack of trust is a direct result of well-documented mistreatment of women by the medical establishment as a result of endemic sexism. These breaches of trust may explain why a sane and rational mother would come to distrust medical science, from which it is a short leap of logic to distrust vaccinations.”
I’m also going to look at this claim: are most anti vaxxers women?
So, first, we’re going to need some background for context. We need to understand the world’s oldest profession, the natural result of when straight men and women are alone together.
I’m talking, of course, about midwives.
- Women have historically been left out of science and medicine. (focus: Europe 1600s-1900s)
Because it’s traditionally been a job for women, I’m going to use midwives to look at how sexism has impacted women’s health.
Childbirth has been the leading cause of death of women for millennia, and continuing advances in medicine have been helping to alleviate this.
Since the 17th century in Europe, there’s been an increased emphasis on the scientific method, which involved testing hypotheses and theories with careful observation.
However, women were left out of this change in science. Which is strange, considering that women have been helping other women give birth for centuries— and midwifery had its own system of apprenticeship and teaching. From the 1600s, many countries in Europe, such as England, France, Germany, Netherlands, and Italy, had various ways of licensing and training midwives. Furthermore, a few midwives even wrote their own medical texts and offered instructional classes. They weren’t all old women using old wives tales and folk remedies. Midwifery was a necessary and trusted profession.
But, during this time period, nearly all universities in Europe would not admit women. Women in medicine had other restrictions placed on them, too. For example, in the 1700s, male midwives and surgeons were allowed to use tools, such as forceps, while female midwives could not.
It was believed that women didn’t have the mental abilities to be scientists or doctors, a belief that persisted well through the 1900s. Echoing the popular thinking of his time, English naturalist Charles Darwin had complex views on the differences in men and women, and while he thought that women could, in practice, achieve the same as men, he wrote that “man has ultimately become superior to women.” The average people’s views on women were less nuanced. American doctor Edmund Hammond Clarke published a book in 1884 called “Sex in Education” where he argued that women could not attend university, because they would become sterile and develop mental problems because of the stress.
Even famous physicist Marie Skłodowska-Curie faced professional roadblocks. In 1911, the French Academy of Sciences rejected her application because she was a woman. “Women cannot be part of the Institute of France,” said one of the leading French physicists. Even for the most determined, there were institutionalized barriers preventing women from advancing in science and medicine.
By the 20th century, male doctors rose in popularity as the popularity of midwives declined in Europe. This decline was particularly steep in the US, especially as birth moved out of the home and into the hospital.
Over time, women began to prefer male doctors over female midwives.
This, to me, is the beginning of the gap between modern medicine and women. While I’ve focused on midwives here, there are other ways women have been left out of medicine:
–doctors ignoring women’s complaints of pain or not taking them as seriously
-women not being included in clinical trials as often as men
I’ve linked to some research about these points in the description.
So, this is our background: women have historically been kept out of medicine and women’s health issues have been overlooked.
- Enter: Spiritualism and alternative medicine
To understand the anti-vaccine movement, we should look at other times the US was fascinated by bad science and faith. Enter: spiritualism, a religious movement. Think seances, mediums, and being able to communicate with the dead. It first became popular in the 1840s, and a lot of the prominent spiritualists were women, such as the Fox sisters.
In her book, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century, author Ann Braude argues that spiritualism and women’s rights were linked, in part, because spiritualism was a way for women to defy the Victorian social conventions.
Moving into the twentieth century, after the rise of 1960s counterculture in the US, there was an increased interest in a loosely held group of practices labeled alternative medicine: everything from traditional Chinese remedies, like acupuncture, to outright pseudoscience, like homeopathy. In the 1970s, there was also an increase in home birth, fueled in part because of second-wave feminism. To me, this is where women’s distrust of modern medicine and a misplaced trust in alternative medicine began. Not that home birth is always better or worse than giving birth in a hospital, or vice versa. Or that the increased amount of medical intervention in birth has always been good. But making any medical decision based more on ideology than facts is a problem.
Books like “Witches, Midwives and Nurses,” published in 1973, helped cement this connection. Despite the fact that, for centuries, licensed midwives in Europe were affiliated with the church, and they were sometimes called on to testify and uphold church doctrine and morals— like testifying in cases of rape, or to see if an infant had been stillborn in cases of suspected infanticide.
The authors do acknowledge this discrepancy in the new edition: “We should clarify the role of the European medical profession relative to church and state.”
This is a dangerous combination. While medicine has failed women in a lot of significant ways, blindly putting trust in another system is not the answer. Further, equating all traditional forms of medicine as inherently feminist or women-friendly is disingenuous. Just because something is outside mainstream medicine doesn’t mean that it’s some type of innate, female wisdom.
And I’m saying this as a herb burning, candle lighting person who meditates in front of an altar and puts her rocks out in the light of a full moon to be cleansed. Just as not all Christians refuse chemotherapy for cancer treatment, not all new age believers take burning sage over the scientific method.
- Oprah and New Age BS.
And now, Oprah. She brought new age hocus pocus right into people’s living rooms.
Oprah introduced us to Dr Oz, a guy with a title and lots of opinions about medicine and your health. As for his reliability— well, this Slate article by Kurt Andersen sums up:
“For a study in the British medical journal BMJ, a team of experienced evidence reviewers analyzed Dr. Oz’s on-air advice—80 randomly chosen recommendations from 2013. The investigators found legitimate supporting evidence for fewer than half. The most famous physician in the United States, the man Oprah Winfrey branded as “America’s doctor,” is a dispenser of make-believe.”
I had some fun looking at old clips of Dr Oz’s advice on YouTube. Sometimes it’s pretty innocuous, like this quote about avoiding cigarettes and… toxins. You know, toxins. That extremely scientific word with lots of evidence to back it up.
And here’s Dr. Oz talking about how green coffee beans can help you lose weight. This has to be true, right? This isn’t utter quackery designed to prey on people’s insecurities and make money! He has doctor in front of his name! /s
Worse, Oprah gave Jenny McCarthy, patron saint of the myth of autism and vaccines, a platform to spout her nonsense. In 2007, McCarthy was on Oprah’s show, talking about her son with autism, and they had the following exchange:
MCCARTHY: First thing I did — Google. I put in autism. And I started my research.
WINFREY: Thank God for Google.
MCCARTHY: I’m telling you.
WINFREY: Thank God for Google.
MCCARTHY: The University of Google is where I got my degree from. … And I put in autism and something came up that changed my life…
The show is still up on Oprah’s website, without any acknowledgement of the junk science it contains. This is a screenshot I took of the website. Thank someone for Google, so I could find this.
Granted, Oprah isn’t the only celebrity hawking weird new agey stuff. And McCarthy isn’t the only celebrity in the anti-vax movement. For example, here’s Jim Carrey with her at a rally in 2008 in DC. Still, McCarthy has been by far the most outspoken and prominent celebrity spreading this nonsense, even writing an introduction to the book Callous Disregard, which was written by Andrew Wakefield, the discredited British doctor whose bad science and debunked research first suggested the now-disproven link between vaccines and autism.
In a bigger picture sense, however, I think it’s important to remember that in a way, McCarthy and Oprah aren’t outliers in promoting a blend of anti-science thinking with a sprinkling of new agey-ness on top.
For example, here’s actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s website Goop—with amazing stuff about cleansing your skin of toxins! And here’s Paltrow getting sued for advising people to put rose quartz eggs in their vaginas for very sound scientific reasons.
To be fair, this type of magical thinking isn’t reserved just for the new age. Here’s Christian evangelist Joel Osteen suggesting you can become rich just by visualizing money. I’m sorry, this sounds exactly like the wicca books I used to read in high school. And despite everything I saw in the movie the Craft, I’m pretty sure you can’t visualize things into existence.
In this context, anti-vaxxers seem a bit more understandable. They’re part of a larger landscape in the US of people who have been sucked into this very American idea that hard work is all you need, and somehow, our thoughts can shape reality. It’s like that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth created by Horatio Alger fused with medicine. Also, this isn’t the first time medicine and belief have been mixed up, with deadly consequences. In 1875, Mary Baker Eddy wrote a book stating that disease can be cured through prayer alone. Christian Science, the religion started from her beliefs, still has members that refuse medical treatment for their children, instead letting their children die.
Is it because Americans have historically mistrusted authority figures, or brushed off education and academics as being stuck in ivory towers? That’s a really good question, and one that would take a long time to answer. Longer than this video.
But here’s a key to understanding anti-vaxxers: their distrust in the medical establishment isn’t entirely unfounded.
On one hand, a healthy sense of skepticism about medical research fueled by profit can be a good thing. Advertising prescription drugs on TV, for example, seems like a really blatant confusion of medicine and profit.
For a personal example, I’ve struggled with depression for years, and a big part of my reason for not trying medication earlier was that I didn’t trust my therapists and doctors to make unbiased, informed decisions about my health. Were they recommending this because they truly believed it was the best course of treatment, or had they seen a lot of Prozac ads on TV?
More recently, with the opioid epidemic in the US, pharmaceutical companies have been sued over pushing doctors to overprescribe opioid based painkillers, downplaying how addictive and dangerous they are to doctors.
And anyone who’s ever had to buy health insurance in the US is also familiar with this.When your access to medicine and treatment is based not on whether you need it, but if you can afford it, it can be hard to trust doctors and the science behind medicine.
- People make money off of promoting bad science
So, with the long history of women being left out of scientific research, the spread of junk science through so-called alternative medicine, thanks in part to celebrities like Oprah giving Jenny McCarthy a platform… Enter: Facebook.
Social media is a platform that allows anti-vaccine messages to spread like wildfire. But it’s only coming from a few sources. As this February 2019 article in The Atlantic shows, most disinformation about vaccines comes from just seven different sites.
Most social media platforms have moved to block anti-vaccine content, or to keep it from showing up in searches. After places like Pinterest and GoFundMe stopped allowing anti-vaccine content on their sites, Facebook followed suit— but it has proved to be too little, too late.
From this Wired article: “The question is why the company waited until it became the subject of media reports and criticism from lawmakers to finally act.”
In March of this year, 18 year-old Ethan Lindenberger was vaccinated—against his mom’s wishes. When he appeared before the Senate to testify, he told them his mother got her information about vaccines from Facebook.
This is the part I wish got more airplay. Someone is feeding people bad information. It’s not just a lot of moms using Google over talking to their doctors— there are actual companies trying to spread bad science.
They’re hiding behind nice-sounding buzzwords like healthy, green and natural. Heck, in a way, they’re part of a larger trend in the US to be more ecological and to buy local food. And, in a move that surprises no one, they using “free speech” to defend their dangerous ideas.
But there’s a lot of dubious science out there, often tied with health. Vaccines affect public health, but organic foods and GMOs don’t have the same impact— and there’s plenty of misinformation floating about that stuff on the Internet. Again, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with preferring unprocessed foods over Spam or soup made in Keurig machines. But taking medical advice from attractive vegan bloggers over certified nutritionists or actual medical professionals is a bad idea. We all know that trusting memes or cute sounding Facebook pages is a lousy way to stay informed.
The problem is: anti-vaxxers take a reasonable idea, such as getting a second opinion about medical advice, and run with it to a dangerously irresponsible place.
Remember Edmund Hammond Clarke, the guy who said that if women went to university, they’d go sterile? It’d be nice to say that this line of thinking is outdated.
In 2005, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers said that men are better at women in science because of biological differences. While the systemic barriers keeping women out of science are gone, the old attitudes still clearly remain.
Whew, that was a lot of research! Time to look at some memes.
- Karen memes and blaming women.
So, last fall, I noticed memes and tweets using different women’s names cropping up. This was always a specific type of woman: older, unlikeable, and, well… judgmental.
Soon, one name was selected for this woman: Karen. On Reddit in particular, this name became synonymous with certain types of behaviors: complaining to the manager when needs aren’t met, expecting special treatment for having children… and in general, a sense of entitlement.
“Karen” has now morphed into a distinct caricature: complaining, using essential oils and crystals, and… and, strangely, anti-vaxxers.
Which brings me back to one of my first questions: where are the anti-vax dads? Watching news stories featuring interviews with anti-vaxxers, we see that it’s almost always women being interviewed. Studies have shown that women are more active in the anti-vaxxer movement than men. However, is it true that most people in the anti-vax movement are women?
While it’s our perception that there are more women anti-vaxxers than men, this isn’t necessarily true. A 2015 study by the consumer group CivicInsight found that more men than women hold anti-vaccine beliefs.
Surveys by the Pew Research Foundation show that more men than women distrust vaccines, though by a much smaller percentage: 11 percent of men to 8 percent of women say that vaccines are not safe. Also, some prominent anti-vaccine websites have been started by men, such as Joel Lord.
I am not suggesting that women should “defer to their husbands” or anything like that. But, parenting is a team effort, or at least it should be. I think it’s telling, and a little bit sad, that as a society, we’re all just sort of OK with women being the primary caregivers and letting men take the backseat. In addition, women are also often the ones who take more time off of work, or leave the workforce altogether, to raise children— often at the expense of their own careers.
Heck, even die hard redditors have noticed the weirdness of using the word “Karen” as a catch all term.
Which is why the anti-vaxxers being framed as women making bad choices really rubs me the wrong way, especially with the historic biases women have faced.
As if men are always rational, and never rely on superstition for anything (like the Red Wings hockey player’s tradition of never shaving beards during playoffs!)
Especially when anti-vaxxers are guilty of something most of us do: confirmation bias in research: In general, people read and watch stuff that reinforces their opinions.
To wrap this up: What can we do?
First, remember that anti-vaxxers are parents— misguided parents who believe in bad science.
What can you do?
- Listen without insulting or judging people who are hesitating. Telling people about the effectiveness of vaccines doesn’t make them want to vaccinate their children. Instead, let them talk. This is not to validate their beliefs—but to let them talk to someone outside the anti-vax groups about their concerns. Focus on the fence sitters, not the true believers.
- Normalize autism.
Part of the fear of vaccines stems from a fear of autism. Which is awful and judgmental. Kids with autism… are kids! There’s something really terrible about preferring measles to autism. People with mental health issues, such as myself, or people with autism, are people first and foremost.
- Don’t share insulting anti-vax memes.
Yes, anti-vaxxers are wrong about the science. But remember: this hesitancy comes from an understandable place. They’re not actively trying to kill or maim their children, or start an epidemic. You will not will a “most correct person on the internet” award.
And as research shows: you will not change an anti-vaxxer’s mind by showing them evidence. The bandwagon of making fun of anti-vaxxers as dumb— you won’t get a gold star by being “the most correct person on the Internet.”
- Support legislation requiring mandatory vaccines.
The most effective way to deal with this problem is by not debating it. Write to your state governor, your Congresspeople, and tell them you want vaccines to be mandatory to attend public schools. Support laws like (Like No Jab in Cali.)
- Report/flag any anti vaxxers propaganda you see.
Remember, the actual villains here are the companies that profit from spreading bad science. Facebook’s reporting system is pretty bad, but it’s worth a shot.
Finally: remember how we got here. If there were as many female doctors as male ones, if doctors took women’s health concerns more seriously, if women were better represented in clinical trials… this issue wouldn’t be what it is. Sexism brought us here, and fighting sexism will get us out.
Thanks so much for reading! For reference, the books I used most for this video was Inferior, by Angela Saini. For the history of midwives, I used the Art of Midwifery, an extremely well-researched book. That book focuses on Europe. For the US, I used Lying-In. A video version of this is available by clicking the link at the beginning.
My script advisor was Brianna Stallings.
Complete list of sources:
Vaccination: A Story of Risk & Community | Dr. Lindsay Levkoff Diamond | TEDxBoulder
Why I Changed My Mind On Vaccinations | Danielle Stringer | TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity
Brianna Stallings: https://mbriannastallings.contently.com/
Sympathy for Anti Vaxxers, Wyatt Edward Gates
Women’s concern of pain being ignored:
Charles Darwin’s views on women:
Edward Hammond Clarke:
Spiritualism and women’s rights:
Book: Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century America By Ann Braude
Spiritualism and suffragettes:
Birth in the United States:
Book: Wertz, Richard W, and Dorothy C. Wertz. Lying-in: A History of Childbirth in America. New York: Free Press, 1990.
Home birth in the 1970s:
Book: ”Witches, Midwives, and Nurses” by Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English, 1973. Second edition, 2010.
Midwives and the church: Marland, Hilary. The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe. London: Routledge, 2005.
Oprah Winfrey helped create our irrational pseudoscientific American fantasyland:
Dr Oz’s bad medicine:
Mothers Battle Autism:
Christian Scientists and child deaths:
Where anti-vax info comes from:
On Facebook waiting to take down anti-vax info:
On the groups that spread anti-vax info:
Women more active in anti-vaxxer posts online:
More men than women have anti-vaccine beliefs:
Showing evidence to anti-vaxxers doesn’t work, but images do:
“Don’t try to convert the antivaccinators, instead target the fence-sitters”
Book: Saini, Angela. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, 2018.
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