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DES Daughters

Book cover credit: Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, The Heart of the Rose,
circa 1902. 97.8 cm × 100.3 cm. © The Glasgow School of Art Collection

DES Daughters by Susan E. Bell

From the 1940s to the 1970s, millions of women were exposed prenatally to the synthetic estrogen DES, a "wonder drug" intended to prevent miscarriages. However, DES actually had damaging consequences for the women born from DES mothers. The "DES daughters" as they are known, were found to have a rare form of vaginal cancer or were infertile. They were also at risk for miscarriages, stillbirths, and ectopic pregnancies.

In DES Daughters, Susan Bell recounts the experiences of this generation of "victims." In moving, heartfelt narratives, she presents the voices of those women who developed cancer, those who were cancer-free but have concerns about becoming pregnant, and those who suffered other medical and/or reproductive difficulties.

"In this wise and well-researched book, Susan Bell uses a narrative analytic strategy to both present and make sense of the ‘embodied social movement’ that arose among ‘DES Daughters’—women (and later some men) whose mothers had been given a ‘wonder drug’ to prevent miscarriage in the 1940s, 1950, and 1960s that only from the 1970s forward was understood to produce devastating reproductive-tract results. Bell shows us how their experiences changed, as did the women’s movement, health care activism, and scientific and biomedical practices. The result enables us to understand not only what women have to say about taking action to preserve and protect their own lives and the lives of others but also how both U.S. health movements and those who want to understand them evolve over time"
—Rayna Rapp, Professor of Anthropology, New York University, and author of Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America