DES Daughters

DES Daughters: Embodied Knowledge and the Transformation of Women's Health Politics

Susan Bell - DES Daughters - Embodied Knowledge and the Transformation of Women's Health PoliticsFrom 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.

Bell examines the hierarchy of knowledge and power of scientists, doctors, and daughters, tracing the emergence of a feminist health movement. The "embodied knowledge" of these DES daughters prompted them to become advocates and form a social movement that challenged reproductive medical knowledge specifically, but also the politics of women’s health in general. Bell’s important book chronicles the history and future of these grassroots activists born out of illness, suffering, and uncertainty.

If you would like to contact Professor Bell with questions or comments about her book or the resources provided here, please do so through her faculty page.

paper EAN: 978-1-59213-919-4 (ISBN: 1-59213-919-1)  $24.95
cloth EAN: 978-1-59213-918-7 (ISBN: 1-59213-918-3)  $74.50
232 pp 6x9 4 halftones

Publishers Site for the book:

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

More About the Cover Image:
I love the image of a fetus being held between two women, or passed from one to the other, or a fetus carried by one woman growing up and becoming another woman, depending on how you see it. What does the fetus-in-the-rose signify? Are the women sisters? Are they a mother and daughter? Is one woman caring for the other? Are they sharing this child or sharing the care of the child? Their clothing overlaps, their bodies are conjoined. Is this an image of collaborative labor?
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh was a Scottish artist who worked in a variety of media (watercolors, graphics, textiles, metalwork and gesso) during the late 19th and early 20th century. She used gesso – a form of decorative plaster that was used by Renaissance artists – in The Heart of the Rose. Her gesso panels were typically large, their surfaces were textured, and their design was intricate and painted with soft colors. The Heart of the Rose is one of a pair of gesso panels that Macdonald Mackintosh exhibited during the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, Italy, in 1902. The gesso panels by Macdonald Mackintosh were part of an installation (The Rose Boudoir) she and her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh created for the Exhibition. This installation brought to international attention the image known as the Glasgow Rose and other elements of what came to be known as “The Glasgow Style.” The Heart of the Rose also reflects a feminist challenge to the prevailing visual vocabulary of women in which Macdonald Mackintosh, one of artists known as “The Glasgow Girls,” participated. Macdonald Mackintosh made duplicate panels of the pair (The Heart of the Rose and The White Rose and the Red Rose) that were installed at a private home in Glasgow and acquired by the Glasgow School of Art in the 1950s.
Macdonald Mackintosh collaborated with her husband, the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, on many projects including Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms in Glasgow. Margaret and her sister Frances studied at the Glasgow School of Art; they set up an independent studio in Glasgow and worked together on a series of book illustrations and other works of art. Later, they formed an informal artist's group that became known as "The Four" with two other students they met at the GSA, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair. Today the two sisters are the most widely recognized women who articulated and fostered the Glasgow Style.
Sources: The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society (  accessed Sept. 6, 2009)
Jude Burkhauser, ed. ‘Glasgow Girls’: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920 (Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1993)
Janice Helland, The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996).