Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias
In 1973, social workers in Montgomery, Ala., expressed concern to Minnie Relf, the mother of sisters Minnie Lee and Mary Alice. The sisters, both impacted by learning disabilities, were 12 and 14 at the time. Boys were “hanging around,” the social workers said, so they took mother and daughters to a hospital for the contraceptive shots they’d received before. Mother Minnie, who could not read or write, signed a consent form with an ‘X.’ Minnie was shocked when she later saw her daughters in hospital gowns, and in pain. Instead of receiving shots, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice had both been sterilized by tubal ligation.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit representing the Relf family. According to the SPLC, the investigation “exposed the widespread sterilization abuse funded by the federal government and practiced for decades.”
Helen Rodríguez Trías was born on July 7, 1929, in New York City. Her family lived in Puerto Rico for most of her youth before moving back to the city when Helen was about 10 years old. As a Puerto Rican child in New York, she experienced a new sort of racism.
In 1948, at age 19, Helen enrolled at University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, with her eye on a medical career. Medicine, she said, “combined the things I loved most, science and people.” Her track through college was not a short or easy one. Helen joined some 6,000 other students in a strike to protest the university’s decision to block a speaker who promoted Puerto Rican independence.Helen’s brother had been helping her pay for college, but “if I were in a political movement, he would no longer help me.” So, she left school and returned to New York. She married lawyer David Neumark Brainin on Jan. 22, 1949. The couple had three children—JoEllen, Laura, and David—before divorcing in 1954. She remarried later that year to Puerto Rican writer Eliezer Curet.
Helen soon returned to her medical studies in San Juan, landing right in the heart of another political churn. Before the 1973 Roe V. Wade ruling, U.S. American women, like Rowena Gurner of the Army of Three, crossed the ocean to terminate their unwanted pregnancies. Helen’s interactions with patients and other medical students drew her attention to a desperate need.
At age 31 in 1960, she graduated from medical school. She finished her residency at San Juan’s University Hospital, then began teaching there. The National Park Service reports, “She also established Puerto Rico’s first infant health clinic. The results of her work were immediate: within three years, infant mortality at the hospital had declined by fifty percent.” When she returned to New York in 1970, she joined the Lincoln Hospital of the South Bronx as the director of pediatrics. She also continued teaching as an associate professor at a few nearby universities.That same year, Helen became an active member of the women’s movement.
The focus on abortion pulled her attention to the issue of reproductive rights as a whole. San Juan physicians had begun suggesting sterilization to some of their patients (often failing to inform the patient that the procedure was permanent) in the 1930s, and the practice spread. According to “The Role of Sterilization in Controlling Puerto Rican Fertility,” a 1969 article by University of Maryland sociologist Harriet B. Presser.According to the National Women’s Health Network, “By 1965, one-third of all Puerto Rican mothers aged 20-49 were sterilized.”
In 1974, Helen helped found the Committee Against Sterilization Abuse and then the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. She joined the American Public Health Association in 1972, expanding her mission to not only serving individuals but pushing for changes in policy, law, and government that impact people’s daily lives.In the 1980s, she became medical director of the Department of Health AIDS Institute in New York, working primarily with HIV-positive women and children. And in the following decade, she joined the Pacific Institute for Women's Health as co-director. She also helped found the Women's Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus of the APHA.
On Jan. 8, 2001, Helen received a Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton for her “unwavering conviction,” as she “challenged discriminatory practices in health care, encouraged community involvement in creating healthy environments, worked to prevent the spread of AIDS, and advocated for improving women's and children's health.”
She died on Dec. 27, 2002, from complications related to lung cancer.The APHA established an award in her honor and National Women’s Health Network named its leadership development program after her. Daughter JoEllen followed her mother into the medical field, earning a degree in psychology and working as an attending physician.Toward the end of her life, Helen said, "I hope I'll see in my lifetime a growing realization that we are one world. And that no one is going to have quality of life unless we support everyone's quality of life.”
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Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 9/10/2023