Supporting Women’s Health
Supporting Women’s Health
When Elizabeth Curtis ’17 was a junior at Williams, one of her friends got pregnant. At the student’s request, Williams’ health center referred her to Dr. Joan Lister, the only provider in Berkshire County at the time who offered abortion care to patients with no established OB/GYN.
Curtis accompanied her friend to the appointment—“being there for her for emotional support,” she says. The experience paved the way for Curtis to found the Berkshire Doula Project (BDP) and, ultimately, to become an abortion doula and nurse.
Now in its sixth year, the student-run collective, part of Williams’ Center for Learning in Action, educates students about reproductive rights and provides support to people throughout the Berkshires facing what Curtis calls “big reproductive moments.” Those might include having an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted for birth control or having an abortion.
Many people understand the term doula to mean a person who provides emotional, physical and spiritual support during or after childbirth. Curtis first learned about abortion doulas when she met members of the Wesleyan Doula Project at a conference during her first year at Williams. Wesleyan’s is the oldest college-based doula collective in the U.S.
Curtis began exploring how to start a group at Williams, but the college’s rural setting presented challenges. A Planned Parenthood office in Bennington, Vt., was a half-hour drive away, and she discovered the address in Google Maps was wrong when she tried to visit. The next-closest providers were an hour or more away. During Winter Study of her sophomore year, she completed an independent study project on birth practices and birth workers in the Berkshires.
Meeting Lister was a pivotal moment. Lister, who is now retired, says she was open to having Williams students shadow her at the hospital to encourage women in medical careers and “to have more people who hadn’t been through a termination understand what it was all about.”
Curtis founded the BDP her senior year, with the help of Kim Gutschow, senior lecturer in anthropology and sociology. With support from the New York Doula Project, a dozen students were trained as abortion doulas by the time Curtis graduated.
Having watched the BDP grow from inspiration to activist group, Gutschow, who is now the group’s faculty adviser, says that Curtis “has a way of bringing people together. Her special gift is that she sees how areas of shame and stigma can be areas of empowerment because you find a group and share the experience.”
Curtis went on to a Fulbright fellowship, researching healthcare options for women in rural communities in India. She is now a postpartum and abortion recovery room nurse and is studying at the Yale School of Nursing to become a midwife. Last May, she returned to campus to speak about women’s reproductive health at the Women of Williams Conference celebrating 50 years of coeducation.
“One of the greatest powers of the Berkshire Doula Project was that it broke down the ‘purple bubble’ for me and got me more based in the Berkshires”—places she “never would have sought out as a student,” Curtis says.
The experience also helped her understand her role in the world: “Not just ‘I’m a student, I’m learning,’ but ‘I can have an impact. I can help. I can do all these things while still being a student.’ It made me a lot more confident stepping into spaces as a healthcare provider.”
Reported by Lucera Whitmore ’23, Katie Maier ’26 and Regina Velázquez, Associate Editor and Senior Writer in the Office of Communications
Top photograph: Elizabeth Curtis ’17 (right) and Nisha Davis ’05 took part in the panel “Women’s Health: From Periods to Pregnancy to Perimenopause and Beyond” at the Women of Williams Conference in May 2023. View the full recording of this panel online. Photograph courtesy of the Office of College Relations
Bottom photograph courtesy of Berkshire Doula Project