No Feminism Without Healthcare

A conversation with Deborah Copaken about being a writer, cultural differences, the female body & the healthcare system


For this new episode of the Building Bridges podcast, I’m thrilled to share my interview with Deborah Copaken, an American author whose next book Ladyparts: A Memoir is to be released this summer (August 2021). We talked about the various dimensions of her work as a writer, living in Paris, and how the healthcare issue had played such a big part in her life and career decisions.

Deborah Copaken started off as a war photographer and travelled to Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Haiti… while being based in Paris (and Moscow) in between her assignments. She wrote a book about that part of her life titled Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War (2001). She also wrote novels like The Red Book and was part of the team of writers on several TV series, the last of which was Emily in Paris (Netflix).

I first discovered her through some of her poignant articles about motherhood, divorce, ill-health, abortion and sexual harassment in The Atlantic, the New Yorker and The New York Times. With a great sense of humour, she often uses her own life as the raw material to say things about politics and culture. Her brand of feminism is rooted in the body.

As I asked her questions about her adventurous life and successful career as a writer, I was struck by one thing: healthcare (or the lack thereof) has been the main driver of most of her career decisions for over two decades. This has led me to come up with this title for our podcast. What’s the point of feminism if you have no access to a proper healthcare system? Can one lead a free life without it?

We compared European (and in particular French) feminism with American feminism. And I came out of this conversation with one certainty: because of our more accessible healthcare system (and cheaper childcare services), we Europeans have it better. But it can’t be taken for granted. Healthcare is what we should continue to fight for. The rest is almost anecdotal…

Healthcare is all the more topical a subject as it’s at the heart of her next book, which I've just pre-ordered and look forward to reading. Deborah has undergone so many medical procedures over the past few years (hysterectomy, adenomyosis, tachelectomy…) that the expression “keeping it together” can be understood quite literally. As her body was falling apart, she wrote this book as a “cri du coeur”. Here’s what you can read about her new book on the Penguin Random House website:

Part cri de coeur cautionary tale, part dystopian tragicomedy, Ladyparts is Copaken’s irreverent inventory of both the female body and the body politic of womanhood in America. With her journalist’s eye, her novelist’s heart, and her performer’s sense of timing, she provides a frontline account of one woman brought to her knees by the one-two-twelve punch of divorce, solo motherhood, lack of healthcare, unaffordable childcare, shady landlords, her father’s death, college tuitions, sexual harassment, corporate indifference, ageism, sexism, and just plain old bad luck. Plus seven serious illnesses, one on top of the other, which provide the book’s narrative skeleton: vagina, uterus, breast, heart, cervix, brain, and lungs. She keeps bouncing back from each bum body part and finding the black humor in every setback, but in her slippery struggle to survive a steep plunge off the middle-class ladder, she is suddenly awoken to what it means to have no safety net.

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  • Also Building Bridges is part of a network of Substack newsletters, which you may want to discover: there’s my Laetitia@Work (about the future of work, with a feminist perspective), and Nicolas’s Colin European Straits (about the Entrepreneurial Age, viewed from Europe).

(Credit: Franz Liszt, Angelus ! Prière Aux Anges Gardiens—extrait du disque Miroirs de Jonas Vitaud, NoMadMusic.)