Rita Arditti in 2005

By Richard Clapp and Genevieve Howe

The women’s movement and the environmental movement lost a champion on Christmas Day, 2009.  Rita Arditti of Cambridge, MA died, at age 75, after a phenomenally productive and inspiring life and a decades-long battle with metastatic breast cancer. She was born in Argentina and educated in Italy as a biologist, which led to doing research and teaching at Brandeis, Harvard, and Boston Universities. For the past three decades, she was a core Faculty member at the Union Institute and University and was professor emerita there at the time of her death. An unwavering feminist, she was a founding member of “Science for the People” and the New Words bookstore in Cambridge; she maintained her ties to the bookstore throughout its 28-year history.  Along the way, she wrote a book about women searching for their missing grandchildren who were among the “disappeared” under the military dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This influential book was titled Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina and was published in 1999.  Throughout her life, Rita could always be found at events, rallies, and protests against injustice and suppression of human rights.  Occasionally she was a speaker, but she always was present on the side of the oppressed.

Rita also helped found the Cambridge-based Women’s Community Cancer Project, and this is where we got to know her, learn from her, and be inspired by her.  The WCCP was founded in 1989 with the goal of sounding the alarm to the public and to the cancer establishment (huge government and private research money and tremendously profitable cancer treatment businesses) about the role of environmental exposures in contributing to women’s cancers.  It was the first such group in the U.S. and provided a model for several other now well-known groups around the country.  A striking public mural by Be Sargent in Harvard Square, Cambridge, depicts heroines in the women’s cancer movement and calls for implementation of the “Precautionary Principle.” The mural is captioned, “Indication of harm, not proof of harm, is our call to action.”  As part of its work, WCCP put forward radical critiques of the male-dominated, reductionist, treatment-focused, approach to cancer research; the influence of pollution-generating corporations on non-governmental organizations such as the American Cancer Society and government agencies such as the National Cancer Institute; and the resulting distortion of mainstream approaches to controlling cancer.  Rita was a leader in this organization for the past two decades and in a national and international movement to look “upstream” to the moral imperative of preventing women from getting cancer in the first place.

In a 2006 French documentary film about the “War on Cancer,” Rita said:

“My personal experience made me question the limits of the cure approach, because … contrary to what the doctor was saying, I wasn’t cured.  O.K.?  So my experience made me skeptical about what the medical establishment was doing. . . I’m happy that they’re finding new ways to treat cancer because I can benefit from it.  But, when you look at the overall situation, you see that the whole emphasis has been on treatment for those who already have cancer. . . or early detection. . . and that the emphasis on research for prevention, which should be on the same level or more for the millions of people who still don’t have cancer, this is totally deficient.” 

This view is shared by many in the environmental health movement, including Dr. Sandra Steingraber, who was among the legions of people inspired by Rita Arditti and has written eloquently on these issues in Living Downstream and other books. 

We will miss her deeply, but we will always treasure fond recollections of her, her tireless activism, and her extraordinary contributions.

Dick Clapp is Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health, and former co-Chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Genevieve Howe, MPH, is the Environmental Health Campaign Director at the Ecology Center, based in Ann Arbor, where she is the key facilitator of the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health. For the past 12 years, Gen has been involved in research, writing, and advocacy on topics concerning the impact of toxicants on public health and the environment and the political and economic forces that foster environmental contamination.