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How a Group of Friends Transformed Women's Health

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Thirty years ago, a group of women joined forces to write and publish the first edition of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Now in its fifth edition, the book has empowered millions of women to take charge of their health and their sexuality.

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Thirty years ago, a group of women joined forces to write and publish the first edition of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." Now in its fifth edition, the book has empowered millions of women to take charge of their health and their sexuality.
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Our Bodies, Ourselves

To mark Women's History Month, Women's Enews asked a handful--from a pages-long list--of leaders of the second wave of the U.S. women's movement that swept the nation three decades ago to look back on their work and answer three questions: In 1972, what were they fighting for? What did they accomplish? And what remains to be done? Five remarkable women responded. Today, Jane Pincus, a co-founder of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, incorporated in 1972, recounts how the group came together and ultimately broke society's taboos about openly discussing women's health issues.

(WOMENSENEWS)--A group of us in the late 1960s, about 25 strong, began to meet weekly in our kitchens and living rooms and launched a revolution--not the violent kind, but one that changed nearly everything.

We were women who had been involved in Students for a Democratic Society, as well as the civil rights and anti-war movements of the time, and began, as the tumultuous decade ended, to shift our focus from these events to ourselves as women. For the first time, we began discussing our health, our work, our medical care.

We were not professionals, really, but college-educated women, and, at that time, mostly white and mostly middle-class (this became an issue later). I was a high school French teacher and mother of two, nursing my newborn son. As we talked about what had happened to us during pregnancy, in labor, in our gynecologists' offices, in our bedrooms, the first thing we learned was that we were not alone.

We soon discovered a commonality of experience and developed ways to share our discoveries via women's marches, feminist periodicals and activism of all kinds. Since abortion was illegal at that time, pro-choice rallies united us. "Self-help" groups sprang up, the seeds of future women's health centers.

At a seminal women's conference in the spring of 1969, one of the group, Nancy Hawley, offered a workshop entitled "Control of Our Bodies." The following fall, a group of us in Boston began to gather weekly to tell of our experiences with the medical system and to share the information we discovered. Each of us researched something that had happened to us personally, from experiencing an abortion, to using birth control, to giving birth. We would meet every week, talk about these subjects and others, and discover that, in fact, we knew as much about ourselves as our doctors did--in fact, often we knew more.

We began to teach ourselves, covering even the very basics that were not widely known then, such as the function of the clitoris. A member would talk about what her experience was and then would agree to research the subject. Soon, we were lecturing about and then writing up what we knew.

Believing strongly that sharing knowledge gives us power, we offered a first "course," to be held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--then a male bastion. We advertised it only by word of mouth, with the first evening's subject "Sexuality," and drew a crowd of nearly 50 women.


Members Fought for Abortion Rights, Against Forced Sterilization

At that time, there were practically no books available on women's health issues. This course provided the foundation for the first edition in 1969 of "Our Bodies, Ourselves," published by the small, radical New England Free Press, and, with little or no marketing, our newsprint book found its way to a quarter million women. We learned later that many women entering college at that time received copies in their mailboxes.

Given our roots in political movements, we quickly made connections with what we were doing and what was going on elsewhere with women: We demonstrated for abortion rights at the Massachusetts legislature and made known the large percentage of women in Puerto Rico who were sterilized without their knowledge. We also learned and protested about women in Texas being given what they thought were birth control pills but were actually placebos. We learned the difference finances made when it came to receiving health care. We began to speak out more and urge women to go in pairs to their physicians so they would be sure to ask for answers to their questions.

It felt like we were at the center of the universe. We could talk about our experiences, our research, write a chapter and change the world. It was incredibly exciting.

In 1972, 11 of us incorporated as the Boston Women's Health Book Collective and the following year we published the book commercially with Simon and Schuster. Abortions became legal that year as well, and there was a burst of intense interest in women's reproductive-health issues. One of our members, Esther Rome, wrote about sexually transmitted diseases--how to prevent them and how to cure them--bringing the topic out into the open for the first time. We wrote about the three forms of birth control then available--the pill, the IUD and the diaphragm--and explained to women how to use them and what problems they might encounter.

As we kept meeting, researching and writing, we experienced a branching of knowledge. The book was like a giant tree that kept growing and growing. We did rewrites in 1976, a small update in 1979, a complete revision in 1984, another update in 1990 and an entirely new version, "Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century," in 1998.

Each version brought new breakthroughs. In 1973, Boston lesbians wrote the chapter "In America, They Call Us Dykes." This was one of the first expressions that women loving women exists, is possible and is good. Later, in the 1984 version, we included chapters on the international exploitation of women. Throughout the years, we continued to include the experiences of women who write to us, challenging how we see things--women with disabilities, for example.


Translations of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" Are Now Available Around the World

From the start, our goals have been to share information, empower ourselves and one another, to make connections with one another, to create preventive-health alternatives, to improve health policies relevant to women and to work on changing the system to meet our needs. It has turned out to be work that never ends.

Back in the 1970s, so much information accumulated at founder and now-Program Director Judy Norsigian's home that we opened an office, which became our Women's Health Information Center. The center is alive and thriving to this day, now at a location in downtown Boston.

We are proud of our expanding Web site, led by Kiki Zeldes, and excited about the many translations and adaptations of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" throughout the world, coordinated by Sally Whelan, a founder. A meeting last June in Utrecht, the Netherlands, brought together women from Serbia, Bulgaria, Holland, Mexico, Tibet, Poland, Armenia, Senegal and Japan who had just published or were about to publish versions of the book relevant to their countries. Here at home, staff member Zobeida Bonilla is developing a curriculum based on the Spanish translation and adaptation of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" called "Nuestros Cuerpos, Nuestras Vidas," to be used with Spanish-speaking groups in the United States and elsewhere.

We keep reaching out for women with different experiences, through our board, our staff and intern programs. And, guided by a dynamic board and the support of the founders, we see one of our next big tasks to be the creation of yet another update--this one more inclusive than ever.

Today the founders are like family to one another. We have shared marriage, divorce, remarriage, coming out, childbirth and becoming grandmothers; one of us, Esther Rome, died of breast cancer in 1995. I'm almost 65 years old. I've been involved in the Boston Women's Health Book Collective's work for half my life.

We at the collective want to pass the torch and invite younger women to become part of our enterprise. Our message is still needed; we must fight many of the same battles. We need birth control that works, choice whether to have an abortion, and better childbearing care--that is more midwifery, women attending each others' births.

All of these things we are struggling for, to better the lives of women and our families here at home and throughout the world.

Jane Pincus is a co-founder of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective. She has written the pregnancy and childbirth sections of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" since 1970 and co-edited the book since 1984.

For more information:

Our Bodies, Ourselves:
http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org