(WOMENSENEWS)–Twelve women sat in a church basement, studying the portion of the Bible that describes women’s bodies as unclean, something to be avoided during “that time of the month.” The era was the late 1960s and the church was in Boston, an epicenter of the cultural and political changes sweeping the nation.
The dozen women there, including Judy Norsigian, decided that view of women’s bodies must change.
This group of a dozen women set out to collect medical facts and personal stories for a series of pamphlets written in language that anyone could understand. They taught workshops, disseminated information and formed the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. In response to a growing demand for a comprehensive collection of their findings, the collective published the first edition of the groundbreaking book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in 1970.
The woman-friendly reference work educated a generation of women about their own bodies and started a revolution in the practice of gynecology, obstetrics and even general medicine.
“When we published this book, there was lots of paternalism and condescension experienced by women in their medical care encounters,” Norsigian says. “Most M.D.s were men and even 98 percent of OB/GYNs were men, so there was much less attention to women-centered perspectives.”
Three decades later, the collective is thriving with Norsigian at the helm. It has several programs dedicated solely to women’s health issues, including the Our Bodies, Ourselves Global Network, which helps women’s groups around the world translate and adapt the text; the Latina Health Initiative, which provides a free training guide and workshops for health workers and community women in the United States, Latin America and Europe; and Public Voice and Action, a lobbying group that brings women’s health issues to the forefront of public policy. The group also is working on a revision of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” for publication in 2005 to mark the book’s 35th anniversary.
“Our organization is still very proud of all that we and our sister organizations in the women’s health movement have accomplished over the last three decades,” Norsigian says. “But the challenges are still many and I am honored to have played some part in this movement for social change.”
Many school children are taught the simple rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” to help them remember this important historical event. There are other memory tricks to sum up the stories of Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Cook and other explorers.
But most children wouldn’t be able to come up with a single woman explorer in this exclusive club of conquest and colonialism. Author and activist Milbry Polk is trying to change that, and in the process, rewrite history.
“Public school materials are especially bad,” Polk says. “Part of the problem is that women’s stories are buried and forgotten or trivialized. I was amazed to discover just how many women were involved in exploration and scientific discovery for hundreds of years and nobody knows about them!”
If Polk has her way, all American schoolchildren will read stories of Alexandrine Pieternella Francoise Tinne, the first woman to cross the Sahara Desert, and Louise Arner Boyd, the first woman to fly across the North Pole, in addition to their well-known male counterparts. She co-authored a book, “Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women who Explored the World,” with Mary Tiegreen to highlight the stories of women who trekked the world.
The book is just the beginning. Polk is charging into the schools and including her book in a pilot program that focuses on women in exploration and the sciences.
“What we need to focus on is education and opportunity. All people need to feel connected to something,” she says.
To increase this connection to the past, Polk created Wings Trust nine years ago to recognize the efforts of women. The board was created to find women explorers and highlight their efforts, culminating in this spring’s Women of Discovery Awards.
“I have not been surprised by the lack of interest a few men have expressed in my work, but I have been amazed at the women” who were disinterested, Polk says.
“We could not raise any money because no one we approached believed there were any woman explorers at all,” Polk says. “I had to write this book and focus on one arena where I hope I can positively affect change.”
Global Fund for Women President and Chief Executive Officer Kavita Ramdas doesn’t believe it only takes a village. To make real change for women, she believes it takes a world.
Emphasizing the importance of a global community in combating hunger and poverty, Ramdas heads up an international network of men and women who are working to create a world of social justice and equality.
“The Global Fund for Women is a nonprofit grant-making foundation that seeds, strengthens and links women’s rights organizations in every part of the world,” Ramdas says. “Our mission is to advance women’s groups that work to gain freedom from poverty, violence and discrimination.”
These women’s groups tend to be grassroots movements in underdeveloped countries around the world, many of them struggling to combat the growing gender gap among those living in poverty. Ramdas reports that 70 percent of the 1.6 billion people who live in poverty are women and girls, and many of them are frequently overlooked by large philanthropic groups.
Ramdas received the Women’s Funding Network Award in 1999 for changing the face of philanthropy. The award “reflects efforts to transform traditional philanthropy in ways that make a difference for communities and constituencies not usually included in the traditional philanthropic world,” Ramdas says. “In this sense, being a younger woman leader, a citizen of India–a developing country, and a woman of color working for an organization that both raises and gives away money is challenging definitions of philanthropy.”
Since Ramdas joined the fund in 1996, she has been recognized with the “Choosing to Lead” award in May 2002 at the National Women’s Leadership Summit and the 2002 “Woman of the Year” award from the Santa Clara University Women and Law Society. Before joining the Global Fund, Ramdas tackled the issues of U.S. poverty and economic development at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago and was a member of the Committee on Women and Development, an advisory board to the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa.
How do you define the “f” word? In the past, women marched under the banner of feminism in a noble pursuit of basic rights: the ability to vote, own a credit card and go to college. But many young adults read about these struggles in history books as hurdles that were overcome and equality achieved. Until recently, young women were so far removed from the struggles of the previous generations that the very term “feminism” seemed outdated or too radical. Then Amy Richards stepped in.
Richards, now 32, was instrumental in popularizing third-wave feminism, making the next generation of women, ages 15 to 30, a viable force in the women’s movement.
“The concept of a third wave of feminism has given younger women ‘permission’ to claim the word feminism and to express it in ways that are unique to them,” Richards says.
Richards saw the need for a new group of young voices in the sociopolitical stage after a string of events–including the Clarence Thomas hearings and the 1992 elections–in which many young people felt they lacked a forum to share their beliefs. They initially created a “get out the vote” campaign called Freedom Summer ’92 that sparked so much interest that third-wave feminism was born.
“This is when I really began to shape Third Wave into what it is today, a national organization for young feminists,” Richards says. “We responded to a need–for funding, for a network of other young feminists and for educational material on the issues that affected our lives.”
In addition to running Third Wave and co-authoring the book “MANIFESTA: Young Women, Feminism and the Future,” with Jennifer Baumgardner, Richards also runs an “Ask Amy” advice column, which is an informal network for people dealing with modern feminist topics. She sees the results of her efforts interwoven “into the fabric of our lives” as feminism has become less of a buzzword and more of an everyday practice.
“I see feminism everywhere,” Richards says. “In the women who fought to have a professional women’s soccer league to the teen girl who organized a blood drive at her school to the man who dares to say ‘that’s not funny’ to a sexist joke. It is present, it is vibrant and it is changing our lives.”
Often when women are sent to prison, their children suffer as well. Sister Elaine Roulet didn’t see the logic of punishing both mother and child for a single crime, so she created the Children’s Center Program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to maintain maternal bonds during incarceration. Her programs have become an enduring example of what a little compassion can achieve and now serve as national models for American prison systems.
“I help the women–my sisters–by walking their path with them,” Roulet says. “To be invited to walk with an inmate is such a sacred invitation. We must always leave our hearts and hands open to new possibilities.”
For more than two decades, this Roman Catholic nun has developed a number of programs to overturn conventional models of the way new mothers are treated in prison. Currently her program includes the Children’s Center, Parent Center, Prison Nursery, Infant Day Care Center, Prenatal Center, Child Advocacy Office and the Summer and Weekend Programs. These various divisions provide parenting and nurturing classes for incarcerated mothers, a place where newborns can live with their mothers for up to one year and even plan seasonal day camp activities to increase bonding between mother and child. Roulet oversees all of this with an ever-cheerful attitude and service in her heart.
Roulet first traveled in 1970 to the only women’s maximum-security prison in New York with a goal to teach women how to read. For 10 years she served as a family liaison between the prison and Catholic charities, before dedicating herself full-time to teaching women how to love and nurture.
This fall, the art world was rocked once again by the mammoth “The Dinner Party,” an installation symbolizing the history of women in Western civilization. The controversial work by Judy Chicago employs ceramics, china painting and needlework to create place settings of 39 historic figures, from Primordial Goddess to Georgia O’Keeffe, with names of 999 others inscribed in a gleaming white ceramic floor.
Sackler donated the work to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and it was celebrated at a special exhibition last fall that drew large crowds and received rave reviews from New York and art world critics.
“In its near-perfection, Judy Chicago’s vision and creation, ‘The Dinner Party,’ takes my breath away,” Sackler says.
Since its completion in 1979, the work traveled to 15 venues in six countries and three continents, but remained without a permanent home until now. The work will become the centerpiece of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, opening in 2004, to educate new generations about the meaning of feminist art.
“The fearlessness and identification of struggles addressed by significant feminist artists and their art articulates my feminist values, gender and global, of equality and justice and freedom,” Sackler says.
Also last fall, Sackler sponsored a presentation of 80 other Chicago works at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.
“This exhibition is a glimpse of the breadth and range of Judy Chicago’s oeuvre, her groundbreaking contributions to the world of art and to women,” Sackler says. “She fought the status quo with the same single-minded tenacity, resilience and gumption with which she has conducted her life and forged her life’s work.”
As part of her preparation for these two exhibits, Sackler also edited a book, “Judy Chicago,” that explains the artist’s work and its significance. It was published to coincide with the openings.
Sackler is president of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, is an active member of the National Advisory Board of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and serves on board for the Brooklyn Museum of Art and its collections committee. She was honored as a patron of the arts by the Brooklyn Museum of Arts’ Community Committee at its first “Women in the Arts” Award luncheon, also last fall.
In addition to her work with the foundation, Sackler is also the founder and president of The American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation, which assists in the return of ceremonial material to American Indians. She is a regular speaker at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University and Baruch College.
A South African-born Jewish woman, Henna White, is on a crusade to change the world–and she’s starting in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Using her position as the Jewish community liaison for Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes as a springboard for social change, White has been able to implement programs addressing domestic violence, unwanted children, teen drug use, religious/race relations and women’s health issues.
White first stepped into the national spotlight in 1991 after a period of riots and general unrest ripped through her neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In an effort to stop the violence, White co-founded a group called Mothers to Mothers, which promoted dialogue and understanding between Jewish and African-American women living there.
“From tragedy, we got a wake-up call,” White said. “We realized that if we didn’t open our hearts and start talking and working together, none of us would make it. We’ve learned to live and work together and to become one community, not two, making Crown Heights a better place.”
She went on from there to address another sort of violence–but one that doesn’t appear on the nightly news. White created a batterer’s intervention and counseling group specifically targeted toward Orthodox Jews. This group, called Brairot, is uniquely tailored to handle the issue of domestic violence within a specific religious framework. White has developed a reputation as a well-known speaker about the issue and has organized conferences, forums and educator’s workshops to help tight-knit communities deal with the effects of domestic violence.
Her work with youth and families is recognized throughout New York, especially in the area of teens at risk and drug addiction, since White is involved with the Brooklyn AIDS Task force.
White also serves as chair of the board of Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, where she is the first woman to head the board of directors, and has pushed for many programs to educate women about their own health.
Julie Leupold is a freelance writer in New York.
For more information:
Boston Women’s Health Book Collective:
Living on Earth–“Women of Discovery”:
Global Fund for Women:
Third Wave Foundation:
Sister Elaine Roulet:
National Women’s Hall of Fame, Women of the Hall
Elizabeth A. Sackler–Brooklyn Museum of Art
“‘Women in the Arts’ Award Given to Dr. Elizabeth A. Sackler”:
Henna White–Anti-Defamation League
“Groups, Individuals Recognized for Their Community Efforts at ADL’s Crown Heights: A Decade of Building Bridges Awards Ceremony”: