(WOMENSENEWS)–When they met at a women’s health seminar on this date in 1969, a small group of Boston activists weren’t planning to make history. All they wanted was to make sense of the medical muddle then surrounding women’s health.
"At the time, there wasn’t a single text written by women about women’s health andsexuality," says Nancy Miriam Hawley, the activist who organized the seminar. "We weren’t encouraged to ask questions, but to depend on the so-called experts. Not having a say in our own health care frustrated and angered us. We didn’t have the information we needed, so we decided to find it on our own."
Our Bodies, Ourselves, the popular health book they published, has since sold 4 million copies and been translated into 17 languages and Braille. Its simple, no-nonsense message has galvanized the women’s health movement and reached 20 million readers worldwide.
Next Edition in 2005
In April 2005, the authors plan to publish their next edition. Half of the material will be new and the 700-page text will be slimmed down in size. Edited by 35-year-old Heather Stephenson–the first editor in chief who isn’t part of the original collective–the new book will have a companion Web site and feature more information aimed at younger women and immigrant women in the United States.
Other goal posts are also on the horizon.
In June, the collective will launch a $25 yearly membership service that offers subscribers regular health newsletters and e-mail updates. By the end of 2004, it will help publish new editions in Korea, Poland, West Africa and Tibet. In 2005, it will release an updated Spanish version. In 2006, it will start publishing single-topic health books every six months in the United States. Plans for a radio show are in the works.
"We believe our message is needed now more than ever," says Sally Deane, chair of the Our Bodies Ourselves board. "Today we are inundated with medical information and we have even less trust in that information, since so much of the health media is driven by commercial interests. Women everywhere still need a health text that is comprehensive, accurate and speaks to them like a friend."
When they met at the "Women and Their Bodies" seminar at Boston’s Emmanuel College in 1969, Hawley and other activists tried to compile a list of obstetricians and gynecologists in the Boston area who respected women’s health and women’s needs. Realizing that few doctors fit the bill, they decided to gather medical information, translate it into plain language and make it accessible to other women. They asked some of their closest friends to join them in the effort.
The following summer, group members researched and wrote about health topics close to their own hearts. Wendy Sanford examined abortion. Jane Pincus and Ruth Bell covered pregnancy, while Paula Doress and Esther Rome wrote about postpartum depression. Intending to create a health course for women, the activists printed their findings in a 138-page course booklet. Published in 1970 by the New England Free Press, the 30-cent booklet, "Women and Their Bodies," became an underground sensation, quickly selling 250,000 copies in New England without any formal advertising.
Spurred by positive feedback from readers, the 12 core-group members formed the non-profit Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and published Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1973. The 276-page text featured first-person stories and quotes from real women. It tackled and demystified such then-taboo topics as abortion, orgasm, the clitoris and the pill. With its frank discussion of everything from birth to bisexuality–and with its graphic diagrams of the female anatomy–it guided women through every major life change from menstruation to menopause.
"We really changed the focus of the dialogue and made it about women and between women," says Judy Norsigian, an early member of the collective and now its executive director. "We put women first and helped them to validate their experiences."
A Global Health Movement
Collective members also became outspoken advocates. In newspaper articles and at government hearings, they said that pregnancy and menopause are not diseases that need to be treated with drugs. They said eating disorders can be worse for a woman’s health than being 10 pounds overweight. They protested when women in Puerto Rico were sterilized without their knowledge. They became community organizers, helping a local Boston hospital create its first midwifery program.
Along the way, they faced condemnation from family members, employers and society at large because few people believed they had the expertise–or the right–to weigh in on medical matters.
"One reason we were able to withstand the criticism is that we were part of a united group," says Vilunya Diskin, an early member who now sits on the collective’s board. "The medical community wasn’t listening to us. But women certainly were."
To educate women about the latest health developments, collective members published updated editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1976, 1979, 1984, 1992, and 1998. They launched an award-winning Web site and produced four other books: Ourselves and Our Children; The New Ourselves, Growing Older; Changing Bodies, Changing Lives; and Sacrificing Ourselves for Love. With each new publication, they won a wider audience, more support from the foundations that fund their projects–and eventual respect from the medical mainstream.
Over the decades, the collective’s operations have moved from members’ living rooms to a loft-style office space in Boston’s South End. Volunteers have been replaced by a team of four staff members, two consultants, and 250 contributors. Since 2002, the nonprofit Boston Women’s Health Book Collective has formally been known as the Our Bodies Ourselves collective. The nonprofit organization has an annual budget of $500,000 (most of it from foundations) and its hands in projects across the globe.
In addition to distributing 300,000 free books to women’s groups across the globe that could not otherwise afford these publications, the collective has helped publish its work in 17 languages from Armenian to Vietnamese. Women from such far-flung countries as Bulgaria, Senegal and Japan have access to their own versions of the health manual, many rewritten to reflect the cultural mores of their audience.
The Spanish-language version, for instance, maintains the abortion rights-stance of the original text, but places more emphasis on the effects of unplanned children on existing children and features testimonials from abortion activists in Mexico. Through it all, say collective members, their mission has not changed. "Our aim is to empower women with accurate information about health, sexuality and reproduction," says Diskin.
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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