The Boston Women's Health Book Collective and Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Brief History and Reflection
by Judy Norsigian, Vilunya Diskin, Paula Doress-Worters, Jane Pincus, Wendy Sanford, and Norma Swenson. Originally published in the Winter 1999 edition of Journal of the American Medical Women's Association.
This article offers a brief history of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the landmark book about women’s health and sexuality first published in 1970, as well as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, its author and sponsor of numerous women’s health initiatives. The organization’s transition from a small, grassroots collective to a non-profit organization working at both the domestic and international levels is briefly discussed, including the development of a more diverse board and staff. Past accomplishments and current concerns of the global women’s health movements are described, including some of the larger advocacy organizations now active in the women’s health field. Collaboration with feminist physicians over the past two decades is also noted.
Our Early History
The history of Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC) began in the spring of 1969 at a women’s liberation conference held in Boston. At a workshop on "Women and Their Bodies," we discovered that every one of us had a "doctor story," that we had all experienced feelings of frustration and anger toward the medical maze in general, and toward those doctors who were condescending, paternalistic, judgmental, and uninformative in particular. As we talked and shared our experiences, we realized just how much we had to learn about our bodies, that simply finding a "good doctor" was not the solution to whatever problems we might have. So we decided on a summer project: we would research our questions, share what we learned in our group, and then present the information in the fall as a course "by and for women." We envisioned an ongoing process that would involve other women who would then go on to teach such a course in other settings.
In creating the course, we learned that we were capable of collecting, understanding, and evaluating medical information; that we could open up to one another and find strength and comfort through sharing some of our most private experiences; that what we learned from one another was every bit as important as what we read in medical texts; and that our experiences frequently contradicted medical pronouncements. Over time these facts, feelings, and controversies were intertwined in the various editions of OBOS.
When we began this work, our ages ranged from 23 to 39, and we focused heavily on reproductive health and sexuality, new issues in the second wave of feminism. As we revised subsequent editions of OBOS, we included more material on such topics as environmental and occupational health, menopause and aging, often at the behest of readers and with outside help. At this writing, those of us in the original group range in age from our late 40s to our mid-60s, and one of our original members, Esther Rome, has died of breast cancer.
In the 1970s, we worked together in "cottage industry" mode at home or in libraries, often meeting together around our kitchen tables. In 1980 we consolidated our books, articles, and correspondence in a rented office and began to hire women not part of the original Collective to do cataloging and to help with other tasks. This effort marked the beginning of our Women’s Health Information Center (WHIC) and two decades of networking and information sharing that has extended beyond the publication of OBOS to a number of women’s health education, activist, and advocacy projects involving us locally, nationally, and internationally. We supported the founding of the National Women’s Health Network—the first national women’s health advocacy membership organization. We were also among the few women’s organizations calling for universal health care in the 1970s, and we supported Congressman Ron Dellums’ National Health Services Act, a visionary bill that included provisions for contraceptive, sexually transmitted disease, and abortion services, and access to midwives and out-of-hospital childbearing options. Internationally, we served on the Advisory Board of ISIS (an information and communication service focused on women in developing countries), distributed packets and books to health workers and groups overseas, attended global women’s health meetings, and ensured, when possible, that women’s groups translating OBOS would be able to reap royalties to support their work.
The founders of the BWHBC were all college educated, but a significant number of us were from working class backgrounds and were the first in our families to attend college. Some of us had professional degrees, but none of us were in health fields. Many of us had been active in the social protest movements of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, movements for women-centered childbirth and legal abortion. Some of us came from families with histories of struggle for social justice. Others of us came of age during a time of social change and found our own way to political activism. When we came together as part of a larger women’s liberation movement, we were thrilled by the realization that working for social justice could affect the conditions of our lives as women. We believed that with our newfound freedom and solidarity as feminists, we could be more effective advocates on behalf of ourselves and other women, as well as other progressive causes.
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