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The Boston Women's Health Book Collective and Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Brief History and Reflection

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Recent Growth and Development

Over the nearly three decades since the first edition of OBOS, we have continued to develop our awareness of the injustices that prevent women from experiencing full and healthy lives. As we approach the millennium, such causes of poor health as poverty, racism, hunger, and homelessness continue to disproportionately affect black and brown populations in this country and around the world. We continue to believe that effective strategies for mitigating these problems require all of us to reject the assumptions that so often hurt women of color and women who are poor. Over the years we have collaborated with women’s groups both in the United States and abroad to ensure that the priorities for the women’s health movement reflect the needs and concerns of all women. We also recognize the importance of supporting the leadership of women of color and low-income women within our own organization as well as in the larger women’s health movements. Although this is a difficult challenge for many groups founded originally by white women, we believe that our ultimate success as a movement depends on respectful collaboration at many levels.

BWHBC’s own structure has evolved over the years. We began as a collective, a circle of 12 women who met weekly and grew together both personally and politically, raising our own consciousness about health and sexuality as we reached out to inform others. We took no profits from sales of the books, using the royalties to support women’s health projects and eventually to start our own WHIC and advocacy work. As soon as we hired staff who were not authors of the book, the BWHBC was not formally a collective anymore, although the board (mostly original authors for many years) and the paid staff each worked in a largely collaborative manner.

As the staff grew, so did organizational tensions and the need to develop a different model of management. For the past four years, the board of directors—now a more diverse group than it was originally—worked closely with a variety of consultants to shape a structure for the BWHBC that would introduce mechanisms of accountability that are consistent, dependable, and consonant with feminist principles. The organization now has a unionized staff (including a signed union contract) and formally designated leadership positions that operate in quite a different manner from the earlier years.

During the past few years a major revision of OBOS was also produced, Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century (May 1998). For this edition we expanded even more our efforts to include other women whose backgrounds and experiences are different from the original co-authors in terms of race, class, ethnicity, geographic origin, and sexual/gender identity. This experience helped us to develop an even greater appreciation for the challenges facing any organization working across differences, many of which have the potential to separate us.

BWHBC’s Role in the Global Women’s Health Movement

Within five years of its first publication, OBOS became a bestseller first in the United States, and then internationally (more than 4 million copies have been sold to date). Almost 20 foreign-language editions have been produced, including Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian and German versions. Women in Egypt produced an Arabic book modeled after OBOS, as women are now doing in French-speaking Africa. More projects are underway today in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Armenia. At the 1995 NGO Women’s Forum in Beijing, many of the women working on these translation/adaptation projects came together to compare notes and to share strategies for dealing with problems such as government censorship and fundraising.

In all editions of OBOS, we have encouraged women to meet, talk, and listen to each other as a first step toward bringing about needed change. Over the years, we have developed a number of fruitful collaborations with women’s groups in different countries and have attended almost all the international women and health meetings that have been convened since the first "International Conference on Woman and Health" held in Rome in 1977. The activism of women’s health groups across the globe has been spurred by the advent of email and the Internet, and we are excited to be part of a growing web of organizations working on such issues as breastfeeding, maternal mortality, and environmental health hazards.

One continuing concern of the current global women’s health movement has been the growing trend, especially among environmental groups, to label population growth as a primary cause of environmental degradation. It would be a serious step back if this trend were to lead to more overly zealous family planning programs1 driven by demographic goals rather than by women’s reproductive health needs. We believe that the unethical and growing use of quinacrine, a sclerosing agent, and a means of nonsurgical sterilization in countries such as Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam, represents the very "population control" mentality that has so often been destructive to women’s health. Thus, we have joined activists around the globe in protesting the use of quinacrine.2

We also collaborated with such other groups as the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (Amsterdam), the International Reproductive Rights and Research Action Group (IRRRAG), and WomanHealth Philippines to sponsor "The Double Challenge," a well-attended workshop series at the Beijing NGO Forum in September 1995. The brochure for this series stated:

Women from around the world face a formidable challenge. On one side are the fundamentalists led by the Vatican; on the other is the population establishment. Both are vying for control over women’s sexual and reproductive lives. While the fundamentalists outlaw contraception and abortion, the populationists push new reproductive and contraceptive technologies.

The Continued Need for a Women’s Health Movement

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The concerns that brought women together several decades ago to form women-controlled health centers, advocacy groups, and other educational and activist organizations largely remain. Women are still the major users of health and medical services, for example, seeking care for themselves even when essentially healthy (birth control, pregnancy and childbearing, and menopausal discomforts).5; Because women live longer than men, they have more problems with chronic diseases and functional impairment, and thus require more community- and home-based services. Women usually act as the family "health broker": arranging care for children, the elderly, spouses, or relatives, and are also the major unpaid caregivers for those around them.6

Although women represent the great majority of health workers, they still have a relatively small role in policy making in all arenas. Despite increases in the number of women physicians, they also have a limited leadership role in US medical schools, where women represent less than 10% of all tenured faculty.7; Women face discrimination on the basis of sex, class, race, age, sexual orientation, and disability in most medical settings. Many continue to experience condescending, paternalistic and culturally insensitive treatment. Older women, women of color, fat women, women with disabilities, and lesbians routinely confront discriminatory attitudes and practices, and even outright abuse.8

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