At its 2018 annual conference, the Midwives Alliance of Northern America (MANA) honored the lifetime work of three OBOS founders, Judy Norsigian, Jane Kates Pincus, and Norma Swenson, and of Judy Luce, a midwife and longtime contributor to “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
Below is the introductory speech given by Claudia Breglia, MANA’s director of organizational development.
Thank you everyone for joining us to honor Our Bodies Ourselves in this year of tremendous change.
I have to say, I am having a total fangirl moment here!
Judy Norsigian and Norma Swensen, who are here with us tonight, and the other founding members of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective have had a profound effect on my life. In my early 20s, I was so busy fighting against the path I was supposed to take that I didn’t notice I also didn’t want to be on the path I had chosen. And then I ran into a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The second one, the green one. I devoured it, I reread it like a novel, and then my course was set, and here I am.
We have come so far. The collective that birthed “Our Bodies, Ourselves” came from the social protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. From the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, and the American Indian movement and other movements, came the women’s rights movement. And from there came the women’s health movement.
Let’s go back in time for a minute. At the time of the first meetings of the collective, informed consent was not a thing. Asking for a second opinion on medical treatment was taken as lack of trust in your doctor – who probably was a man and certainly knew what was best for you. Your husband could consent to radical mastectomy while you were still under anesthesia, and, because uteri were considered useless organs unless you were considered societally fit for having children, hysterectomy was the most frequently performed surgery in the country. Abortion was illegal, which meant women took their chances with illegal practitioners unless they had the means to leave the country. We all know what childbirth was like at the time.
And then, there was “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Written by women, for women, it was the first and most comprehensive book about women’s bodies, health, sexuality and lives. Embodying the claim that the personal is political, the book introduced the radical notion that women can become their own health experts through educating themselves and each other, and that armed with that knowledge, they can be powerful forces for social change.
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” spoke to women the way women speak to each other, through storytelling and shared experience. At a time when there was no internet – you couldn’t just google things you wanted to know – and medical libraries were inaccessible, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” taught us not only what our bodies looked like and how they functioned, but also how our lives and relationships could look and function.
The women’s health movement brought social change across the board. The patients’ bill of rights, informed consent, second opinions, the entire concept that people can make choices about the care they receive and procedures they accept began with the women’s health movement, and “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was at its core.
We have come so far. “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has become a very fat book that goes well beyond the information contained in those first editions, including more voices and more knowledge and experience. It gave birth to “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause,” “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth,” a blog (Our Bodies, Our Blog), and collaborations with women’s groups around the world to develop translations and cultural adaptions.
In 2018, due to financial and organizational constraints, the Our Bodies Ourselves organization was forced to lay off staff and end much of its long-term program work. Instead, the organization, which is now a volunteer-led 501(c)3, will, in its own words, “focus its advocacy on health policy, in alliance with other organizations, leveraging the trust that Our Bodies Ourselves has earned over almost 50 years of education and activism.”
MANA is honored to present Judy Norsigian, Jane Kates Pincus, Norma Swenson, and Judy Luce with these certificates to honor their work.