OBOS’s History is the History of the Women’s Liberation Movement

Women's Liberation March in Washington, D.C., Aug. 26, 1970 Women’s Liberation March in Washington, D.C., Aug. 26, 1970 / Photo: U.S. News & World Report

By Joan Ditzion — May 11, 2014

At a recent conference at Boston University, OBOS founders Nancy Miriam Hawley, Paula Doress-Worters, Wendy Sanford, and myself wove together our diverse personal coming-of-age stories with the organization’s early history.

The B.U. conference, A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s, doubled as a reunion with many women we haven’t seen in decades, and it gave us the chance to share and reflect on our history during a panel on the birth of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

It also provided the opportunity to network with young activists and academics now carrying the movement forward and to reconsider longstanding questions, such as: How do we empower women and girls with information about health, sexuality and reproduction? How do we promote equality between women and men? And how do we build bridges around social justice movements?

Boston University Revolutionary Moment conference logo

OBOS, formerly known as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, is a core part of the women’s movement and one of the few surviving collectives to come out of it. We are continually amazed that the project we founded in 1970 became a household phrase and has changed the global conversation on women and health.

The conference was an exciting celebration of the transformative early years of the women’s liberation movement. Activists, scholars, artists, writers and filmmakers gathered to reflect on victories and accomplishments, as well as unfinished work. Many discussions focused on how to advance women amidst recent setbacks, including the war on women that is reducing access to reproductive healthcare.

According to conference organizer Deborah Belle, director of B.U.’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, the conference was developed in response to the sparse documentation of these pivotal early years. Many gains are taken for granted or not known by a younger generation.

Feminist historian Sara Evans expanded upon that theme in her opening keynote address, asking, “Why is women’s liberation a footnote in late-20th century history of feminism?”

She mentioned some myths about the movement that needed to be cleared away to see the profound cultural transformation and accomplishments of this grassroots, national, global, decentralized movement — chief among them is the notion that the WL movement was limited to white middle class women. Women who took part in the movement were often described as shrill, anti-family, anti-sex (or oversexed), homophobic and racist.

To dispel the myths and contribute to a fuller narrative of this era, there were many sessions led by veteran second wave activists and scholars. Spirited new feminist films documenting this period were shown, including Jennifer Lee’s “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation”; Mary Dore’s “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” which includes footage of OBOS founders; Susan Rivo and the 888 Women’s History Project’s “Left on Pearl”; Catherine Russo’s “A Moment in Her Story,” which includes OBOS founder Nancy Miriam Hawley; and Lianne Brandon’s classic “Anything You Want To Be.”

We are grateful to B.U. and the conference organizers. Many of the sessions were recorded and will be available online, along with papers that were presented. We want the complex legacy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and the women’s liberation movement to be remembered and documented, and we hope to continue to stimulate intergenerational dialogue.

Joan Ditzion is an original OBOS founder and co-author of all nine editions of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” She has been a geriatric social worker since 1985, a profession compatible with her social justice values. Her focus has gradually transitioned to issues of aging and older women and families.

5.30.14 update: You can now watch a video of the founders’ panel and read their notes on the presentation.

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