Our Sisterhood, Ourselves: A Look Back at the Origins of OBOS

By Christine Cupaiuolo — May 19, 2009

Gail Shapiro’s life was transformed, and her work on behalf of women informed, by a conference held at Emmanuel College in Boston 40 years ago this month. This is her story:

The Sunday classifieds in the Boston Globe read: “Help Wanted – Men,” and “Help Wanted – Women.” There is no on-site day care. Fewer than 30% of married women with children work outside the home, and women earn 45% less than men for the same jobs. If a woman gets fired for refusing her boss’ sexual advances, well, tough luck. There are no laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, or anywhere else. Abortion is illegal. Birth control – unless one is married and has a doctor’s prescription – is illegal in Massachusetts. “Domestic violence” does not yet exist as a term or a concept. Wife beating is a private problem, not a public health issue. A responding police officer is likely to tell the batterer to “go take a walk and cool off.” Married women cannot obtain credit in their own name. Most leaders of the anti-Vietnam War Movement are men. Men can refuse to serve; women can “say yes to boys who say no.”

An idealistic, naïve college freshman in Vermont hears about a conference at Emmanuel College in Boston, sponsored by Bread and Roses and other female liberation activists. She hitchhikes south with friends and walks into a meeting of 500 women. She listens to a speaker describe the injustice and oppression experienced by women – and what women can do about it. She attends a self-defense workshop, and later will take free classes in Cambridge to learn how to protect herself on the street. She learns about community organizing, class divisions, the power of the media to shape lives – for good or for ill. She wanders into a crowded workshop, “Control of Our Bodies,” led by Nancy Miriam Hawley.

Hawley, a young mother in her mid-20s, is one of organizers of this conference. Ignited by a meeting six months earlier in Chicago about women’s role in the Movement, she returns to Cambridge and with others, organizes an ongoing group. Conversation naturally gravitates to young women’s health issues – concerns about sexuality, childbirth, postpartum, experiences with doctors, and more. […]

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2 responses to “Our Sisterhood, Ourselves: A Look Back at the Origins of OBOS”

  1. Thank you, Pat. Writing this essay was a reminder to me not only at how far we have come, but how far we still have to go.

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