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By the book
After 35 years and eight editions, Our Bodies, Ourselves is still giving women the tools to take health care into their own hands

IN THE 1960s and ’70s, feminists adopted a rallying cry — "The personal is political." The phrase, which held meaning for environmentalists and civil-rights activists as well as women, signified that personal experiences are influenced by the political climate — and therefore, to change our own lives, we must address the social, cultural, and political pressures that shape them. On the flip side was the implication that all our actions, no matter how personal, affect the political world around us.

It’s a sentiment that seems particularly appropriate in the context of Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS), a book that in 1970 absorbed feminist energy and helped fuel a revolutionary women’s-health movement by offering the first-ever road map to the female body, compiled by women for women. At least in part, the book took what was very personal and utterly politicized it, helping to change the medical landscape, raise the collective consciousness about issues like abortion and violence against women, and provide, for the first time, straightforward information about everything from women’s sexuality and relationships, to birth control, pregnancy, and childbirth, to body image and nutrition.

Thirty-five years later, OBOS is in its eighth edition — Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era. Since 1970, the book has sold more than four million copies, and it’s been adapted to the conditions and languages of 18 countries. Clearly, the 12 women who started the OBOS phenomenon — right here in Boston — tapped into a well that hasn’t run dry.

Feminism, meanwhile, is experiencing its third wave (the first came in the late-19th century, when women fought for voting rights, educational opportunities, and marriage-law reform; the second wave was that of the ’60s and ’70s). Today, women and girls have even more opportunities and sexual freedom; at the same time, they’re confronted by increasingly confusing messages from the media, drug companies, and activists on both the left and the right.

The victories — in arenas such as labor and social equity and reproductive rights, including access to birth control and abortion — won during that second wave by feminists and women’s-health activists were so great that in many ways, it seems like their mission was accomplished. On top of that, today’s health concerns — an influx of pharmaceutical drugs, a complex and expensive health-care system, the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, the rise of plastic surgery — are so different that it’s difficult to identify the current role of women’s-health activists. Even Cindy Pearson, who heads the National Women’s Health Network — a 30-year champion of feminist health concerns — admits that while today’s movement is bigger, it’s also "shallower" than it was 35 years ago, in that it lacks the depth, and institutional roots, of the social-justice movements of the ’60s and ’70s. In some ways, the women’s-health movement is a victim of its own success.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for OBOS, or the ideas the book embodies. Today, we have plenty of information — but we need OBOS to help us navigate it. Again, there’s a need to transform personal matters into political might.

TOWARD THE end of the 1960s, the foundation was laid for an emerging women’s-health movement to take shape. The decade had been a turbulent one, marked by protests about the Vietnam War, civil rights, and feminism. Books like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring raised consciousness about women’s issues and the environment, respectively.

Yet even as women grew more aware of the issues they faced — a lack of respect in education and the workforce; a sexual empowerment many were experiencing for the first time; an independence from men that seemed unfamiliar — most knew next to nothing about their vaginas, breasts, pregnancies, sexual desires, pains, or pleasures. They didn’t know how to get off in bed or get out of troubled relationships; they were troubled and endangered by illegal abortions; they were unaware of their options for childbirth. Remarkably, women’s knowledge about their bodies was so off-the-radar that even Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking 1953 report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, focused solely on behaviors and not on attitudes.

That dearth of knowledge corresponded directly with women’s lack of control over their personal health care. They didn’t understand how their own bodies worked, so they were expected to trust their (mostly male) doctors, and to accept any and all medical diagnoses or treatments.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why. If professionals in general enjoyed an almost mystical authority during much of the 20th century, perhaps no relationship was more deferential than that of a woman to her doctor. According to the American Medical Association, more than 90 percent of all physicians in 1970 were male, and that percentage carried through all specialties, including obstetrics and gynecology. In the doctor’s office, many women met with an "incredibly insulting and sexist attitude" from "condescending and paternalistic" physicians, says prominent feminist scholar Barbara Ehrenreich, who worked in New York City during the late ’60s and early ’70s to raise women’s health awareness. Nor could many women get accurate information at school or at home, which left them very much in the dark.

So they began talking among themselves, first the most ardent activists and soon after, women who were only peripherally involved in the movement, but also ached for information. They gathered in educational and "self-help" groups, using speculums to examine their own vaginas. Although many of these groups and conversations were centered in places like Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, the phenomenon wasn’t limited to major cities, and spread throughout the nation. Concerned women formed an informal network, sharing what they learned and communicating strategies for further advancement.

Then, in 1969, 12 women met at a woman’s-liberation conference held at Emmanuel College, one of several academic institutions nestled near the Fenway in Boston. During a "Women and Their Bodies" workshop, the women shared what they had already discovered — by reading books, talking among themselves, and using mirrors — about the inner and outer workings of the female body. Excited by their new, collective understanding, and inspired by the social undercurrent of women’s thirst for knowledge, the group decided to gather their facts formally and make them accessible to the general public.

Thus was born the first incarnation of OBOS, as Women and Their Bodies, in 1970. It was 193 pages, published on newsprint by the New England Free Press, and distributed through feminist channels in political hubs across America. The following year, the title was changed to what it is today, and in 1972, the 12 women officially incorporated as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC). Organizations such as the Jane Collective, a Chicago-based underground abortion service in the ’60s and ’70s, and sexual-health-and-education clinics in San Francisco, distributed copies of the book and helped spread its influence.

The movement gathered momentum through the early 1970s. Gynecological self-help groups and women-centered health clinics became common, as did protests on Capitol Hill over abortion rights and birth-control options. Women’s-health activists harnessed grassroots energy from other social-justice struggles such as those over the environment, civil rights, and the women’s rights in general. By the mid 1970s, there were more than 200 formally institutionalized women’s-health organizations and nearly 2000 informal groups, according to the National Women’s Health Information Center.

The legalization of abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973, the establishment of sexual-assault and battered-women shelters across the country, as well as expansion of services for rape victims, and advances in patients’ rights are all products of women’s-health struggles. There were more narrowly focused triumphs as well, including increasing women’s options in relation to breastfeeding and natural childbirth. And later, in the 1980s, women drew on similar energy to fight for accurate information about breast cancer, calling into question accepted ideas about the safety of mammogram screenings and the superiority of mastectomies over lumpectomies.

The accomplishments weren’t without controversy. In fact, during the 1970s and into the ’80s, these achievements were "enormously provocative," says historian Leslie Reagan, a professor of history and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In general, male physicians — as well as academics and businessmen — belonged to a world that accepted a certain level of sexism, she says, and only a few men rejected that model of oppression.

"It really shook all but the most conscious and supportive physicians. The country as a whole was more paternalistic," says Pearson, who was in college when the first edition of OBOS came out. "For women to say, ‘We’re going to do it ourselves’ ... it really created a lot of defensiveness."

It wasn’t all DIY. Women also began to enter the profession that for so long had all but excluded them. Where women physicians made up a paltry eight percent of practicing MDs in 1970, their ranks jumped to almost 12 percent by 1980, and grew steadily to 24 percent by 2000. More than half of 2004’s medical-school graduates were female. On top of that, an increasing number of women hold teaching or administrative positions in medical schools.

"We were so successful," Ehrenreich says, mostly because women had power — and drive — in numbers. "We were really being bold. There was tremendous power and vitality to the women’s-health movement that connected across class and color lines."

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Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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