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40 Years In, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" is Still Revolutionary in its Treatment of Women's Health

By giving female experience and knowledge primacy over that of physicians, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" helped spawn the consumer health revolution.

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Eventually, the small group that incorporated first as the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, then as Our Bodies Ourselves also had to deal with changing political tides.  They faced both public censure and legal attacks.  After  Our Bodies, Ourselves  was picked in 1976 by the American Library Association as a best book for young adults, right-wing groups waged multiple  campaigns to get it banned from school libraries.  

Meanwhile,  the book moved social scientists and physicians toward a new focus on health issues unique to women.  Brandeis University sociologist Irving Kenneth Zola,  giving a presentation at the 1990 conference of the American Sociological Association in Washington, D.C., said, “Its message was and is about the importance of women's  perspectives in  health care,  man's domination in general, and medical domination in particular, the necessary breakdown of the split between public and private worlds, and the role of the body in one's identity.”

In short, the assumptions underlying  Our Bodies, Ourselves  inspired women of all stripes to question the reigning authority of the medical establishment and demand answers.  The institutional response to women's questions was profound, leading to a shift in national and international medical research agendas and in funding priorities (think breast cancer).  Assertiveness regarding women's healthcare  laid the groundwork for other activists, such as those who sought fastlane approval for HIV/AIDS drugs.  It is difficult  to imagine the whole consumer health movement having emerged without the efforts forty years ago of that handful of bold women in Boston.  

The collective, which now mostly goes by the acronym OBOS, went on to publish other volumes, including  Changing Bodies, Changing Lives for teens;  Ourselves, Growing Older ; and  Sacrificing Ourselves for Love .  At the same time, women's groups worldwide began to translate and adapt the text. Kathy Davis's 2007 study from Duke University Press,  The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves , has a three-page appendix listing foreign-language editions, from Denmark to Senegal to Indonesia to Nepal.

That work continues apace.  Through its Global Initiative, which recently received substantial support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, OBOS is working with women’s groups in Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Russia to help them reframe and adapt the text to suit their particular educational, cultural, and medical needs, as well as to gain political rights. Judy Norsigian, a founding member who is now executive director of OBOS,  told me in a phone interview, "We don't take any credit for the original development of these cultural adaptation projects. Women in other regions created these projects and then came to us for the technical resources and other help that has enabled many of them to succeed. We've been glad to be able to support them."

For its 40th anniversary conclave in Boston on October 1, OBOS will host a symposium featuring dozens of international visitors.  The symposium committee includes the likes of Michael and Kitty Dukakis, Ellen Goodman, Katha Pollitt, Eleanor Smeal, and Gloria Steinem.  To mark the anniversary, memories of the book’s impact being gathered by University of Cincinnatti historian Wendy Kline via an  online survey.

On Our Bodies, Our Blog, many readers whose lives were changed, in small ways and large, by their encounters with the frank and forthright text, have posted their recollections.  Let Meg Sawicki's April 30, 2011 entry stand as a summation of many women's experience:

The first time I saw “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was in 1977 and I was a freshman in college. Some women I knew had the book and I remember thinking how fantastic it was that a group of women had written a collection of stories that shared their own wisdom about health and life and being a woman. For the first time I was affirmed that different was okay, and I was hooked....I have only love and admiration for those first brave women of the Boston Women’s Health Collective who gave us real and important information about our health and happiness, and who set the bar for other women’s self discovery books....


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