The Commons
Voices / Column

A book and a movement with a huge impact for women globally

Elayne Clift writes about women and health. An earlier version of this essay appeared at www.womensmediacenter.com.

Originally published in The Commons issue #130 (Wednesday, December 7, 2011).


Saxtons River

It began in 1969, when 12 women met during a women’s liberation conference in the early days of the women’s movement.

A workshop called “Women and Their Bodies” provided an opportunity for women to talk about their bodies and their experiences with doctors.

Sharing this information led them to form the Doctor’s Group, forerunner to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, to research and discuss what they were learning about themselves, their bodies, health, and women.

The discussions and research led to a course booklet, “Women and Their Bodies,” a stapled newsprint edition published in 1970. The booklet, which put women’s health into a radically new political and social context, became an underground success.

In 1973, Simon & Schuster published an expanded edition, renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves.

The rest, as they say, is herstory.

* * *

On Oct. 1, the ninth edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was released coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Collective, now known also as Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS).

In celebration of the anniversary as well as the new edition of the book and more importantly, its impact around the world, a global symposium, “Our Bodies, Our Future: Advancing Health and Human Rights for Women and Girls,” was held in Boston.

In the program notes, OBOS co-founder Sally Whelan wrote, “We’ve come a long way from our origin as a Boston-based collective talking around the kitchen table, to a thriving global presence with a place ‘at the table’ — alongside other power brokers — in countries around the world.”

Others joined in, proclaiming that Our Bodies, Ourselves is more than a book; it’s a tool for social change with human rights as the framework.

Twelve women from countries as diverse as Senegal, Israel, Nepal, and Chile came to talk about their experiences in adapting the book.

Representing 22 partners who have joined the OBOS Global Initiative launched in 2001, they were part of a network of activists dedicated to providing evidence-based, culturally appropriate information on health and sexuality to women and girls in countries around the world.

Miho Ogino, a professor of gender history in Japan, edited the Japanese edition in 1988.

Recalling that 50 women met in a women’s bookstore to work on the translation, she said, “Japan was an especially male-centered society at that time.”

“Women were not considered in control of their own bodies, and they had a sense of shame and fear,” she said. “Ignorance about their bodies was seen as a virtue.”

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