In the late 1960s, at one of the many women’s liberation conferences that were sprouting like fresh shoots across the globe, a group of women attended a workshop at Emmanuel College in Boston called “Women and their bodies”.
During this time, women were beginning to see their place in the world differently – and demand more of it. And this went for their bodies, too. After the workshop, the women continued to meet, sharing stories, finding out new information from nurses and physicians, and coming together to learn more about themselves. Eventually, the women would publish Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1971, a pamphlet made of up of all the information they had, as well as the honest realities of their own and other women’s lived experiences. The pamphlet sold like wildfire.
“You’ve got to remember,” says founding member Judy Norsigian, “this was the Dark Ages.” Norsigian is referring to what women knew about themselves. College women were woefully uneducated about how their own bodies worked, and not only did their publication inform but it also gave a political agenda to women’s health – women could reclaim their bodies through knowledge and, simultaneously, they could reclaim power through the sharing of that knowledge. And they discussed everything: contraception, abortion, finding a language for postnatal depression and other mental-health illnesses that didn’t yet have one. The pamphlet, selling over 250,000 copies in New England alone without any advertising, was soon published as a book, with the original 12 founding members, known as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, having full editorial control. There have been nine editions of the title printed, it’s been translated into 31 languages and sold over 4 million copies. Writing in The New York Times, Jessica Valenti suggests it’s become a right of passage: “For generations of girls, ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ was the starter pack to adulthood.”
Yet, last week, the chair of Our Bodies, Ourselves – the Collective’s official name now – announced that they would no longer be publishing updated versions of the seminal text. Financial pressures mean that they can only recruit volunteers and they believe their limited resources are best spent on advocacy. After nearly half a century, the radical journey of “a book for women by women” is over.
I only found out about the book a few years ago, when I watched the brilliant documentary, She’s Angry When She’s Beautiful, but once you learn about the Collective, it’s a hard story to forget. To my mind, it embodies the best of the second wave – a fundamental questioning and rejection of what had come before and a radical reinterpretation of what could follow. The fact the book will no longer be updated and published is very sad, not least because the simple story of women using their voices to better understand themselves is still a powerful and relevant one.
Women could reclaim their bodies through knowledge and, simultaneously, they could reclaim power through the sharing of that knowledge
Forty-seven years after the first edition was published, women are still forming communities and publishing content in order for women’s health to be understood, prioritised and discussed. Take periods and the forthcoming It’s Only Blood: Shattering The Taboo Of Menstruation. It’s hard to believe, on some levels, that a book like that is necessary. Or the brilliant work by 18-year-old Amika George, trying (in-between A-level coursework) to de-stigmatise period poverty in order for girls to access the products they need. Yet, both efforts are vital, not least when you consider new research from Plan International UK, which has found that 48 per cent of girls feel “embarrassed” to talk about periods. Or, indeed, take mental health. The Sad Girls Club is an Instagram community led by 27-year-old filmmaker Elyse Fox, who has created a space for young women – and in particular young women of colour – to discuss their struggles in a way, territory and language that feels familiar, safe and inviting – because where else will they turn?
Postnatal depression, infertility, traumatic childbirths, abortions, stillborn babies, the menopause – these are things that the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective wanted to talk about and yet, here we are, still having to find ways to drag these issues into the light, into GP’s surgeries, into science-funding bursaries, into everyday conversations and public acceptance. Women whisper in pubs to me about their difficult births, voice and head lowered in shame; friends agonise over falling pregnant; and I feel as informed about the menopause as I did before my period started – namely, totally and utterly clueless. In March, two Norwegian women published The Wonder Down Under – an extensive guide to female anatomy. Why? Because, in 2014, a survey found that half of young British women were unable to locate their vaginas on a medical diagram. More recently, a staggering piece of journalism in The New York Times Magazine discovered that black women were three to four more times likely from pregnancy-related causes than white women – and that has *nothing* to do with income bracket, instead, the “lived experience of being a black woman in America”. Clearly, we're only just beginning to understand the countless factors that impact our health.
What the 12 women of the Boston Health Collective realised on that college campus as the world, and a woman’s place in it, was shape-shifting around them was that they weren’t learning about themselves and that their anatomy had, up until that point, been deemed irrelevant or inappropriate; their concerns were unworthy of time or inspection; and that perhaps this “ignorance” was the product of some sort of control. Because a woman’s power over her own health is an articulation of independence – it’s an exercise in legitimation and validation; it’s the voice of women saying, “I matter.”
It’s heartbreaking to think such a radical message has come to an end (especially at a time of pussy-hat wearing, renewed collective sense of feminist purpose), but it’s even sadder to think, generations later, we’re still having to educate and inform ourselves. In 2015, Labour MP Stella Creasy had to force a male MP to even say the word “tampon” when discussing the Tampon Tax in parliament. These words that are part of our everyday health are deemed taboo, not spoken, ignored. But these words are us – they're our bodies, our health, our lives, ourselves. Watching young women take on the baton of publishing useful books or starting support groups is heartening. Unpicking how we educate children is a big conversation, but the bottom line is very simple: women’s health matters. The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective realised that in the 1960s. And I wholeheartedly applaud the women who are continuing their work.