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Group behind landmark book for women struggles to survive

Photo credit: Ann Popkin

Joan Moynagh remembers getting her orientation packet as a freshman at Vassar College in 1977, and being both thrilled and amazed that it included “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The book explored all sorts of previously off-limits women’s health topics, from abortion to domestic violence.

“The book was a revelation — open, honest, accepting, instructive,” said Moynagh, who still has the book on a shelf in her Milton home.

But the Cambridge women’s health collective that wrote the groundbreaking book, which has sold more than 4 million copies in the United States since its first publication in 1971, is now at risk of closing — the victim of consumers’ shift to the Internet, dwindling grants, and the lack of a long-term financial plan.


This summer, the group, now known as “Our Bodies Ourselves” (OBOS) reached out to Gloria Steinem and Lena Dunham, who wrote a crowdfunding letter that begins: “The two of us are from different generations, yet we were both helped by ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,’ the book that rocked the world by putting women’s health and sexuality in a radically new political and social context.”

Our Bodies, OurselvesAnn Popkin

Even as the battle over abortion and other women’s sexual health issues continues, particularly in the wake of the Planned Parenthood shootings in Colorado Springs, an organization that was key to starting the conversation is reaching out to its readers and supporters to stay afloat. The crowdfunding effort met its initial goal of $100,000 this week, and the organization hopes to raise nearly $200,000 more in the coming months.

“We only have enough funds on hand to survive six months,” said Joan Rachlin, who got involved with the group as a law student in 1975.

Describing the declining financial condition of the group, she added, “By last spring, it was clear that it wasn’t the writing on the wall anymore. It was neon lights flashing wildly that this was a crisis.”


Subtitled “A Book by and for Women,” “Our Bodies, Ourselves’’ is an oversized tome that has been translated into 30 languages and was named by the Library of Congress as one of 88 books that shaped America. The last of nine editions was published in 2011.

Though the entire book is not online, much of its information is available on OBOS’s website and continually updated digitally. The group’s Global Initiative works with women’s organizations around the world to adapt and translate the book; in Iran, local women recently adapted and translated a chapter on body image into Farsi.

In the United States, the information is more relevant than ever, said Judy Norsigian, a founding member of the collective who became its executive director. “As the Internet has grown, so has the misinformation, some of it deliberate,” she said. “Some of it is ideologically driven, like saying that abortion is directly related to breast cancer.”

It was a lack of information that led to the book in the first place. In 1969, the 12 original members of The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective decided to research women’s health and write a book themselves. They included chapters on what were then often-taboo topics such as birth control, sexual orientation, abortion, pregnancy and childbirth, postpartum depression, violence and abuse, and menopause, with numerous first-person stories from women.

“I think you have to go back and remember how sexist and paternalistic and condescending the medical system was,” Norsigian said.


In 1970, they stapled together a booklet, “Women and Their Bodies,” which they sold for 35 cents. The project became a book under its present name in 1971, published by the now-defunct New England Free Press.

In 1973, when Simon & Schuster republished the book, it took off. But the women insisted on maintaining editorial control and a steep discount for books sold to nonprofit health clinics.

For many women, it was eye-opening. Rachlin, an attorney who wrote the section on patients’ rights, recalls learning about menstruation from a camp counselor. “No one talked about our bodies,” she said. “For most of us, it was considered unspeakable. All of that changed with ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves.’ ”

It was not without controversy. Banned by some high schools and libraries, the book was labeled “obscene trash” by Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority.

But as seminal and successful as the book became, the organization remained a lean one.

In a recent blog post, the founders wrote: “Early on, we decided to donate royalty income after expenses to grass-roots women’s health projects.”

Now, though, royalty income has dried up. According to the group, royalties from Simon & Schuster, which also published OBOS’s “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause” in 2006 and “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth” in 2008, amounted to just under $34,000 for the past two years. For the first half of this year, royalties were just $3,618.

“We never did fund-raising in any professional way,” Rachlin said. “It was the founders with their tin cups, their Rolodexes, and outreach to friends and family. . . . They operated much more like a family than a business.”


The group has received grants from institutions including the Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and World Bank over the years, but they have expired. The board has looked in vain for a merger or affiliation with other institutions.

A year ago, OBOS moved out of its Cambridge office. Norsigian, 23 when she helped organize the group, stepped down as director in January at age 67, but she remains a volunteer. The group currently has four part-time staffers who work from home and a budget of about $300,000.

Without new funding, OBOS will exist only as “a legacy website” that will no longer be updated, members say. The site gets 400,000 hits a month.

The information there is valuable worldwide, said Sally Whelan, the program director for the OBOS Global Initiative. “We have content available on our website in Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, French, Hebrew, Nepali, Polish, and Russian, and in 2015, we added resources in Kiswahili and Vietnamese,” she said.

Ayesha Chatterjee is program manager for the Global Initiative, and at age 37 represents the younger generation of OBOS women. Some of their global outreach is to men. “We need to talk to the men to reach the women in their lives,” she said. “Men are a big piece of this puzzle.”

The OBOS veterans, some of them grandmothers now, are committed to finding resources for women like Chatterjee to carry on the work. “If we’re going to go on, we need to move it to the next generation, so young women can step in and take it into the future,” Whelan said.


Members of Our Bodies Ourselves nowCourtesy of “She's Beautiful When She's Angry”

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.