‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ will stop printing new editions
“Our Bodies, Ourselves,” the 1970s-era bible of women’s health that has been updated over five decades to introduce generations of girls to their own anatomy, is going the way of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — still available online, but frozen in time.
The most recent print edition of the book will be its last, halting advancement in women’s health, contraception, and sexual awareness in 2011, as its authors shift to a Web-only presence and an all-volunteer model of advocacy.
This week’s announcement, prompted by financial pressures, triggered a wave of nostalgia among women of a certain age and hand-wringing about what the future holds at a time when the Trump administration has embraced religious-based research and eliminated some online information about women’s health.
The book “helped me through the Dark Ages, when reliable and safe information about women’s health was difficult to find,” one Boston reader wrote on the group’s Facebook page. “Now, as we face a new Dark Age, I give thanks that OBOS exists — in any form.”
Parts of the book will remain available online, as will its digital archives, although the website will no longer be regularly updated with current health information, officials said.
In some ways, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” is returning to its roots. The book sprang from the work of a dozen women who had met at a women’s liberation conference at Emmanuel College in 1969 and continued the conversation and research on their own as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.
In recent years, the continually revised publication has had only a few full-time employees but a global presence, adapted for audiences around the world. The group relies on a network of more than 300 trusted experts to update information on health and contraceptive technology. But the development of each edition took one or two years and cost at least $250,000, said outgoing executive director Julie Childers.
The groundbreaking work, which began as a 35-cent pamphlet, was published by Simon and Schuster, translated into 31 languages, and revised in nine editions, and it sold over 4 million copies. It’s considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
Passed down, often wordlessly, from mother to daughter, the book provided women intimate insights into their own bodies and presented forbidden topics, from menstruation to masturbation, complete with illustrations.
“We didn’t have the Internet as we know it today,” said
Jaclyn Friedman, the feminist author, who is 46. “If I had questions about my body, before I went to the doctor, I went to ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves.’ It was so comforting to have. It was totally nonjudgmental.” And, she noted, its encyclopedic range covered everything from pregnancy to mysterious aches and pains.
“It treated them equally without shame and equally seriously. I just felt like the book took me seriously, took my body seriously, and believed that I could understand things about my body also,” she said.
Years after she discovered the book, Friedman got to contribute to it. She had published the 2008 book “Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape” with coauthor Jessica Valenti, and was emerging as an authority on sexual consent.
“It was such a crazy honor,” Friedman said. “It felt like being invited into the collective knowledge of feminism.”
One of her main contributions to the final edition, she said, was an update in terminology. In the past, she noted, all references to sex were called “lovemaking” or “making love.”
And that wasn’t the dark ages; that edition came out in 2005.
By 2015, the organization was struggling financially, and kept on life support by a fund-raising campaign helmed by feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO show “Girls.”
“We did have a really extraordinary fund-raising season,” Childers said. “What we were not able to do over the past two years is turn that extraordinary season into a plan for sustainability.”
A subsequent 2017 fund-raising pitch faltered, despite its emphasis on the pressing need for evidence-based information in the contentious field of reproductive health.
To some, it seems painfully significant that the book will cease publication at a cultural moment like this.
Launched at a time when women couldn’t talk freely about sex, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” is scaling back at a time when American society is preoccupied with it and as women are speaking up, in graphic detail, about sexual misconduct by powerful men. “Our Bodies, Ourselves” contributors note how much we still have to learn.
“Mostly what we’re talking about, about women’s bodies, is still this very basic idea that they belong to us,” Friedman said. “I don’t think we’re talking anywhere in the detail that ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ talked about them.”
Even the #MeToo movement is still focused on male desires and entitlement, while the subject of women’s sexual pleasure — so radical when “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was released — remains taboo.
“I don’t feel like the #MeToo conversation has expanded yet to really grapple with women’s sexual agency,” Friedman said. “Right now, #MeToo is mostly about women’s agency to say no but doesn’t yet conceive of what women want to say yes to and under what circumstances.”
Judy Norsigian, 69, one of the founders of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” had hoped to transition to grandmothering soon but will now lead the board of the organization. She can’t help herself.
“You have almost 50 years of involvement with an organization that has meant so much to women everywhere and you realize in the age of Trump and reactionary forces out there, this work is as important as ever,” said Norsigian. “We can’t let ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ have its voice be muted.”
Judy Herman, a trauma researcher who worked with a Somerville organization that received early royalties from the book, noted that she and her cohort aren’t getting any younger.
“Maybe it is time for the third wave of feminism to come along,” she said, “and create the next generation’s version of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves.’ ”