Nearly 50 years have passed since a group of women in Boston published a book that transformed public understanding of women’s health and medical care.
Four of the 12 founders of Our Bodies Ourselves visited the Newton Senior Center on Nov. 1 to discuss their contribution and their motivation to keep working on gender-related issues.
Joan Ditzion, Judy Norsigian, Norma Swenson, and Paula Doress-Worters spoke about how times have changed for women since 1970 when they published “Women and Their Bodies” to educate the public about the safety and efficacy of health care for women, including topics of pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, birth control, and sexuality.
“The book will never be an end in itself,” said Ditzion, 76, in front of 90 attendees. “The book was to bring people together, women together to talk to one another.”
Our Bodies Ourselves, formerly known as the Doctor’s Group or the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, was established in 1969 when 12 women experiencing sexism in women’s medical care united to voice their opinions and learn about their rights over their bodies.
A year after the first publication, the organization changed the book title to “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” which is currently in its ninth edition.
“It was the beginning of creating more what we call uppity women,” said Norsigian, the chair of the Our Bodies Ourselves board of directors, in an interview. “We were going to have a voice and not going to do this business as usual.”
“It’s really rewarding to talk about [“Our Bodies, Ourselves”] here at the Senior Center,” said Doress-Worters, 81, who attends a fitness class at the Newton Senior Center weekly.
Like Doress-Worters, many of OBOS cofounders are longtime Newton residents, including Norsigian and Swenson.
“We are so lucky to have these people in Newton,” said Ilana Seidmann, program coordinator at the Newton Senior Center. She said she planned the event because “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has been inspiring and motivating many of the center’s regular visitors.
“Fifty years ago, there was nothing out there and certainly nothing in lay language,” said Norsigian, 71, in an interview before the event.
She said myths about female bodies had circulated in mainstream consciousness, and even medical textbooks contained misogynistic language and erroneous information.
Swenson said she was surprised when she first met other like-minded women, with whom she shared her experience and later cofounded OBOS.
“These women were talking about masturbation. They were talking about birth control. They were talking about abortion. They were talking about subjects that we never spoke about at all,” said Swenson, 87.
Although “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, Norsigian said most of its coauthors did not expect the book would get much attention.
“We were about demystifying and asserting ourselves as women, women who have been socialized to be good as you’re told — that kind of thing,” said Norsigian, who experienced sex-based discrimination when she challenged the norm of patriarchal society 50 years ago.
“Many were well educated, but it was assumed that we were in college to find a husband. Jobs were not opening up for us,” said Doress-Worters, who said women had been required to mention their husband’s names to use their credit cards.
Audience members shared their stories about how the book has supported their childbirth and motherhood, and they expressed concerns about experiences with menopause transition, hormone treatment, and cancers.
“It opened up an avenue for women to talk about not only their thoughts but also health issues,” said Gail Zimmerman, who first read “Our Bodies, Ourselves” when she was in her 30s.
Zimmerman said the book made a lot of women feel comfortable bringing up topics that were considered taboo, such as breast cancer and abortion.
“It was so hush-hush,” said Swenson, who had been an activist for maternal and child health before she co-founded OBOS.
She said the ability to openly discuss abortion is one of the huge differences between now and 50 years ago when illegal, unsafe abortions had prevailed.
OBOS made great progress enhancing public understanding of women’s health, but there is still much work to be done, especially for women’s reproductive issues, said Ditzion. “I would encourage you to figure out ways to continue this kind of conversation,” she said.
Translated into more than 30 languages, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has embraced diversity as women in different nations have suffered from different social and cultural issues.
“[OBOS] is a motivation for being a woman,” said a young Brazilian activist, Raquel Pereira, who moved to the United States this year to translate the book into Portuguese.
Pereira said she became a member of the local women’s rights group, Coletivo Feminista Sexualidade e Saúde, after she faced “traditional” discrimination against women at her former workplace in Brazil where abortion is still illegal.
Norsigian said activism must be enjoyable to encourage people to participate, and she emphasized the power in numbers to fight for social justice.
“Never try to do anything alone, find a group to work with sometimes,” said Norsigian. “We have made time for sharing about our lives, being involved with one another’s children, and trying to build community, and found that creates good personal ties.”
Anju Miura can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.