April 11, 2010

Speaking Our Voices - Our Bodies, Ourselves

Do you remember the first time you ever picked up a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves?  I do.  I was 15 years old and away at summer camp.  One of my counselors was an undergraduate at Barnard College.  At the time, her being a Barnard student with unshaven legs didn't really seem to phase me or provide me with much meaning.  What did provide a lasting effect seventeen years later is that she took the time to create a space that would allow us girls as a group to feel comfortable enough to ask her ANYTHING we wanted!  I must have arrived back to the bunk a bit later than some of the other girls, as they were already crowded around her with a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves

I was a bit confused and was not exactly sure what was going on.  It seemed like an organized activity, but somehow I do not think that the camp director provided the hat in which we placed little pieces of paper with our anonymously written questions about our menstural cycles, dating, and oral sex.  In that moment I can remember holding simultaneous feelings of confusion, embarrasment, freedom, and excitment, all in my 15-year old-head.  Beyond the glass coke bottle that was conveniently available as a prop for someone to demonstrate how to perform oral sex on a guy (as per an anonymous request written on a small piece of paper which was, again, not provided by our camp), I remember the looming presense of a tattered copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.  In an observent Jewish sleep away camp with daily prayers and frequent reading from the Torah, this seemed to come a close second to a "religious" experience.

Though I did not have the words to express my feelings in that particular momemt, I have come to hold this experience and really the meta-experience of our counselor holding that space for us young women to gather in an open, accepting, non-judgemental (non-health education at school) forum to explore our physical and emotional selves as radical!  It seems to me that every opportunity for women of all ethnicities, race, age, and cultural backgrounds to gather and raise-conciouness and explore our bodies and ourselves is radical.  The publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves allowed women to recognize and know that we have a voice and a right to knowledge and action around our bodies! Decades after the initial printing, the mere presence of Our Bodies, Ourselves on bookstore, library, home, and community center bookshelves serves as a visual reminder of how far the women's movement has come in recognizing our inherent differences, power, and rights to our bodies and how much work we still have left to do!

In honor of the upcoming National Organization for Women's National Conference in Boston, MA, on July 2-4, the WCC wants to hear about your first encounter with Our Bodies, Ourselves. This year's conference theme is Loving Our Bodies, Changing the World.  Since it is taking place in Boston, NOW will be using the location and context to honor the Boston Women's Health Book Collective.  The following is an excerpt from NOW's conference website. 

It all started in Boston, at a women's liberation conference in 1969. Twelve women, ranging in ages from 23 to 39, met at a workshop titled Women and Their Bodies. After unpacking their own health care nightmares and negative experiences with doctors, they decided to turn their frustrations into action. From the civil rights movement to fighting for legal abortion, these women were no strangers to grassroots activism. Focusing on self-empowerment and raising their own consciousnesses about health and sexuality, they decided to work on a summer project that eventually led to the creation of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

In 1970 they published a stapled newsprint booklet entitled Women and Their Bodies. The booklet, which put women's health in a radically new political and social context, become an underground success. In 1973 Simon & Schuster published an expanded edition, renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves. The book transformed women's relationship with their health care providers and finally gave women agency over their own bodies through education. Translated into various languages and updated for different generations throughout the years, profits from the sales of the books even go toward improving the lives of women.

The collective went on to support the creation of the National Women's Health Network -- the first national women's health advocacy membership organization. The NOW Foundation is proud to honor the founding women of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective for their feminist contributions to the field of women's and girls' health.


  1. great post! i felt very emotional and inspired by the image of 15 yr old carly and her peers at summer camp getting their sex ed learning on. my first experience with our bodies ourselves was sneaking a peak at my mom's version from the 1970's, it was probably the early 90's and i was probably about 10 or 11. that book has had a huge impact on my life and political orientation!

  2. Thanks Rachel for sharing! Pass this post along to your friends, I would love to hear more of your stories!


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