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Saturday Feature
 
Our Bodies, Ourselves
A Book and A Movement
Elayne Ctift
3/11/2006
 

          VERMONT: I first met Judy Norsigian and Norma Swenson, cofounders of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (BWHRC), in New York in 1980, at a party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a book that was changing women's lives: BWHBC's "Our Bodies. Ourselves" (OBOS). BWHBC, a non-profit women's health education, advocacy and consulting organisation, was co-founded by 12 women in 1969, and first published OBOS as a 193-page, stapled booklet in 1970.
OBOS was the first book ever written by women for women about health, Sexuality and reproduction, that put these issues into a radically new social and political context. OBOS talked about everything from the politics of birth control to the intricacies of sexual orientation. It covered the gamut from weight, weaning and wife-beating to abortion and yeast infection. An underuround success that sold 250,000 copies, it was picked up by Simon & Schuster In 1973 for commercial release. Its 850-page eighth edition, published in 2005, consolidates OBOS's status as an icon of the women's movement.
The room that day in 1980, when I was new to the women's health movement, was electric with female energy and intellect. Swenson spoke persuasively about the medicalisation of childbirth and drew analogies between standard delivery practices and sexual abuse. She urged women to validate our personal experiences, to regain authority over our own bodies and to network for greater knowledge and power. I was transformed by the events of that day; I've worked for, and written about, women's health ever since.
Younger women may wonder what's so remarkable about all of this. But before the first 'Issue of OBOS (then called "Women and Their Bodies") appeared in December 1970, there was practically no women's health information readily available and women had little control over then- medical choices. Hysterectomies and Halstead radical mastectornies were routine.
Caesarean section birth rates were rising. Nursing your baby was considered old-fashioned. Poor and minority women were being sterilised without their fully informed consent. Women were Increasingly being prescribed mood-altering drugs as they became available. Despite the availability of the contraceptive pill, sex was still problematic in the pre-Roe vs Wade era (the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion in the US). Domestic violence and sexual abuse were rampant - and unacknowledged.
OBOS challenged the medical establishment by introducing radical new ideas into public discourse on women's health: As informed health consumers, women, it said, are catalysts for social change. Women can become their own health experts, particularly through discussing issues of health and sexuality with each other.
Health consumers have a right to know about controversies surrounding medical practices and about where consensus among medical experts may be forming. Women comprise the largest segment of health workers, health consumers and health decision makers for their families and communities, but are underrepresented in positions of influence and policy making. And, finally, a pathology/disease approach to normal life events (birthing, menopause, ageing death) is not an effective way in which to structure health system.
To date, it is estimated that four million copies OBOS's have been sold throughout the world and that the book has reached about 20 million readers. An estimated 300,000 copies have been distributed free to women's organisations Europe, Africa arid Asia. The book has been translated into 18 languages and into Braille, "We're part of the international movement," Sally Whelan, who manages OBOS's Global and Adaptation Programme, says. "Since most foreign rights were returned to us by our publisher about 15 years ago, we have been able to transfer rights directly to women's groups for a nominal fee. This gives editorial control to women's organisations rather than to a publisher or individual translator who may not be as concerned with the country's most pressing health issues."
In the last few years, editions of OBOS have appeared in Armenia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Poland arid Serbia. A French-African edition has reached almost two dozen Francophoric African countries arid a Spanish version has been released in Latin America. The book is also due out this year In South Korea arid a book inspired by OBOS in Tibetan will be distributed throughout the Himalayan region.
Every country that uses the hook is free to adapt its content so that it is culturally and politically relevant. For settings where women are still largely illiterate or where oral tradition prevail, funds are being sought to make the information available in other ways. For example, in Nigeria, a group has begun adapting OBOS excerpts into formats that will reach women in their daily lives, through radio programmes, street theatre and a poster campaign on the canoe transport system that brings women from farms to the markets.
The 2005 edition of OBOS, to which more than 500 writers, editors, reviewers, medical authorities, researchers and activists contributed, is thoroughly revised, says Managing Editor Heather Stephenson. "We couldn't eliminate topics from previous editions. Women still face environmental and workplace hazards, limited access to health care arid other challenges that the book has talked about for years, arid women still need information about everything from sexually transmitted infections to cancer," she says. "We've updated everything, however, and there are many new topics included now." Some of these new topics include breast implants arid menstrual suppression. The book also has a companion website, for the first time, that provides additional information arid updates, as well as links to online resources.
Thirty five years into her involvement with OBOS, Norsigian, now Executive Director, is in a unique position to reflect on the book's evolution, the history of the women's health movement arid what comes next. "OBOS has always retained its consumer arid feminist perspective, challenging the inappropriate medicalisation of women's lives, while at the same time calling for reforms that would expand access to needed health and medical care. The combination of practical information, women's personal experiences and examples of how women and men have organised for needed change continues to be the hallmark of this unique book. I hope that Subsequent generations of activists who produce future editions of OBOS will sustain its role in the larger movernents for social change."
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