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‘Our Bodies’ 35 years later

Special to The Times

The books were gifts from mothers. Or passed on from friends, around school. Or grabbed from stacks in bookstores and read in secret.

Interspersed between the anatomical drawings and blunt explanations of women’s reproductive health were confessional stories by women, for women. One shared her ambivalence toward her husband, another told of sexual problems, and yet another detailed her experience of illegally aborting a pregnancy.

Launched in 1970, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was like an open diary that helped thousands of girls come of age. It also helped adult women better understand their bodies, giving them the courage to talk about intimate sexual and reproductive issues.

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The book’s vignettes and chapters reflected the Boston women who wrote it. They were in their 20s and 30s, some were married, some had kids, some were single. All were frustrated with the lack of resources available to teach women about their health and sexuality.

“The whole process began as a conversation,” says Nancy Miriam Hawley, one of the 14 feminists who wrote early editions of the book and a co-founder of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. “When I was addressing the issues that touched my heart and soul, I knew those were the same issues that other women were concerned about.”

Now, 35 years after the first 193-page booklet was published on stapled newsprint, the collective is inviting women to continue the conversation. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Books has released the eighth edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The book -- more than half of which has been revised -- features the work of more than 400 women, including some of the original authors.

Although 4 million copies have been sold worldwide, sales of the book have slowed in recent years, raising questions about its continued relevancy.

The tome enters a much-changed world. The 1970s can be described, as social critic Barbara Ehrenreich did recently, as a time when “the region below your waist was known as ‘down there.’ ” Then, issues such as birth control, sexual orientation and breast-feeding were taboo; now those topics can pass as banal banter between girlfriends.

“When I teach women and health, I’m struck by how much they take for granted and how little they realize how far we’ve come,” says Wendy Kline, who teaches history at the University of Cincinnati. “They do not know that the kinds of choices they exercise today stem in part from that movement and in part from that book.”

Today, credible information on any topic is a click away; and television shows such as “The L Word” and “Sex and the City” broadcast candid talk about the intricacies of sex.

“I think there’s a lot more out there for the public,” says Dr. Mary Frank, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “The need of ‘You better learn this or something is going to happen’ is not as strong as when the Boston’s Women’s Health Book Collective put it out.”

In 1970, patients didn’t routinely look at their medical records; the doctor was most likely male; many women didn’t understand birth control; and abortion was illegal in most states. That, of course, has changed -- as have mothers’ ages. Then, only 1.5% of first births were by women 30 and older, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Now it’s 10%.

Many doctors and historians credit “Our Bodies, Ourselves” with helping to alter this landscape. Perhaps its place today, they say, is not to incite a “revolution,” as proclaimed in an early edition, but to serve as a general reference book for women.

“I think it’s a really good starting point,” says Elizabeth Watkins, who teaches health science history at UC San Francisco. “If I were to tell a woman to have a certain number of books on her shelf, I would recommend that one.”

The authors view their landmark book as more than a good starting point. As they see it, many women still don’t know enough about their reproductive health -- or how to navigate today’s information glut, a problem almost unimaginable in the early ‘70s. They think their critical eye is needed to untangle the credible sources from the erroneous. (A concurrent website, www.ourbodiesourselves.org, will list additional resources that have already been evaluated.)

“One of the major challenges young women have today is much of what they see as news is generated by the pharmaceutical industry,” says Judy Norsigian, a founder and executive director of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the new name for the collective. “The risks are downplayed and the benefits are advocated.”

The book takes on topical issues, such as assisted reproductive technologies. It walks readers through the various types, such as in vitro fertilization, and, in keeping with its traditional feminist tone, points out that such procedures have become a big business for doctors.

Dr. Raquel Arias agrees with Norsigian’s contention that many women are still woefully ignorant about their bodies. As associate dean of women at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, she is constantly surprised when she realizes how little even some female medical students understand. She says women still have a long way to go to understand how their sexual behavior can alter their life.

Case in point, she says: Half of the nation’s 6 million pregnancies each year are unintended.

“It appears that this is a tale that needs to be told continuously,” Arias says. “Each generation seems to be equally befuddled by their own sexuality and how their body works.”


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