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Happy 40th Birthday, 'Our Bodies, Ourselves'

Posted by Dr. Suzanne Koven  October 19, 2011 06:45 PM

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our-bodies-ourselves.jpgOnce upon a time, long before the Internet, before WebMD and Dr. Oz and do-it-yourself ovulation kits and the menopausal health aisle at Whole Foods, there was a scruffy book with simple line drawings, printed on cheap, rough paper, that told women what they needed to know about their bodies.

It's easy to snicker, now, at, Our Bodies, Ourselves, that humble volume released by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective in October, 1971, especially at its most famous passage: the one advising women to examine their own genitalia with mirror and flashlight.
Perhaps the book conjures up memories of that long ago era, when it made the rounds in marijuana-scented college dorms and consciousness raising groups.
But both the snickering and the nostalgia miss the point of this book, which was nothing less than a landmark in medicine.
Consider where women's health stood in 1971 which was, yes, the 1970s, but still really the "Mad Men" era in many ways. Title IX, the law requiring equal access for women to athletics in schools would not be passed for another year. Roe v. Wade would not be decided for two more years and illegal, and often dangerous, abortions were common.
Just five years before Our Bodies, Ourselves appeared, gynecologist Robert Wilson wrote a best-selling book called Feminine Forever in which he claimed that menopause was a disease and that if women wanted to avoid "decay" they needed to take estrogen (resulting in hundreds of cases of uterine cancer).
We have made much progress towards equality in healthcare in 40 years, with large studies such as the Nurses' Health Study and the Women's Health Initiative
providing valuable information specifically applicable to women.
But gender inequality in healthcare has by no means been eradicated. The excess insurance premiums and coverage exclusions women face is one of the most egregious examples.
Pressure for girls and women to be unhealthfully thin has never been greater and, some--such as this Washington Post columnist--would argue that women's squeamishness about our bodies still remains higher than we'd like to think.
Still, no one can doubt that American women today are better informed and empowered than ever to make decisions about their own healthcare.
For that, we owe some thanks to Our Bodies, Ourselves--still going strong in its ninth edition.
As someone who was a teenager then, and provides healthcare to women now, I, for one, am grateful.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Suzanne Koven, M.D. practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She writes a monthly column for the Globe's G Health section and her essays have appeared in the More »

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