From Boston to the World: Our Bodies, Ourselves Still Sparks Change

Early members of Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), a nonprofit, public interest organization based in Cambridge, Mass.
Early members of Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), a nonprofit, public interest organization based in Cambridge, Mass." As seen in the 2014 documentary film SHE'S BEAUTIFUL WHEN SHE'S ANGRY, directed by Mary Dore. –Ann Popkin

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and thousands of events around the world will encourage discussion on the state of women’s rights. Issues in women’s health have recently been attracting international attention — things like maternal mortality, sexual assault, and reproductive rights. But these have been issues for years, and the conversation first started in Boston.

Forty-five years ago, 12 women in Boston self-published a course booklet called Women and Their Bodies, after talking about their experiences with unhelpful doctors and limited information. Now, under the title Our Bodies, Ourselves, that updated text has been published in 29 languages — and counting — and has sold more than 4 million copies.

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The original authors formed the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, but in 1979, transitioned into a nonprofit called Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS) to develop programs internationally. A few of the founders were recently featured in the women’s liberation documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (currently playing at The Coolidge Corner Theatre) for playing an integral role in the women’s liberation movement.

Dr. Paula Johnson, executive director at the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, credits these women for their work in the health sector as well.

“Our Bodies Ourselves started as a small organization, but I view it as being a major catalyst to the women’s health movement,’’ Johnson told Boston.com. “It’s about women having agency regarding their heath. Everything else in the modern women’s health movement flows from that work.’’

Johnson focuses on patterns of care and their impact on women, stressing that the medical world needs to keep up with the constantly-developing science. She said that the book Our Bodies, Ourselves was important to how health care was delivered, and in determining its future.

“When we advance science, and we advance care, we help the women of the world,’’ Johnson said. “That becomes the base on which everyone else builds.’’

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Boston has a rich history in this movement, from OBOS to the Dimock Community Health Center, a hospital started by women for women. According to Johnson, “the first movement’’ in women’s health was the era immediately after Our Bodies, Ourselves came out. The work being done at Brigham and Women’s is building on this, Johnson said, as being on the forefront of what she calls “the third movement.’’

Johnson said the center’s been doing work “that has advanced women’s health globally.’’

“The women who started [OBOS] and who continue it, we stand on their shoulders,’’ she said.

For the medical field, a global direction was intentional. But when the women’s health movement started with the release of Our Bodies, Ourselves, that far-reaching impact wasn’t initially planned.

“We didn’t really set out to add a global element or develop a global program,’’ Sally Whelan, Director of the Global Initiative, told Boston.com. “It really happened very organically.’’

When the book hit The New York Times best-seller list in the ‘70s, word spread to women’s groups and publishers internationally, she said.

“Our Bodies, Ourselves’’ (1973) —Published by Simon & Schuster

“It really has been a response to a need expressed by women around the world,’’ Whelan said. “And the important thing is that the books are, for the most part, cultural adaptations. They’ve adapted into content that’s reflective of their unique social and political realities.’’

The material from Our Bodies, Ourselves helps shape training manuals and action campaigns as well, she said. In Istanbul, women wore badges for an action campaign that said “My body is mine,’’ and passed out a statement geared toward expressing the rights of young women. The statement started with things like “I’m entitled to climb a tree,’’ and then progressed to demanding full civic participation, she said, as a “crescendo of rights.’’

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In Nepal, as the country transitions to a democracy, OBOS has worked with women’s groups who are pushing to get sexual and reproductive rights embedded in the new constitution. They succeeded, but then in the next version, those rights weren’t included, Whelan said. So they have to push again.

“It’s a metaphor for what we all do,’’ she said. “We think they’re permanent victories, but they’re not.’’

To Whelan, there’s a strong sense of global movement; women across the world feel connected to something bigger. Like through International Women’s Day, women are finding platforms for social change.

“It’s important even within our global network to wish each other happy International Women’s Day,’’ she said. “So often the groups we work with start off in such isolation, and some of the work they’re doing is really courageous and sometimes dangerous.’’

The Serbian translation emphasized how women’s bodies were being used as weapons of war, Whelan said, but the publisher there knew that people wouldn’t have enough disposable income to buy the book. When they printed it, they left one side of every page blank so that it could function as a shared journal.

This progress for women’s rights is still exciting for Whelan, who was part of the founding group that helped turn the informal collective into an organization with developed programs and a board of directors. She remembered when, in the early ‘70s, fellow founder Miriam Hawley said they would sell a million copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and that it would be translated into Chinese. Everyone laughed.

“But here we are, 45 years later, in over 29 languages and with a thriving global network,’’ Whelan said. “It’s been a good ride.’’

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