Feminist Health Guide 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' Will Stop Publishing

Apr 8, 2018
Originally published on April 9, 2018 12:51 pm

At some point, you or a woman you know has likely looked through a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. The book was revolutionary when it was first published in the early 1970s. It taught women about their own anatomy and sexuality at a time when talking frankly about sex was considered — well, unladylike.

Now, the organization that publishes Our Bodies, Ourselves has announced that after nearly 50 years and nine editions, it's ceasing publication of the signature book. Executive Director Julie Childers says the the small nonprofit Our Bodies, Ourselves organization could no longer afford to keep publishing updates.

Our Bodies, Ourselves originally sprang from feminist "consciousness-raising" courses held in Boston in the late 1960s. Group members gave presentations about topics considered taboo at the time, like masturbation, postpartum struggles, and birth control — which was then illegal for unmarried women in Massachusetts.

Those topic presentations turned into chapters of a 1970 newsprint booklet called "Women And Their Bodies." The following year, it was re-published regionally as the book Our Bodies, Ourselves and sold 250,000 copies. Simon and Schuster published the book's first commercial edition in 1973. The most recent — and final — update came out in 2011.

Verna Brocks was handed a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves at a Detroit hospital in the 1970s. She says it was "a godsend."

At the time, Brocks was a young mother with a clerical job at General Motors. She brought the book to work, and at lunchtime, she says, she and her coworkers would pore over it, "like preteens, giggling in a group."

The women were shocked at how much they didn't know about their own anatomy. "Those things that your mother forgot to tell you," Brocks laughs. Or maybe they were things your mother didn't know herself. Verna Brocks says the book empowered her to bring questions to her doctor that she wouldn't have felt comfortable asking before.

Jessica Halem's mother gave her a copy in the 1980s, after she got her first period. She says it's where she first learned there was such a thing as a clitoris. She eventually took her copy to college and passed it around her dorm until it fell apart.

Halem, who now advises students at Harvard Medical School, says there's nothing else like Our Bodies Ourselves' friendly, authoritative tone, mixing real anecdotes with professionally vetted facts, "free of shame, no stigma, positive, and affirming that knowing this information is a good thing."

The book has sold more than four million copies, and has been translated into 31 languages. Spin-off titles focused on pregnancy and menopause.

And maybe now's the time to stop, says Dr. Paula Johnson.

Johnson is the president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts and an advisor for the Our Bodies, Ourselves organization. She says they have "made a decision not to replicate, but refocus their work."

Now, the nonprofit plans to scale down and collaborate with other groups doing feminist advocacy, instead of updating their published content.

Before the Internet, Our Bodies Ourselves was a rare source for honest, plainspoken information that was hard to find and awkward to ask about. But today there are numerous trustworthy websites that teach about women's health, reproductive options and sexual identity - and some of the stigma around wanting that information has faded.

That, says Johnson, is Our Bodies Ourselves' real legacy.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At some point somewhere, you or a woman you know has likely looked through a copy of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." The book was revolutionary when it was first published in the early 1970s. It taught women about their own reproductive systems at a time when talking frankly about sex was considered unladylike. Now "Our Bodies, Ourselves" has announced it's ceasing publication. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us why.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: You could have seen this coming. After all, we're talking about a book and a tiny not-for-profit devoted to women's health.

JULIE CHILDERS: We've never had a big budget.

ULABY: Julie Childers is the executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves.

CHILDERS: It became harder and harder to make ends meet, harder and harder to ask staff to do the work that was required to publish this amazing book.

ULABY: The book sprang from consciousness-raising courses held by feminists in Boston about then-taboo topics like masturbation and birth control, which, at the time, was illegal for unmarried women in Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SHE'S BEAUTIFUL WHEN SHE'S ANGRY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I remember that after the first session...

ULABY: The original members of the Boston Women's Health Collective in a documentary called "She's Beautiful When She's Angry."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SHE'S BEAUTIFUL WHEN SHE'S ANGRY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Then we said this is going to become a book. We each took the subject that most involved us personally.

ULABY: Those topics became chapters on nutrition, pregnancy, menopause, sexual identity. Verna Brocks (ph) ran across a copy of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" at a Detroit hospital in the 1970s.

VERNA BROCKS: At that time, I worked for General Motors - clerical person.

ULABY: She took a copy with her to work. And at lunchtime, she says, she and her female co-workers would pore over the book and talk about what they learned.

BROCKS: I can't believe I just learned about this, and here I am already with children. The make-up of the woman's body - you know, those things that your mother forgot to tell you.

ULABY: Or that maybe your mother didn't know. Brock said before she read "Our Bodies, Ourselves," she never knew she could ask a doctor questions.

BROCKS: But with the book in hand, I mean, that book was a godsend.

ULABY: One of the founders of Our Bodies Ourselves told me that women have thanked her over the years for explaining the signs of an ectopic pregnancy, which can kill you if not properly diagnosed. But women's well-being in "Our Bodies, Ourselves" is broadly defined. Jessica Halem got a copy in the 1980s from her mother.

JESSICA HALEM: So it's, like, one of those books where you literally leaf through it and discover things about yourself you didn't even know.

ULABY: Like what?

HALEM: Like the clitoris.

ULABY: Halem took her copy to college and passed it around until it fell apart. Now she advises students at Harvard Medical School. There's nothing else, she says, like "Our Bodies, Ourselves'" friendly, authoritative tone that mixes real anecdotes with professionally vetted facts. The book has sold more than 4 million copies, been updated eight times and translated into 31 languages from Polish...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Polish).

ULABY: ...To Vietnamese.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Vietnamese).

ULABY: And maybe now is the time to stop, says Dr. Paula Johnson.

PAULA JOHNSON: I applaud them.

ULABY: Johnson's the president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts and an advisor for Our Bodies Ourselves. She says the organization plans to scale down and collaborate more with other groups.

JOHNSON: They have had an enormous impact. And they have made an active decision not to replicate but to refocus their work.

ULABY: Before the internet, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was someplace to find out information that was not then common knowledge. Now it's easy to find trustworthy websites that teach about women's health, reproductive options and sexual identity. And that, says Johnson, is "Our Bodies, Ourselves'" direct legacy. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.