Our Bodies, Ourselves

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Our Bodies, Ourselves

The Women's Liberation Movement and Women's Health

Book excerpt

By: The Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Date: 1976

Source: The Boston Women's Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By and For Women. 2nd edition. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

About the Author: The Boston Women's Health Book Collective, now also known as Our Bodies, Ourselves, was an outgrowth of the women's movement in the United States. In the late 1960s, there was a workshop at a feminist conference in Boston that concerned women's experiences of their bodies. During the workshop, the participants (all female) began to discuss their perceptions and understandings of their own anatomy and physiology and discovered that there was a general lack of knowledge, especially about sexuality and reproduction. The participants realized that they had much to learn. Several of them decided to research the topics raised and put the collected knowledge together to create a women's study course. The book that became Our Bodies, Ourselves was the result of creating this women's study course, sharing information with the original workshop participants, and gathering further information. The twelve feminists that formed the research group evolved into the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, which, in addition to creating subsequent editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, has published several other books by and for women and their families.


The Boston Women's Health Book Collective (BWHBC) grew over time, shifting from a collaborative group of twelve volunteers who designed a course and wrote Our Bodies, Ourselves to a formal organization managed by a highly diverse board of directors. It is now a global organization, working to inform and educate women (and men) about issues concerning not only women's sexual and reproductive health, but also abortion rights and reproductive freedoms, universal availability of health care, humanistic and woman-centered childbirth, and women's rights in developing countries. The BWHBC also assisted in the development of the National Women's Health Network (NWHN).

The National Women's Health Network was created as another means of empowering women in the United States to positively influence the direction of their own health care. One of the hallmarks of the organization is its independence from corporate sponsorship; it accepts no financial support from pharmaceutical companies, the medical industry, tobacco producing and marketing companies, or alcohol manufacturers. Essentially, the NWHN is a diverse, multicultural, grass-roots activist and advocacy organization that supports the development of humane medical treatments that are driven by efficacy rather than profits. In addition, it supports universal access to high-quality medical care and seeks to empower people to be well-informed about all aspects of their own health care.

Although none of the founding members of the BWHBC were health care professionals, they became progressively more well-educated about women's health issues and have repeatedly engaged in dialogue with women's rights and women's health advocates and activists around the globe. They have formed a strong alliance with the American Medical Women's Association and have participated in many international conferences and forums on women's physical and reproductive health issues. They remain quite involved in the global women's health movement.

One of the central issues that spurred the development of the women's health movement was abortion. Many states had narrowly restrictive abortion laws governing location of abortion services providers, the stage of gestation during which abortions could legally be performed, and the circumstances under which it was possible to have a pregnancy medically terminated. The structure of the abortion system made it extremely difficult for women who were not financially independent to obtain legal and safe abortions. A reaction against the perceived male-dominated and oppressive medical system led to the development of women's self-help clinics, based on the idea that women could best be empowered to make informed decisions about their health care if they had some basic familiarity with their anatomy and physiology. Groups of women gathered together and used mirrors to examine their own genitals. The goal of the self-help movement was the widespread sharing of information through conferences, meetings, and workshops across the nation.


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Before the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in the United States on January 22, 1973, women had few safe options regarding abortion and reproduction rights. The women's self-help movement, along with the women's health and feminist movements, sought to empower women to take control of their health care by educating them both about their bodies and about their civil rights. Alternately called self-help, women's empowerment, and consciousness raising, women's groups—in different parts of the country, at different times, and with varied missions—gathered around the overall goal of ending oppression and discrimination and ensuring equality, particularly in the health care arena, for all people regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, or race. Much research into the safety and efficacy of current birth control methods resulted from the women's health movement, and much was written and published as a result.

The grass-roots women's health movement quickly expanded its scope to include global issues. Of particular concern was the lack of appropriate, safe, and efficient reproductive technologies in developing countries. In many areas, there were few safe or legal abortion options, women had few rights concerning their bodies and reproductive health, and many countries practiced either forced sterilization or utilized potentially unsafe or unproven birth control methods. A central tenet of the women's health movement held that both sexual partners should bear equal responsibility for reproductive choices and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

In addition to its strong advocacy for women's freedom of choice in matters of health care, the women's health movement placed a constant emphasis the importance of knowledge and education as means of making empowered choices. It has lobbied to make government and industry more responsible to the public by mandating that they provide comprehensive public information on health policies, procedures, legislation, and research studies, as well as the ways in which each of those areas affect everyday life. The Boston Women's Health Book Collective and Our Bodies, Ourselves—which has gone through three editions and sold over three million copies—have had an ongoing impact on the lives and health of women all over the world.


Web sites

Feminist Women's Health Center. "Welcome to the Feminist Women's Health Center Website." 〈http://www.fwhc.org/welcome.htm〉 (accessed December 29, 2005).

National Organization for Women. "Women and Abortions: The Reasoning Behind the Decision." 〈http://www.now.org/issues/abortion/12-13-05guttmacher.html〉 (accessed December 29, 2005).

National Women's Health Network: A Voice for Women, A Network for Change. "NWHN in Action." 〈http://www.womenshealthnetwork.org/action/index.php〉 (accessed December 29, 2005).

womenshealth.gov: The Federal Government Source for Women's Health Information. "The History and Future of Women's Health." 〈http://www.4woman.gov/owh/pub/history/hlthmvmtf.htm〉 (accessed December 29, 2005).

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