Our bodies ourselves
By Olivia Hepsworth, MA History
Illistration by Maë Faugere
In May 1969, as the women’s movement was gaining momentum and influence, twelve women met during a women’s liberation conference at Emmanuel College, Boston. In a workshop called Women and Their Bodies, they shared their personal stories and discussed their experiences with doctors. They first labelled themselves The Doctors Group, changing this to The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC) in 1972. As women, they had all encountered male doctors who were condescending, paternalistic and often judgemental and ill informed. In 1970 only 9% of medical students in the United States were women, so often a female patient would have no choice but to be treated by a man. This BWHBC was borne out of the founders’ frustration with the patriarchal nature of the American medical system; they repudiated the faith placed in the expertise of male gynaecologists and sought to make women experts on their bodies.
Like many of their future readers, none of these women had a prior medical background. They undertook research in libraries and interviewed doctors and female nurses, compiling medical knowledge on the female body and vaginal anatomy. The BWHBC translated this information into an accessible format to give all women access to their research and to offer them greater understanding of their own health. In so doing, they challenged the medical establishment, forcing them to reconsider the healthcare and advice women received. They produced a pamphlet in 1972, which was a huge success, selling 250,000 copies largely through word of mouth. The pamphlet was then expanded in 1973 into a book called Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS).
Their work was revolutionary for its open discussion of female sexuality, the clitoris, lesbianism and abortion (which remained illegal). The chapter on lesbianism, for example, was provocatively entitled “In Amerika They Call Us Dykes” and was intended to challenge the heteronormative pressures of 1970s American society. It consisted of long lifestyle extracts of women talking openly about their own sexuality and criticising the restrictive social expectations of the early 1970s. One woman, named Diana, celebrated the women’s movement for allowing her to express her true self, “I would no longer have to play roles with men and act feminine and sweet”.
In each edition of OBOS published between 1973 and 2011, the BWHBC attacked patriarchal constraints of society and sought to restore women’s power and sexual freedom. They aimed to eliminate the shame women felt about expressing their sexuality, particularly their desire to have orgasms. In OBOS they argued that women’s sexual pleasure was always expected to be subordinated to that of their male partners, and that “from the moment we are born we are treated differently from little boys”. The BWHBC sought to redress this imbalance. In the 1973 edition, for example, a women contributor commented on the “virgin-whore dichotomy”; the notion that a woman was either a “good girl” who abstained from sex or a “whore”. She observed that “There was no parallel judgements made on the boys” who desire the “bad-girls” in youth only to marry the “good girl” in later life. This woman’s experience reflected the wider social pressures imposed on women to be chaste and repress their sexuality even after marriage. OBOS encouraged women to be assertive and to reject the patriarchal notion that women should be docile and sexually subservient to their partners.
The “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960s and the introduction of the pill were widely celebrated as facilitating the sexual liberation of women. But the founders of OBOS rejected this idea and argued instead that while the sexual revolution “liberated orgiastic women, groupies, communal lovemaking, homosexuality” it also made many women feel as though “they must have sex without impunity” or they would be considered “uptight freaks”. OBOS did not blindly follow trends, they wanted women to be true to their own desires, free from the pressure of society. They remained constant in their criticism of patriarchal society, the restraints on female sexuality and the prejudice encountered by lesbian women, but the editions of OBOS published across several decades did reflect changing ideas of female sexuality. Over the years they began to address the different experiences of gendered oppression faced by women from minority ethnic backgrounds. The BWHBC sought to make OBOS more inclusive, acting as an advocate by voicing the experiences of those facing discrimination. Nevertheless, like many second-wave feminist movements, the BWHBC has been criticised for prioritising the concerns of white, middle-class women.
Our Bodies, Ourselves has been updated and reissued every four to six years since 1973, most recently in 2011. From 1974, publishers and women’s groups in other countries started translating and adapting it into new books specific to their cultures. The BWHBC has always had an international focus and as of 2017, Our Bodies, Ourselves has been reproduced in thirty-one languages and sold over four million copies around the world. This book is an important piece of feminist history, it had a profound impact on the medical establishment and gave many women across the globe a better understanding of their own bodies and sexuality.
Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Our Bodies Ourselves, First Edition (New York, 1973)
Gerhard, J., Desiring Revolution (New York, 2001)
Johnson, A., ‘Do Women Prefer Care From Female or Male Obstetrician-Gynaecologists?’ Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 105/8 (2005), pp. 369–379
‘OBOS – Our Bodies Ourselves’, http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org