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Shaping Women's Lives: Our Bodies, Ourselves

How one book shaped women's health for forty years, and counting.

Our Bodies, Ourselvespublished by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (1971)—has long been hailed as the “women’s health bible.” Envisioning women as informed and self-determined, capable of making empowered decisions, the book placed women’s health in a new socio-political context and helped to launch a national and international women's health movement. In 2012, the Library of Congress added Our Bodies, Ourselves to its list of "Books That Shaped America.”

"In the early 1970s a dozen Boston feminists collaborated in this groundbreaking publication that presented accurate information on women’s health and sexuality based on their own experiences. Advocating improved doctor-patient communication and shared decision-making, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" explored ways for women to take charge of their own health issues and to work for political and cultural change that would ameliorate women’s lives."

Library of Congress, Press Release, June 21, 2012

The "Books That Shaped America” is an impressive list. From Benjamin Franklin's series of letters on Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751), Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), to other classics such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936), this collection by U.S. writers helped to shape "Americans’ views of the world, and the world’s views of America."

Our Bodies, Ourselves joined the Library of Congress' influential collection with the 2012 exhibition. Listed alongside E.B. White's Charlotte’s Web (1952), Joseph’s Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980), Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987), and The Words of César Chávez (2002), this notable book by and for women certainly shaped women's lives. By identifying and collaborating with individuals and organizations that provide services, generate research and policy analysis, and organize for social change, the book urged women to inform themselves about health issues. It set a new foundation for evidence-based, culturally appropriate information on women's health, sexuality, and reproduction. Books do affect our lives in important and varied ways.

General Collections, Library of Congress (096.00.00)
Source: General Collections, Library of Congress (096.00.00)

Since its original publication more than 40 years ago, Our Bodies, Ourselves sold more than 4 million copies and was donated to hundreds of thousands of women's centers worldwide. Now in its ninth edition (2011) the book contains the best available evidence on reproductive health, menopause and aging, sexuality, body image, relationships, gender identity, domestic violence, environmental health, global perspectives, and navigating the healthcare system. With resources in 29 languages (print and online), women around the globe access quality information about health, health-care inequities, decision-making, and advocacy.

On A Personal Note

Lown Institute Conference, Road to RightCare 2015
Judy Norsigian, Executive Director, Boston Women's Health Book Collective
Source: Lown Institute Conference, Road to RightCare 2015

I met executive director and a founder of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, Judy Norsigian, a few weeks ago at the third annual Lown Institute Conference, Road to RightCare: Engage, Organize, Transform. She was part of a panel discussion on "Social and Community Organizing for Change."

Norsigian is a smart, impassioned speaker who is deeply committed to social justice, empowerment, and public and ethical responsibility in medicine and research. One of my favorite Norsigian statements was that, "gatekeepers no longer have the control they had in the past." With the Internet and social media, we can learn, share, evaluate, reflect, and work with each other and with key experts and others to organize for change. I shook her hand for luck!

Related: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a documentary featuring Judy Norsigian opens next month at several locations. Take a sneak peak.


Dr. Gayle Sulik is the author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health. More information is available on her website.

© 2015 Gayle Sulik, PhD ♦ Pink Ribbon Blues on Psychology Today