FOR LOVE OF BOOKS: ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’ at 40: The book that changed women’s lives

Thursday November 17, 2011


Boston Women’s Health Collective,

"Our Bodies, Ourselves"

Touchstone, 40 Anniversary

Revised edition

It began in 1969 when 12 women met during a women’s liberation conference in the early days of the women’s movement. A workshop on "women and their bodies" provided an opportunity for the women to talk about their own bodies and their experiences with doctors. Sharing this information led them to form the Doctor’s Group -- forerunner to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, to research and discuss what they were learning about themselves, their bodies, health and women.

The discussions and research led to a course booklet titled "Women and Their Bodies," a stapled newsprint edition published in 1970. The booklet, which put women’s health into a radically new political and social context, became an underground success. In 1973 Simon & Schuster published an expanded edition, renamed "Our Bodies, Ourselves." The rest, as they say, is "herstory."

The newest edition of OBOS focuses on women’s reproductive health and sexuality and includes dozens of personal stories and essential, up-to-date information about gender identity, sexual orientation, birth control, abortion, pregnancy and birth, menopause and other health issues such as breast and ovarian cancers and sexual health as women age. It also addresses changes in the health care system, safer sex, environmental health risks, body image and local and global activism. And for the first time, it offers an entire chapter on relationships based on women’s conversations which took place online over the course of a month.

Another first is the new cover which features 52 women’s pictures, from young to old, who have been influenced in some way by reading OBOS. One woman wrote with her submission, "I first picked up Our Bodies Ourselves for a human sexuality class in college. Since then, the book has been my ‘go to’ book. Even in a time when I can just plug in questions into Google, it is so much more meaningful when I can open a book that I know has touched the lies of many women. That common experience means so much more than a search engine."

Gloria Steinem is among the many women everywhere who can relate. "Within these pages, you will find the voice of a women’s health movement that is based on shared experience. Listen to it -- and add your own voice," she wrote in a cover quote.

The challenge of putting together a nearly 1,000 page book that is accurate, accessible, and empathetic is enormous. "Creating a book of this size and scope, one that provides evidence-based information and addresses the political, economic and social forces that shape women’s health, takes an incredible amount of work and collaboration," Managing Editor Christine Cupaiuolo says. "More than 300 women and men shared their knowledge and expertise to ensure the book’s accuracy and comprehensiveness."

That effort is deeply appreciated, and applied to the 25 translations that now exist in countries as diverse as Senegal, Turkey, Israel, Nepal, Chile and Japan.

"We’ve come a long way from our origin as a Boston-based collective talking around the kitchen table, to a thriving global presence with a place ‘at the table’ -- alongside other powerbrokers -- in countries around the world," says OBOS co-founder Sally Whelan.

Byllye Avery, founder of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, agrees. "In the 1970s we knew nothing about our bodies, doctors were gods, and we didn’t ask questions. Then along came the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Our Bodies Ourselves became our bible and it’s still our bible, giving us trusted information. We were being challenged and we challenged right back. The entire country was going through a collective consciousness change. And we’re still here!"

We’re still here because as Avery says, "women’s health is being demoted" and "reproductive rights are being stripped to death. We cannot sit by. We must continue this work worldwide. As activists we are a force to be reckoned with. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!"

Thankfully, women around the world know that now. We also know that, armed with a powerful new version of the timeless and important "Our Bodies Ourselves," we can take the fight for women’s health and human rights forward, confident that we are not alone.

Elayne Clift, a columnist for the Brattleboro Commons and the Keene Sentinel, is a frequent contributor. Visit

For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores. "Guidelines for Reviewers" may be requested from Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290 or


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