“The personal is political” was the unofficial slogan of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s. With its many meanings, it was one of the revolutionary sentiments behind that led to the formation of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, and then the 1973 publication of the ‘consciousness-raising’ Our Bodies, Ourselves (first released in 1970 as a pamphlet titled Women and Their Bodies). Judy Norsigian, one of the original founders and a former executive director of the organization Our Bodies Ourselves describes this origin story as “both simple and complicated.” At the time, about 92 percent of all physicians were men, and they were not trained to understand human sexuality in a medical context. These constraints led a coalition of women at a women’s liberation conference at Boston’s Emmanuel College to share their frustrations with their mounting medical experiences, centered around a lack of knowledge about their own bodies and about navigating the health care system. Within this framework, the collective is also political, and possibly liberatory.
While many of the editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves are centered on individual consciousness-raising, at the heart of the movement was a call for community and solidarity in order to fight for health care based on evidence rather than on stigma and misinformation. The authors’ main targets were the barriers that block women from access to good health care.
In the year since Trump took office, we have seen the spirit of Our Bodies, Ourselves inform initiatives to protect women’s health care against repeated attacks. Our ideas of what activism and resistance look like are constantly changing in response to setbacks such as Medicaid work requirements, the global gag rule, and the newly established division of conscious and religious freedom. Recently, The #MeToo movement rippled across industries and the internet to raise awareness about widespread sexual assault, as well as about the lack of established avenues in place to address assault. Here at Community Catalyst, the recent creation of a Women’s Health Program incorporates the work of MergerWatch and positions Community Catalyst as a partner in the Raising Women’s Voices initiative to defend the Affordable Care Act’s gains for women’s health. The Women’s Health Program’s approach is characteristic of present-day movements for health that “work to lift up women who are rarely represented in health policy discussions,” acknowledging the compounded oppression faced by women based on race, immigration status, age, income, and sexual orientation or gender identity.
Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS) is still working on crucial issues. They have published a new edition of their namesake publication every five years or so. The 2011 version includes updated perspectives on gender identity, environmental health, organizing tactics, and health care reform. The website encourages visitors to take action regarding the health and safety of breast implants and egg donation, as well as promoting evidence-based care for pregnancy and birth. The organization has also expanded to create a network beyond borders with the OBOS Global Initiative. Stemming from various translations and adaptations of Our Bodies, Ourselves, initiatives such as Surrogacy360 aim to educate and build capacity for self-advocacy within various cultural and political contexts.
Judy Norsigian now works in a volunteer role with the organization. She and other original founders support OBOS in various ways, from fundraising to subject expertise. Since 2015, Norsigian has been helping with OBOS’s advocacy and outreach work in passing the Massachusetts Midwifery Bill, instituting best practices for prescription drug use, and influencing public interest legislation. She also “responds to the ongoing fight for reproductive justice, through access to contraceptives and abortion, and engages in educational work about assisted reproductive technologies.”
Though the current state of our political landscape sometimes seems catastrophic, it’s far from the first time that we have had to assert women’s rights to health care against political forces that seek to limit them. Our Bodies, Ourselves was successful because it was part of a particular wave of feminism that responded to some urgent political circumstances. As we respond to Republican attacks on health care, how can we learn from this history?
Our Bodies, Ourselves encouraged women to “write a chapter and change the world.” In both theory and practice, they emphasized the importance of storytelling. Stories have the power to reach out to people with similar experiences and to make clear to policymakers the personal stakes of health care decisions. This guiding principle is reflected in the way local and state organizations are now formalizing the process of ‘storybanking’ to effect policy change. At Community Catalyst, storybanking is used as a way to help state and local advocates ground policy in real life and help their constituents understand complicated health care issues.
Today, many organizations of health advocates are taking the work to the next level. Like Our Bodies, Ourselves, they are committed to reimagining what health and health care should look like for people with marginalized identities. Reflecting on the founders of Our Bodies, Ourselves, most were White and many were college-educated. At that time and since then, women of color and those who live at the intersections of other gendered oppressions have been systematically excluded from decisions about health and health care.
Many individuals and organizations have taken up the project of addressing these oppressions through health advocacy. For example, it is the mission of SisterSong, a Southern-based national reproductive justice collective,“to strengthen and amplify the collective voices of indigenous women and women of color to achieve reproductive justice by eradicating reproductive oppression and securing human rights.” The collective is by and for women of color, and they are able to center the margins and address intersecting oppressions within their work. In D.C., the Black Women’s Health Imperative defines “health” as not just physical, but also emotional and financial. This framework guides their policy and advocacy work, which prioritizes access quality and affordable health care for Black women and girls, maternal health, diversity in clinical research, and financial support for HBCUs. They have also published the first health index based on healthy Black women, stating “researchers have spent decades studying what makes Black women unhealthy. No one bothered to listen to healthy Black women. We do.” This statement encapsulates the current movement for evidence-based policy that pays attention to social determinants of health, and is poised to change the conversation around women’s health.
With its candid coverage of topics ranging from sexual and reproductive health, Our Bodies, Ourselves was revolutionary for its time. In many ways, it is still relevant to the intersections of feminism and health care that are infusing current debates. It is imperative that we carry this aspect of its mission forward and recognize its potential to inform the ongoing fight for women’s rights to health care in 2018.
Priyanka Padidam is an intern with the communications team at Community Catalyst. She is a senior at Tufts University majoring in Community Health.
Note: On April 2nd, the Our Bodies Ourselves board announced they will be ceasing publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves and transition to a volunteer-led 501(c)3 that will mainly advocate for women’s health and social justice. Judy Norsigian will succeed Bonnie L. Shepard as chair of the board. Their letter states, “we will stop publishing updated print and digital health information; scale back technical assistance for global translations and adaptations of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves.’” Read the full letter on their website here: https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/2018/04/a-message-about-the-future-of-our-bodies-ourselves/