COURTESY OF OUR BODIES, OURSELVES
The progressive social movements of the last half-century produced millions of pages of print, from manifestos to journalism to novels, but nothing as influential as Our Bodies, Ourselves. The feminist women’s health manual is the American left’s most valuable written contribution to the world. This claim is meant to be provocative, of course, but it’s true. The publication of an excellent book about the book, Kathy Davis’s The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders, makes this a good time to examine its impact.
Our Bodies, Ourselves spoke for a women’s health movement that transformed American medicine and popular health-and-sexuality culture. In the 1960s, physicians commonly addressed female patients as if they could not understand medical diagnoses and sometimes withheld information about their illnesses; unmarried women could not legally get birth control; women who sought sterilization had to qualify under an arbitrary formula (number of children x patient’s age = >120), while poor and minority women were sometimes sterilized without their knowledge, let alone consent; women were routinely excluded from clinical trials of important drugs; women discussed breast cancer in whispers with a sense of shame. A nationwide hypocrisy pretended that sex fit only in marriage; most gays and lesbians had to dissemble when seeking healthcare; Americans mostly believed that whole milk, red meat and cheese were fundamental to a healthy diet.
Starting from this landscape, the achievements of the American women’s health movement are impressive: prohibiting coercive sterilizations, opening public discussion of breast cancer, regaining women’s control over childbirth, requiring physicians’ honesty toward patients, radically increasing the number of female doctors and women’s health centers, impelling sex manuals to discuss women’s sexual pleasure as well as men’s and maintaining–barely, against unremitting attack–the right to reproductive choice. But few understand these victories as the hard-fought products of a social movement.
The original book, published in 1970 on newsprint for 75 cents, sold 250,000 copies without a commercial distributor. The radical content of the book would have been inconceivable without the civil rights/new left/feminist context. It included a left-wing critique of medicine in a corporate economy; detailed line drawings of genitalia, complete with pubic hair and the variety of hymens different women might have; a discussion of sex that presented heterosexuality, lesbianism, masturbation and celibacy as equally healthy; a section on abortion that told the reader where to go to get one, illegally in Massachusetts or legally abroad, and estimated the costs of these options–this was not your standard left-wing political pamphlet.
Even less well-known is that for more than thirty years Our Bodies, Ourselves supported and energized women activists throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. These women’s movements–antiwar, anti-fundamentalist, anti-neoliberalism, pro-human rights–are often the most progressive forces in the field. Worldwide, the book has sold well over 4 million copies (its various versions, some of them unauthorized, and its multiple distributing channels make it impossible to get an exact count) in more than twenty languages from Swedish to Albanian to Korean, not counting Braille and audio versions, with several more translations in progress. The profits, along with much other fundraising, support education, advocacy and new translations. (Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel helped support the Russian translation.) In other words, the book has had marathon legs. Its global impact comes not mainly from the information it offers but, as feminist scholar Kathy Davis argues, from its radical method: a democratic politics of knowledge and expertise.