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American Voices: Judy Norsigian

Over 40 years ago the Boston Women’s Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves — a landmark for American women — a book about health by women, for women. Now, after a summer of scientific misstatements by politicians about women’s biology, the group has started the Educate Congress, an effort to send the book to every member of the United States House and Senate.

JUDY NORSIGIAN: The Library of Congress recently named Our Bodies, Ourselves as one of 88 books that shaped America. It’s had a profound impact on our consciousness, on the — ability of women to see the importance of asking questions, not to just take whatever a doctor says.

Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was nothing, nothing out there. There was so little information, even college educated women knew very little about our bodies, about pregnancy, about birth, about birth control.

And it was out of that dire need to educate ourselves that we created what was a wonderful self-help project. It was — simply women coming together, acknowledging our ignorance, and saying, “We’re gonna do something about this.” So the group in Boston, which formed after a women’s liberation conference in 1969, continued to meet, went to the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School, talked to the few physicians who were responsive and nurses and others who wanted to work with us in educating ourselves. We ultimately translated into lay language some fairly technical jargon. And we, over the years, began to see that much of what was done in OBGYN wasn’t even evidence-based that we started to adopt a public health perspective, began to work with those kinds of researchers, and say, you know, “We have a right not only to know how our bodies work, but to have the kind of research done that establishes an evidence basis for the drugs we take, for the surgical procedures that are performed.” And now we see much more of an evidence base to much of women’s health care.

When Our Bodies, Ourselves first came out, it was a newsprint booklet, put out by the New England Free Press. Between December of ’70 and about March of ’72, it sold like hotcakes. It was word of mouth, several hundred thousand copies. And it’s because of its popularity that several commercial publishers immediately became interested.

We ultimately decided to create a contract with Simon and Schuster, which agreed to a special clinic copy discount, whereby the book would be available at a 70% discount to those clinics and educational organizations that did health counseling in a nonprofit setting. And this made the book available to many low-income women.

Over the years, we saw repeated attacks on good sex education. So much so that we then ended up with federally-funded abstinence-only sex education in many of our schools. And the damage done there is still showing, well into the 21st century. I’ve met professors at medical schools who have said incoming medical students have said that using — condoms promotes HIV/AIDS. And that comes straight from their abstinence only sex-education in high school.

There is no question that right now the majority of low-income women have access to reproductive health services like S.T.I. screening and services only because we have federally-funded clinics, including Planned Parenthoods. Without those federal funds, without that kind of public support, a huge swathe of this country is not gonna be able to go and access basic reproductive health information.

So we’ve got to educate our members of Congress. We’ve got to educate incoming college students who really need information like that in Our Bodies, Ourselves, and hope that they will pass on the valuable sources of information this book, the websites that really tell it like it is, and make sure that we don’t step backwards, after so many years of working hard in these arenas.

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