An interview with one of the activists behind an iconic feminist health guide
There was a time when women were profoundly ignorant about their own bodies, says Judy Norsigian. Procedures like hysterectomies and caesarians were initiated without good evidence to support their necessity. Psychoactive drugs were over-prescribed to women. There was an attitude that patients shouldn't ask questions.
That's the picture Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves, paints of the late '60s and early '70s. She was in Albuquerque on Wednesday, Nov. 30, to deliver a lecture at the University of New Mexico. "In health care, there was a lot of condescension and paternalism and sexism," she says. But women were finding one another through a burgeoning feminist movement. Twelve women who met at a conference formed a group and put out a 193-page booklet called Women and Their Bodies. "We really came together in a vacuum. There was no women's health information,” Norsigian says. “We came together to get information that we needed ourselves and that pretty much every other woman would use, because there were no other sources out there."
The pamphlet was published by New England Free Press as Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1971. It's become an iconic feminist reference guide for women worldwide, and it aims to provide science-based health knowledge alongside frank, first-person anecdotes. The book has morphed over nine editions, and the 2011 update is the longest version yet. There's a much longer sexuality chapter, and a separate chapter about sexual orientation and gender identity. There are passages addressing body image and the hyper-sexualization of very young women.
Since it was the first of its kind, the collective that wrote the book got a lot of feedback about what should be included. Over the years, the guide has covered nutrition, emotional health and even some obscure problems. But this 40th anniversary edition makes an effort to return to the root issues of the book—sex and reproductive health.
"In health care, there was a lot of condescension and paternalism and sexism."
As a feminist text, Our Bodies, Ourselves has always given information about abortion. Today more than ever, reproductive rights are under fire, Norsigian says. "We're hanging onto legal abortion by a thread right now. All it takes is Obama losing the presidency and the next Supreme Court justice being appointed for us to lose Roe v. Wade altogether."
In the meantime, she adds, access to abortion is denied throughout the country. Some states have requirements for clinics that are almost impossible to meet, she says, which drives the cost of services through the roof. "We do have a state or two where you practically can't get an abortion now. You have to go over the border. Most women in rural counties have very limited access to abortion." In Wyoming, for instance, 96 percent of women live in a county with no abortion provider, according to statehealthfacts.org. In Mississippi, it’s 91 percent, and in West Virginia, it’s 84 percent.
Norsigian says she's puzzled about why abortion is the leading topic of contention during election cycles in America. "There are anti-choice, anti-abortion folks in other countries who are vocal enough," she says. "You don't see the same degree of interference with the political process." A few billionaires have funded the anti-abortion movement for years, she says. "When you have a lot of money, you can set up your own radio station. You pay for media. You pay for events. You have a huge staff to do all this anti-abortion work. Of course you're going to make headway."
There's a young generation that’s developed punitive attitudes toward women who become pregnant unintentionally, she says. "In many places, you'll find this is the response: Well, if they had used contraception, they wouldn't have gotten pregnant." But that shows little awareness of how often contraception fails or situations where sex is forced, she adds. "There's a lot of money being put into distorting the reality."
You can't be an anti-abortion feminist, Norsigian says, though there is a group that's fashioned itself as such. They're called Feminists for Life, a name that grossly distorts the term, she says. Throughout the last century, she says, the women’s movement has been supportive of reproductive sexual rights. Feminists for Life argues that plenty of women were against abortion who could be considered early feminists. “That seems to me to be an attempt to hijack a word that has generally acceptable meanings.”
"We're hanging onto legal abortion by a thread right now.”
Abortion's not the only heavily debated topic in women's health this year. Under federal regulations, employers are required to provide no-cost birth control. This is a problem for the Catholic Church. The president of the Catholic University of America penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post saying the requirement infringes on the school's religious liberties. Catholic bishops have also argued religious employers shouldn't have to comply.
The fallout is no great shock to Norsigian. "But what I am a bit surprised about is that President Obama is not digging in his heels on this one."
Our Bodies, Ourselves has always tried to balance information that may be touchy or intimidating with a thoughtful tone, Norsigian says. "That's been one of the hallmarks of this book. It doesn't mean you succeed with everyone," she acknowledges. But with a collaborative process—particularly on the more difficult sections—the final product sensitively deals with the issues.
It's gotten even more tricky as the book has spread around the world and interacted with other cultures—and their taboos. They used to print a straight translation, Norsigian says, but now a group of women in each community takes the lead. They pick and choose from the materials for information that best meets their needs culturally and linguistically, she says. They apply their own insight and create an adaptation of Our Bodies, Ourselves. A few weeks ago, a group of Palestinian and Israeli women published a version that's printed side-by-side in Arabic and Hebrew.
But for Norsigian, the fight is a long way from over. At an anniversary symposium in October, women from participating countries came to speak about their versions of the book. A common theme was the challenges they faced putting them together, Norsigian says. "It's not well-received to be doing sexual or reproductive health work. Sometimes there is terrible hostility. This is not without its risks."