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Judy Norsigian, executive director and a founder of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, is a co-author of "Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause" and "Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy[…]

When the collective started forty years ago, there was a “knowledge gap” and a dearth of information about women’s health issues.

Question: What is “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and how has it evolved over time? 

Judy Norsigian: It began out of a workshop held at one of the early women’s liberation conferences. This one at Emanuel College in Boston and a group of women meeting at a workshop entitled Women and Their Bodies decided to continue to meet. They had been talking about hot topics around sexuality and healthcare and of course you have to understand that several decades ago we had no information at the lay language level for women about women’s healthcare, very minimal information about sexuality. We were in the dark ages and these were college educated women who met at this women’s liberation conference kind of astounded they could be so ignorant about basic bodily functions and out the continued meetings grew this group that became known as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. 

Originally there was no intention to write a book. It was a gathering of women in their homes and community centers. They began community courses, know your body kind of courses, and they developed these mimeograph papers that they produced and shared with one another and kept chiming in every time they prepared something on a topic. They went to Countway Medical Library at Harvard Medical School. They talked to a few of the physicians and more nurses who were willing to share information and the end result was this melding of not just the information one might get from a medical textbook, but the real lived experiences of women who listened to this information and they rewrote these term papers. There is no better term for it and they included the experiences of women who chimed in and said, “Well you know this happened to me.” “That happened to me.” And they dealt with everything from the experience of postpartum depression, which of course didn’t even have a language for it then. They were dealing with the fact that some of them have had illegal abortions and what that was like, that they couldn’t get contraception that they had childbirth experiences that were really quite traumatic and did they have to be that way and it didn’t matter what the experience was or what the topic was. What they realized is that they needed to share their stories, share their knowledge as women and then take that to other women to expand the discourse and of course the mimeoed papers became this little newsprint booklet that the New England Free Press put out in late 1970. 

The title “Our Bodies, Ourselves” actually did not come into being until early 1971 and we are about to be introducing the ninth edition of the book in late 2011 during the 40th anniversary year and we’ve seen the book undergo many changes, take on new topics and of course we have a great deal of advocacy and educational work we do in addition to this book and our related books that we’ve produced over the years. But we see ourselves very much as part of the women’s health movement that grew out of a second wave of feminism, late 60s, early 70s and we have been a pillar I would say in that movement and the movement has certainly grown globally. Our connections are with women across the globe and one of the ways that it manifests itself today is in our translation adaptation program. We call it our OBOS Global Initiative and we are actively working with about ten groups in other countries producing their own translations and adaptations of material in “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Sometimes it’s booklets. Sometimes it’s a whole book and sometimes it’s simply posters on a canoe transport system somewhere in Nigeria. It really varies in terms of how the women take this content and adapt it for their own use. 

Question: How was it different to be a woman 40 years ago? 

Judy Norsigian: Well back then about 40 years ago there was very little information in lay language and we had to turn to largely healthcare providers and mostly our doctors to try to get information and there was tremendous sexism, paternalism and condescension within medicine, so it wasn’t a great place to turn to get questions answered. It was always considered inappropriate. You were speaking out of turn. So we had to educate ourselves. That was number one, but number two there was also a great deal that was done in the field of women’s health and medical care that wasn’t evidence-based as we’d call it today. It was simply because that is what physicians did. They thought it was the right thing to do.  There was no evidence basis for it, so we had lots of unnecessary hysterectomies, unnecessary cesarean sections, although the problem is much worse now and we had over use of certain prescription drugs like mood altering drugs. In those days we had Valium and Librium, things like that that were misused, that were not understood to be addictive, that women didn’t have good data on, so that women couldn’t make good decisions about whether or not to undergo the surgical procedure, take this drug or follow this treatment that was recommended by one’s physician, so we were in this vacuum and we were among the first calling for more research on women’s health issues of course, but we realized that we often were the best experts on our own bodies and that we needed to understand better how our bodies functioned and what we were going through at any given point. 

So back then there was a knowledge gap. There was also a dearth of information and there was also this need to really learn to be assertive, learn to speak up because it was the early days of the women’s movement and many women were socialized to be demur, to not speak up, to not rattle the cage, totally inappropriate when it comes to getting good health and medical care, so we needed to change the socialization of women. That was a big, tall order. Over the years however, as we grew and as we produced more editions of our book we recognized the need not just to demystify health and medical care and to understand certain things, but to move onto get a closer alliance with public health and that is when we really started to work with epidemiologists and to understand better that it isn’t really through medicine that we achieve good health and well being. It’s often through improved measures in public health and it’s really the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and also the level of violence in our streets in our immediate community that ultimately have the greatest impact on our health. 

And of course poverty, if you want to look at determinates of good health and well being poverty is the single most important determinate, so if we could work on poverty reduction we would probably do the most to improve women’s health and well being. So all these issues kept percolating up. We were working on the environment, working on workplace safety issues, working on simply demedicalizing many aspects of women’s health that had become more and more medicalized over time. Why were we doing so many hysterectomies? Why was the cesarean section rate skyrocketing? And all of these interventions going apace without improvements in outcomes and that is really the telling story and then along the way we started tracking something that is probably one of the most important elements in health and medicine today and that is the increasing and inappropriate influence of the pharmaceutical industry over physician prescribing practices and physician behavior and also the public’s belief in drugs and the first and only solutions sometime to a host of medical problems and issues that come up. In fact, we have something called disease mongering today, a term used to connote how the drug industry creates conditions for which it will then market products and these are not necessarily conditions that are true medical issues or diseases. They’re simply orchestrated and artificially created conditions for which we now believe we need medical and drug solutions. 
Recorded on April 20, 2010