April 24, 2021
Pearl River The Guardian refers to the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, as one of the “most influential books of the 20th century.” I would say the book is that and more. It sold four million copies at least, and that doesn’t count the dogeared copies that were ubiquitous and passed around from hand to hand among young – and older – women at the time it emerged in 1971. Fifty years later, having been translated into thirty-three languages, there’s no way to correctly estimate its impact globally as well.
The backstory on the book was as revolutionary as the book itself. Starting from small groups of women sorting out women’s health, that was then largely in the hands of male doctors, a dozen white women as part of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective each took a chapter and produced the book. Before it was commercially published the samizdat version moved more than 200,000 copies at thirty-cents a pop. All hail those right-on sisters!
Without a doubt, this book was a cornerstone of the feminist movement and the source of unending testimonials about its live-changing affect on women as they broke through the fog of the 50’s and learned how their bodies worked and how to make the most of it. If sex education in public schools continues to be part of the culture wars now, it was almost unheard of in the 60s, making this book a must-read for women.
And, dare I say, for men as well.
If many women were unsure about their bodies, then, trust me on this, men were even more clueless about the mysteries of the women in their lives. I was married five days after I turned twenty years old and had been so for several years before the book emerged from the underground as we were living in the Boston area around that time. Seeing the book on the shelves of women of our acquaintance or in our lives was a signifier of politics, of feminism, and, of changing times. It was a beacon to men, at least to those who paid attention, that it was also time for us to change as well. The smart ones among us began the work to undue the stereotypes of our own raising and adapt quickly to survive.
Believe me, I read the book, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying so. I didn’t memorize it. Some chapters I scanned and some I studied, and thanks to the collective, pictures made a difference to all of us. I didn’t buy a copy. I wasn’t in that vanguard, but read a chapter here and there as the book came to hand. Lessons were learned. The information was invaluable.
Over the last fifty years, women’s progress has been part of huge social changes at every level. There’s still a long way to go and change has come embarrassingly slow, but Our Bodies, Ourselves played an important part in the process.