Our Bodies, Ourselves

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Cover of the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves

Our Bodies, Ourselves is a book about women's health and sexuality produced by the nonprofit organization Our Bodies Ourselves (originally called the Boston Women's Health Book Collective). First published in 1971, it contains information related to many aspects of women's health and sexuality, including sexual health, sexual orientation, gender identity, birth control, abortion, pregnancy and childbirth, violence and abuse and menopause. The most recent edition of the book was published in 2011. This informational book about women’s health advised women to claim their sexuality for their own pleasure, and included chapters about reproductive health and rights, and lesbian sexuality and independence. This was revolutionary because the move toward women’s active engagement with their actual sexual desires was contradicting the popular gendered myth of [1] “women as docile, and passive,” and “men as active and aggressive” in a sexual relationship.

The book has been translated and adapted by women's groups around the world and is available in 29 languages. Sales for all the books exceed four million copies.[2] The New York Times has called the seminal book "America's best-selling book on all aspects of women's health" and a "feminist classic".[3]

The organization has also created two single-topic books. Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause was published in 2006,[4] and Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth in 2008.[5] The Boston Women's Health Book Collective earlier produced Changing Bodies, Changing Lives: A Book For Teens on Sex and Relationships[6] and The New Ourselves, Growing Older: Women Aging with Knowledge and Power.[7]


The book arose out of a 35-cent, 136-page booklet called Women and Their Bodies, published in 1970 by the New England Free Press, and written by twelve Boston feminist activists.

The booklet was originally intended as the basis for a women's health course, the first to be written for women by women. The health seminar that inspired the booklet was organized in 1969 by Nancy Miriam Hawley at Boston's Emmanuel College. "We weren't encouraged to ask questions, but to depend on the so-called experts," Hawley told Women's eNews. "Not having a say in our own health care frustrated and angered us. We didn't have the information we needed, so we decided to find it on our own."[8] As a result of this goal, the book contained information intended to guide women on "how to maneuver the American health care system, with subsections called 'The Power and Role of Male Doctors,' 'The Profit Motive in Health Care,'" 'Women as Health Care Workers,' and 'Hospitals.'[9]

The original writers of the book stated four main reasons for creating it. First, that personal experiences provide a valuable way to understand one's own body beyond the mere facts that experts can provide, creating an empowering learning experience. Second, this kind of learning meant that they were "better prepared to evaluate that institutions that are supposed to meet our health needs . . .". Third, the historical lack of self-knowledge about the female body "had had one major consequence - pregnancy" and through greater information, women will have more ability to make proactive choices about when to get pregnant. Fourth, information about one's body is perhaps the most essential kind of education, because "bodies are the physical bases from which we move out into the world". Without this basic information, women are alienated from their own body and necessarily on unequal footing with men.[9]

The women researched and wrote up the information themselves. Wendy Sanford wrote about abortion, Jane Pincus and Ruth Bell about pregnancy, and Paula Doress and Esther Rome about postpartum depression. The booklet sold 250,000 copies in New England without any formal advertising.[8]

As a result of their success, the women formed the non-profit Boston Women's Health Book Collective (which now goes by the name Our Bodies Ourselves) and published the first 276-page Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1973. The collective published it with the major publisher Simon & Schuster only on the condition that they would have complete editorial control and that nonprofit health centers could purchase copies at a significant discount.[10] It featured first-person stories from women, and tackled many topics then regarded as taboo. Since then, over four million copies have been sold. Simon & Schuster remains the current publisher.

Boston Women's Health Book Collective[edit]

The Boston Women's Health Book Collective is a feminist group who created Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book that presents information to women regarding their bodies so that they can be informed and empowered by the knowledge they receive about their bodies. The collective was created in May 1969, first addressing courses about women's bodies. The collective formed at the peak of the women's movement in Boston.

Twelve women all between the ages of 23 to 39 first attended a workshop entitled "Women and Their Bodies" which allowed the women to discuss together the issues they have surrounding their health. The discussion created a consciousness raising environment, providing each woman with information that they all deal with when handling issues about their bodies. The strong discussion supplied the women with the necessary tools and ideas that lead to the creation of their book that addressed issues surrounding sexuality and abortion. They put their knowledge into an accessible format that served as a model for women who wanted to learn about themselves, communicate with doctors, and challenge the medical establishment to change and improve the health of women everywhere. The discussions provided the 12 members: Ruth Davidson, Bell Alexander, Pamela Berger, Vilunya Diskin, Joan Ditzion, Paula Doress-Worters, Nancy Miriam Hawley, Elizabeth MacMahon-Herrera, Pamela Morgan, Judy Norsigian, Jane Kates Pincus, Esther Rome, Wendy Sanford, Norma Swenson, Sally Whelan; the knowledge needed to provide them with the skills to address reproductive freedom. Together the 12 women addressed issues of reproductive justice.

Reproductive justice was at the forefront during the women's liberation, causing much debate over the biological rights of women. The Equal Rights Amendment had a section specifically targeting the important issues about Reproductive justice that combines multiple reproductive rights and issues surrounding family. The strategy of the reproductive justice plank was to establish the necessary rights and access for women to gain control over their bodies. Through the passing of this legislation woman would be granted the ability to have abortions, obtain access to birth control and gain full control over their bodies.

The Boston Collective focused on these ideas to allow women the ability to understand their bodies and themselves as women. During the National Women's Conference, women from all over the country deliberated to determine the exact laws that should be put into place for women's reproductive justice. The Boston Collective work together to teach courses and create books that provide knowledge from women not only in Boston, but women across the nation. These women use their skills and knowledge to provide many women with knowledge about their lives through rhetoric that avoids describing the female reproductive system as passive, unproductive, helpless, or powerless.


The first book was a product of the feminist movement and could still be said to reflect its values. The personal experiences of women are taken into account and are quoted throughout, while the social and political context of women's health informs the content of the book. The book emphasis empowerment through information and learning, specifically, information gained through women sharing their personal narratives with each other, for "by sharing our responses we can develop a base on which to be critical of what the experts tell us".[11]

Topics such as male-to-female and female-to-male transsexualism/transgenderism are discussed in the most recent edition and considered in a nonjudgmental manner, despite the controversy to which they have been subject within the feminist movement. The writing style of the book tends toward a familiar, inclusive tone, with the authors referring to women and themselves as a collective group.

Chapter Topics in the 2011 Edition[edit]

Bodies and Identities[edit]

  1. Our Female Bodies: Sexual Anatomy, Reproduction and the Menstrual Cycle
  2. Intro to Sexual Health
  3. Body Image
  4. Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

Relationships and Sexuality[edit]

  1. Relationships
  2. Social Influences on Sexuality
  3. Sexual Pleasure and Enthusiastic Consent
  4. Sexual Challenges

Sexual Health and Reproductive Choices[edit]

  1. Birth Control
  2. Safer Sex
  3. Sexually Transmitted Infections
  4. Unexpected Pregnancy
  5. Abortion


  1. Considering Parenting
  2. Pregnancy and Preparing for Birth
  3. Labor and Birth
  4. The Early Months of Parenting
  5. Miscarriage, Stillbirth and other Losses
  6. Infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technologies

Post-Reproductive Years[edit]

  1. Perimenopause and Menopause
  2. Our Later Years

Medical Problems and Navigating the Health-care System[edit]

  1. Selected Medical Problems
  2. Navigating the Health Care System

Major Forces Affecting Women's Sexuality and Reproductive Health[edit]

  1. Violence Against Women
  2. Environmental Health
  3. Politics of Women’s Health
  4. Activism in the 21st century


The collective of women who initiated Our Bodies, Ourselves are part of the documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry, about the founders of the modern women's movement (from 1966 to 1971).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Feminist Theory Reader
  2. ^ Judy Norsigian, Vilunya Diskin, Paula Doress-Worters, Jane Pincus, Wendy Sanford, and Norma Swenson. "BWHBC and 'Our Bodies, Ourselves': A Brief History and Reflection. Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, Winter 1999.
  3. ^ Back cover.
  4. ^ The Boston Women's Health Book Collective; Pinn, Vivian (2006). Our bodies, ourselves : menopause. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780743274876. 
  5. ^ the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, ed. (2008). Our bodies, ourselves : pregnancy and birth (1st Touchstone trade pbk. ed.). New York: Touchstone Book/Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780743274869. 
  6. ^ Bell, Ruth (1998). Changing bodies, changing lives : a book for teens on sex and relationships (Expanded 3rd ed.). New York: Times Books. ISBN 9780812929904. 
  7. ^ Paula B. Doress-Worters, Diana Laskin Siegal Perkis, in cooperation with the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (1994). The new ourselves, growing older : women aging with knowledge and power. Roselaine (illustrator). New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780671872977. 
  8. ^ a b Ginty, Molly M. (May 4, 2004). "Our Bodies, Ourselves Turns 35 Today". Womens eNews. Retrieved August 26, 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Schneir, Miriam. "Boston Women's Health Book Collective." Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1994. 352. Print.
  10. ^ Schneir, Miriam. "Boston Women's Health Book Collective." Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1994. 352. Print.
  11. ^ Schneir, Miriam. "Boston Women's Health Book Collective." Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1994. 357. Print.

Further reading[edit]