Image credit: Our Bodies Ourselves Today
In 1969, feminist social worker Nancy Miriam Hawley and eleven other Boston feminists assembled a workshop called “Women and Their Bodies”—and it changed the world. Heavily influenced by the consciousness-raising they were engaged in, the conversation revealed a need for an accessible resource for women that would allow women, not male doctors, to make decisions about their bodies.
So the group produced Women and Their Bodies, published in 1970 by the New England Free Press. It cost 30 cents and was 136 pages: advertised by word of mouth, sold 250,000 copies, and was primarily distributed in New England. Then, forming the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, the group published an updated a long version in 1973 with Simon & Schuster titled Our Bodies, Ourselves, becoming a trusted source for women that lasts to this day. It was eventually translated into 33 languages, updated multiple times, and spun off other volumes that addressed aging, pregnancy and childbirth, and teenage sexuality.
In 2018, the group evolved into Our Bodies Ourselves Today and refashioned the mission: to put the work of women’s health activism—that had been so successful in print—online. Last week, I talked to medical historian, activist, and program director Saniya Lee Ghanoui about bringing this feminist classic into a new century.
Claire Potter [CP]: Let’s tell readers about the history of the Our Bodies, Ourselves project.
Saniya Lee Ghanoui [SLG]: That history starts in 1969. A group of women in Boston got together to create the first pamphlet, Women and Their Bodies, just a stapled pamphlet they created and distributed themselves. It was hugely successful and led to the commercial publication of a book that they renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves.
That book was so successful that it was translated into over 30 different languages, and they did new editions every five to seven years. They updated it, shared new medical information, and new stories. The last edition came out in 2011, a little over 10 years ago, and in 2018, Our Bodies Ourselves transitioned to a volunteer-led organization.
Conversations about the future of the project that began then were critical to establishing the new digital platform. Amy Agigian, an associate professor of sociology at Suffolk University, approached the Our Bodies Ourselves founders and board, and we rebranded as Our Bodies Ourselves Today.
The books initially responded to a lack of information, but the website is responding to a different problem: there is almost too much information about women’s health on the internet. For example, if you Google “abortion clinics,” sometimes it’s very difficult to tell the difference between what is an actual abortion clinic and what is a crisis pregnancy center. Our Bodies Ourselves Today does that curation and vetting for women, girls, and gender-expansive people.
CP: I presume this project of moving Our Bodies, Ourselves onto the internet began way before the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs that overturned Roe v. Wade and put abortion rights in jeopardy across the nation.
SLG: Correct, although providing information about abortion and contraception had always been a priority for the project. The Dobbs decision did two things. It re-emphasized the need for something like Our Bodies Ourselves Today to get resources out there to folks who don’t have easy access to information. But it also forced us to rethink how we feature our resources, how we communicate with our users, and what type of information users need.
On the homepage, we feature resources about how to access abortion. What are the different types of abortion options out there? What can one expect from a medication abortion or a surgical abortion? After Dobbs, we highlighted those resources, making sure they were clear, easy to understand, and folks could get to them quickly.
CP: Just going through the site, I noticed one difference from the original Our Bodies, Ourselves: it links to a lot of information elsewhere. For example, for asexuality you link to another site. How did you make that decision to not be an expert on everything?
SLG: It’s impossible to do everything, but also, we want the site to be a go-to hub: there are people and organizations who are doing outstanding work and we wanted to highlight that. If you are curious about asexuality, you might want to know: what does the term mean? How does it define a person’s identity, from their sexuality to who they do and do not date. You can also come to our site and learn about resources for asexual people.
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But we can do a vetting process.
CP: One extraordinary aspect of the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was the section on lesbians. Nobody wrote about lesbians in 1969, yet there’s this clear, concise, compassionate, proud section about lesbians written by lesbians.
How can a website help us discuss things we aren’t allowed to talk about?
SLG: That original book and the chapter about lesbians is an example of how we want to respond to all the things we’re not supposed to talk about. Like the founders, when we first started, we wanted to be as inclusive as possible, and unlike a book, we can update a website as “things we’re not supposed to talk about” emerge.
One way we did that was to recognize that we can’t just talk about reproduction and sexuality; we have to talk about people as a whole. That includes issues of gender and sexuality, but also general health. If we bring “things we aren’t allowed to talk about” to the forefront, we can normalize them, so people are comfortable coming to our site to look for information. For example, we have resources on the hymen, sex and sexuality, and different kinks. But we also have resources on COVID-19 and heart health.
CP: The original book also responded to misinformation about women’s bodies. In 1969, people were still saying, “If you get your menstrual period, you shouldn’t go to gym class.” How does the site respond to misinformation today?
SLG: Perhaps shockingly, a lot of the misinformation is the same. I mentioned the hymen earlier: there’s still a lot of misinformation about virginity and what it means as a social construct. We still have a lot of people using the site who want to know: “Does using a tampon make me not a virgin?” We respond to that with information: “Here’s what tampons are, here’s what the hymen is.”
What we’re also seeing is that the sheer amount of misinformation has exploded. If you do an online search, it’s really difficult to parse what is true and what isn’t, particularly if you’re feeling vulnerable. People also come to our site with different levels of knowledge about their body or their sexuality. We start with the basics. We give definitions. We link to resources. Other content is more complex: for example, what vaginal moisturizers work for different bodies?
CP: What can you presume people know when they come to your site?
SLG: The challenge is, as I like to say, that our website is for you from cradle to grave. And whereas the original book was really focused on reproduction, menstruation, sexuality, and childbirth, we are now more holistic, so that changes the idea of basic information for different ages.
Foundational information is front and center on the site, and we’ve created pathways—what we call subject areas and themes—to guide people to where they need to go, even if they’re not sure. And we have worked with experts to craft resources for folks who may have different understandings of their bodies. We have physicians, activists, and academics involved, and we also have clinicians and patients, and people who have experienced something that they want to share with the world.
The whole point is to have everyone work together. So, if a physician says, “Let’s share this resource,” and a patient says, “That’s not a basic resource, that’s complicated,” they can work together to figure out, “Okay, then, how do we communicate this information?”
CP: When Our Bodies, Ourselves first came out, it was part of a women’s health movement that rejected experts and believed that women were the “experts” about their own bodies. Structured dialogue with experts is new.
SLG: We don’t shy away from experts, but as you point out, everyone can have expertise. We put people from different racial, gender, educational, and experiential backgrounds in dialogue. Those rich discussions helped solve problems: why is a certain resource important, where are we lacking, where do we need to grow and change? The point is: you might have one perspective, I have a different perspective, and both are valid, so how do we address that?
Our “Stories and Conversations” section highlights that. The original Our Bodies, Ourselves gave women space to share their own stories and to serve as experts about their own bodies, and we continue that tradition. We have conducted over 50 individual interviews that tell the stories about what someone has experienced, and what they’ve learned from that. That is another way of providing that expertise.
CP: In 1969, it wasn’t easy to find a woman doctor. That changed in part because of feminism and in part because of the broader women’s health movement. Do you find now that you are mostly reaching out to woman-identified physicians and experts?
SLG: Yes. We are open to anyone who wants to be involved, but the original Our Bodies, Ourselves tagline was “a book by and for women.” We still recognize the value of that and are expanding on it. We brought in experts across the gender spectrum who understand the issues, and that there is still prejudice against women, girls, and gender-expansive people. We have made conscious efforts to bring in folks who identify as women, but also across the gender spectrum.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about how the group decided to use the term “gender-expansive?”
SLG: We use the term “gender-expansive” to recognize the many forms of discrimination in women’s health. We are sharing a site for women and girls, but also trans folks, asexual folks, intersex folks, and others. When you list identities like this, someone inevitably is left out and that is not what we want.
After consultation with our leadership council, our fellow experts, and also educating ourselves and talking with and consulting with folks in medical and health fields who identify as trans or non-binary, or intersex, we decided to use “gender-expansive” for the time being. That could change, but for now, it’s our way of ensuring that the site is welcoming to as many people as possible while also recognizing the origins of Our Bodies, Ourselves as a book created by and for women.
CP: Can you talk about how the group does business? The original group was a collective, which often meant long meetings, coming to a consensus, and a non-patriarchal process. You use the word “leadership,” for example, which I don’t think the collective would have used in 1969.
SLG: We still bring that radical feminist approach and try to democratize the conversations. But we also recognize that sometimes you just need a leader to get things done. But I will say: for each of our nine particular subject areas, there are experts who work together. They meet regularly to discuss and vet resources, talk about what we’ve published, and where they need to go from here. The whole point of this is to be up to date. Sometimes there are disagreements, but it’s always been productive.
My role as program director and Amy Agigian’s as the executive director is to work with all of the subject area experts to put them in conversation with each other. We bring cohesion to the site and ensure that it is responding to the now. But continual discussion has been critical to how we function.
CP: A theme you bring to the forefront, in your graphics and your information is race. Disparate health outcomes for women of color are a significant problem, often connected to economic inequalities. But a woman of color can be wealthy like Serena Williams and suffer from racism in healthcare. How does the site address this?
SLG: When we started, we knew we needed experts from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Women and gender-expansive people from different races brought their own perspectives, personal and expert, and that would help us address racial health disparities.
As the experts worked together to think about what resources we wanted to curate, it was also important for us to recognize that our bodies are understood through a reproductive justice framework, and a health disparity framework. So, we needed to include resources about Black birthing mothers, issues of discrimination, and health disparities experienced by women and gender-expansive people of color giving birth.
It was also very important that we not share only academic resources. Some concepts are quite common in academia, but folks who have no connection to that need to know this information too. They need to understand issues of race, gender, class, and how those categories are connected to health disparities in a way that is clear and accurate.
CP: What kinds of language did you really keep your eye on, and how does the site teach people how to use language to advocate for themselves?
SLG: We have resources on the site where we explain some of these words. But we also had many conversations about what language to use. For example, we had a long conversation about whether we wanted to use the term “intimate partner violence.” That term is not quite mainstream yet: “domestic violence” is still more easily accepted and understood.
We had a similar conversation about the term “mental health,” one of our main subject areas. We call it mental health but explain on the site why that term can be problematic or questionable. We’re always trying to find a balance: we recognize a word or phrase might not be the best term but we say why we’re using it. Transparency is important, but so is recognizing that language changes, and concepts change over time.
CP: Women in Dobbs states must worry about electronic surveillance: using the site could be used against them in a way that reading a book might not. What conversations have you had as a group about this?
SLG: Our first principle was to minimally track our users’ experience. Unless they sign up for our newsletter, we do not track any identifiable characteristics. We know very generally where they’re located, in what country, for example, and we see what resources they’re going to, but other than that, we do not track other information. We recognize that some people are in a vulnerable position, and even this might be a hazard. After Dobbs, we revisited this conversation, recognizing what we can do and what our limits are, given the laws in place. In addition, we are based at Suffolk University, and unlike other sites, we benefit from the protection of academic freedom.
Right now, a state that has banned abortion can’t completely regulate the internet to the point where someone can’t at least access our site. We know for a fact that people are accessing the site from those places. For us, it was really a matter of ensuring that our users have the privacy they deserve.
CP: Let me just ask you because I’m sentimental: does the book still exist?
SLG: The book still exists! The latest edition was in 2011, and there are no new editions planned at the moment, but you can still go online and purchase it. We have every version of the book, though, and numerous translations in different languages. Also, we have a section on the site about the history of the organization and the book, we feature some of the global projects, and we even have small selections of some of the older books online.
CP: This site feels like the beginning of something new and big. Where will the group go from here? Will there be more publications? A podcast? An app?
SLG: We do have several things in the works. One is an app. We recognize that not everyone has easy access to a computer or even the internet, and an app could potentially fill that gap. As we grow, we also want to go global, and that includes building an app that can work across the globe. We’re in the early stages of that.
We’re also in the early stages of including a section on the site that addresses the changing legal frameworks related to abortion across the United States. Users could see relevant information about any state to help them make decisions about terminating a pregnancy. And we are also in the early stages of doing a podcast. We have a wonderful intern this semester who has started to draft a proposal for what a podcast for Our Bodies Ourselves Today would look like.
And a new book? It’s never off the table. I can’t say that there are plans right now, but that will never be a hard no.
Saniya Lee Ghanoui is a historian, activist, and program director of Our Bodies Ourselves Today.
Claire Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This interview first appeared in slightly different form on her Substack, Political Junkie.