Feminist Classic Gets New Web Life
by Mick O'Leary
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first commercial publication of a feminist classic that’s recognized as one of the most important books of the last half century: Our Bodies, Ourselves. With its frank discussions of women’s health, reproduction, and sexuality—topics that at the time were obscure or even taboo in public discourse—it was widely praised, widely reviled, and very widely read. It was highly controversial as well for its proud and robust feminism.
Our Bodies Ourselves Today
Our Bodies Ourselves Today (ourbodiesourselves.org) is the web successor to the highly praised print series, Our Bodies, Ourselves, published from 1970 to 2011. It retains the original feminist commitment to providing accurate information on women’s health and sexuality, while broadening its range to address the distinctive interests of women of diverse ethnic and gender identities.
It was written by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, a feminist advocacy group. Frustrated by a culture that dismissed women’s health issues, they wrote their own book to fill the gap. The first edition was published by a small local press in 1970 and, as we say today, it went viral. To help Our Bodies, Ourselves reach a bigger audience, the collective published a commercial edition (with Simon & Schuster) in 1973. Our Bodies, Ourselves continued to be critically acclaimed and a bestseller for decades, with its final, 11th edition in 2011.
THE BOOK’S NEW LIFE
By 2018, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, better known under the Our Bodies Ourselves brand, retrenched, with no plans for further print editions. Ironically, this may have been due in part to the book’s success; because of its barrier-breaking work years before, accurate information on women’s health and sexuality had become widely available in print and online.
Also in 2018, Our Bodies Ourselves partnered with Suffolk University’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights. Founded in 2003, the center has its own staunch feminist credentials, as the self-described first academic initiative in the U.S. to focus on women’s health as a “human rights imperative.” The groups rebuilt Our Bodies Ourselves as a web project. The online version launched in September 2022 as Our Bodies Ourselves Today, with new content but with the same firm commitment to feminism and reproductive justice. The project is supported by individual donors and some foundation support. It doesn’t accept funds from pharmaceutical companies or from organizations that don’t support its mission.
ONLINE VS. PRINT
There are major differences between Our Bodies Ourselves Today and its print predecessors:
- The website has ample nontextual content, including video and audio materials, infographics, and links to related web resources.
- While the print books were staff-written, most of the website’s content is from external web sources, including medical publications and authoritative consumer-level health and advocacy sites. All content is curated by staff subject experts.
- In its Core Values statement, the website’s team identifies itself—and identifies its intended audience—as composed of women, girls, and gender-expansive people. They give attention to the needs and interests of the BIPOC, LGBTQ+, senior citizen, and disabled communities. Much of the website’s content addresses the distinct circumstances of these groups. For example, the section on mental health therapies has separate entries for Black, Asian, South Asian, Latinx, and queer and trans individuals.
HEALTH AND SEX
Our Bodies Ourselves Today’s content is presented in nine broad subject areas, covering such topics as pregnancy, childbirth, menstruation, menopause, mental health, abortion, contraception, sexuality, and gender-based violence. Each section has dozens of individual entries dealing with varied aspects of the broad subject. Most are text articles from the types of sources previously mentioned, as well as smaller numbers of sources in the other content types. In addition to being vetted for accuracy, they are selected for consumer-level readability and kept up-to-date, with new content added monthly.
Content is also chosen to represent the political aspects of women’s health topics. From the beginning, the Our Bodies Ourselves movement has asserted that health matters are inextricably intertwined with public attitudes, social justice, and how “The System” ignores or actively resists the needs and circumstances of women and girls. With Our Bodies Ourselves Today’s strong attention to multiple marginalized communities, these justice issues take on additional importance and complexity for women who are undervalued or threatened not only for being female, but also for their ethnic and gender identities.
Our Bodies Ourselves Today is intuitive and easy to use. The subject arrangement is logical. Navigation and browsing are easy, in part because the collection is not large; there are just fewer than 500 records, with a little more than half being text articles. Entries are assigned subject headings, and the collection can be browsed and searched by broad subject area, content type, and subject heading.
Our Bodies Ourselves Today has smaller content sections that augment the main collection:
- Stories and Conversations is a collection of 100-plus short video interviews, conducted by Our Bodies Ourselves staffers, with women who narrate their own personal experiences with Our Bodies Ourselves Today topics.
- Our Bodies Our Blog offers posts about the intersection among health, politics, and reproductive justice.
- History and Legacy traces the history of the Our Bodies Ourselves movement. The tables of contents for each print edition are included. They provide a fascinating mini-history of the evolving issues in women’s health and sexuality.
REFERENCE BOOK OR POLEMIC?
Our Bodies Ourselves Today doesn’t fit into the conventional notion of a reference work—a comprehensive source of information that’s presented with some sense of objectivity. It covers women’s health, but does not address every aspect of this broad topic. The section on mental health, for example, covers depression, ADHD, and panic attacks, but not bipolar disease or neurosis. There is a full section, with 72 entries, on heart disease, but nothing on cancer, the second leading cause of death among American women.
The site is also forthright about its role as a polemic. From the beginning, Our Bodies Ourselves has been a fierce advocate for feminism, with decades of work to expose and correct injustice, maltreatment, and neglect in women’s health. This overt feminism was highly controversial from its start in 1970. Discomfort with feminism, from some sides, continues to this day. Nevertheless, Our Bodies Ourselves Today stays confidently in its lane.
TODAY’S OUR BODIES OURSELVES
Our Bodies Ourselves Today is a worthy online successor to its storied print predecessors. It carries out the long-term Our Bodies Ourselves commitment to provide accurate and relevant information on women’s health and sexuality. It leverages its web platform to include several content formats.
The site updates and broadens the original Our Bodies Ourselves mission: providing a feminist resource to support women’s health and gender interests. Its new drive to represent the full range of women’s ethnic and gender-diverse identities is another advance in the struggle against female marginalization.