‘Struck by our ignorance,’ the women’s health movement and the story of Our Bodies, Ourselves

March 2nd, 2015

March 2, 2015

By Margie Coloian

Judy Norsigian knew little about the women’s movement when she was living on a New York farm in the early 1970s. A trip back to Boston and a fortuitous introduction to a small group of women, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, made her realize just how hard it was for women to get good health and medical information, as well as responsive care from their doctors.

Frustrated by their lack of basic knowledge about their bodies and dismissive treatment from their mostly male gynecologists, these women embarked upon a project to educate themselves as well as other women.

Hungry for information, the women shared their personal medical experiences at group gatherings and recognized there were information gaps. That led them to begin their own healthcare research and subsequently to produce Women and Their Bodies, a 193-page stapled newsprint booklet containing robust women’s health information. Norsigian helped write the first nutrition chapter, based on her experience in organic farming. The booklet sold for as little as 30 cents, mostly at college campuses, and was renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves in early 1971. In total, 250,000 copies were sold. Publishers took notice.

After a bidding war, Simon & Schuster published the first commercial edition in 1973. The women chose this publisher because they agreed to two unusual conditions: authors’ editorial control and a 70 percent discount for nonprofit health centers.

“We knew we had a best seller,” says Norsigian. “It was considered ‘a movement publication,’ and many of us had already been active with the peace and civil rights movements, so the application of organizing skills to the women’s movement was a natural evolution.” Today, every six years or so, the book is updated and reissued. And cultural adaptations, currently in progress, will soon appear in Turkish, Vietnamese, and Farsi.

“We had to educate ourselves and seek out information wherever we could,” Norsigian says about the book beginnings. “We were struck by our own ignorance.”

“Many medical treatments for women then were not based upon good science, and our organization was at the forefront of calling for much-needed women-centered research. In the absence of better data, doctors more readily proposed treatments that would later be shown to be ineffective or even harmful.”

And today? “We still see some long-standing practices that don’t necessarily have sound evidence to back them up,” says Norsigian. “There is some progress, though. The unacceptably high Caesarean section rates are finally starting to come down, especially as hospitals institute policies that avoid the many unnecessary sections that still remain a problem. This will also help to reduce the perverse financial incentives that guide physician behavior.

Why is healthcare broken? “Most of the public is misinformed. They get their information from Fox News, and outlets like it,” says Norsigian. “We know very well-endowed corporations are behind this misinformation. The public doesn’t know astute organizations like the Lown Institute, PNHP and the handful of other groups of progressive thinkers.” Norsigian believes these groups can spearhead the needed change.

“Our challenge is organizing and community outreach,” she says. We can spread the truth and maybe a clarion call—with lessons from the women’s movement. That’s what is needed now.”

Next week, Norsigian will be part of the panel discussion, titled Social and Community Organizing for Change, at the third annual Lown Institute Conference, Road to RightCare: Engage, Organize, Transform.