Our Sisterhood, Ourselves
Sunday, May 4, 1969
The Sunday classifieds in the Boston Globe read: “Help Wanted – Men,” and “Help Wanted – Women.” There is no on-site day care. Fewer than 30% of married women with children work outside the home, and women earn 45% less than men for the same jobs. If a woman gets fired for refusing her boss’ sexual advances, well, tough luck. There are no laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, or anywhere else. Abortion is illegal. Birth control – unless one is married and has a doctor’s prescription – is illegal in Massachusetts. “Domestic violence” does not yet exist as a term or a concept. Wife beating is a private problem, not a public health issue. A responding police officer is likely to tell the batterer to “go take a walk and cool off.” Married women cannot obtain credit in their own name. Most leaders of the anti-Vietnam War Movement are men. Men can refuse to serve; women can “say yes to boys who say no.”
An idealistic, naïve college freshman in Vermont hears about a conference at Emmanuel College in Boston, sponsored by Bread and Roses and other female liberation activists. She hitchhikes south with friends and walks into a meeting of 500 women. She listens to a speaker describe the injustice and oppression experienced by women – and what women can do about it. She attends a self-defense workshop, and later will take free classes in Cambridge to learn how to protect herself on the street. She learns about community organizing, class divisions, the power of the media to shape lives – for good or for ill. She wanders into a crowded workshop, “Control of Our Bodies,” led by Nancy Miriam Hawley.
Hawley, a young mother in her mid-20s, is one of organizers of this conference. Ignited by a meeting six months earlier in Chicago about women’s role in the Movement, she returns to Cambridge and with others, organizes an ongoing group. Conversation naturally gravitates to young women’s health issues – concerns about sexuality, childbirth, postpartum, experiences with doctors, and more.
Group members plan the first-ever Boston Female Liberation conference at Emmanuel. News of the conference spreads through a network of women.
The “Control of Our Bodies” workshop generates a core group of twelve women who continue to research and write about these issues. Nothing yet exists about women’s health written by and for women. Eager to share their findings, they read from their papers at meetings. They are excited about the increasing demand for copies, which they mimeograph and distribute.
The vision, says Hawley, was that “women would take the material we produced and go back to their communities – their synagogues, churches, their children’s nursery schools – and invite other women to come together and share their knowledge and experience.”
The next year, the group raises money and approaches the New England Free Press, which prints the collated papers as Women and Their Bodies (renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves with the second printing in early 1971). Two hundred fifty thousand newsprint, stapled copies sell via word-of-mouth. Simon & Schuster picks up the project (after agreeing to the group’s stipulation of a 30% discount for non-profit clinics and educational institutions), and the group incorporates as the non-profit Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in 1972.
“We had no intention of writing a book,” says Hawley. “We put our papers together in book format because women needed and wanted the information.”
More than 4.5 million copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves are now in the hands of women and girls across the globe. These include the U.S. editions plus 23 different foreign editions. The earlier blue-smudged mimeographed writings, passed along eagerly, have morphed into several landmark books, an award-winning website, and Our Bodies Our Blog - the “daily dose of women's health news and analysis” that reaches thousands of readers.
On Sunday, May 4, 1969, one young student walked into Emmanuel College and found – The Women’s Movement.
Another young woman walked into Emmanuel College that day to lead a workshop and founded, with the help of her sisters, the group responsible for what many cite as the most influential book for women in the past 40 years.
One conference. One afternoon. The power of ideas.
May 4, 2009
© Gail Shapiro, 2009