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Our Bodies, Our Book

The bible of woman's health is still changing views


Published June 25, 2003 at 1:49 p.m.

Thanks to an innovative little book, 30 years ago, America experienced what local nurse Nancy Mosher calls 'a revolution for women.' "I started to show patients their cervixes because of Our Bodies, Ourselves," recalls Mosher, who now heads Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. "It completely changed the way we thought about things."

When the counterculture spawned the modern feminist movement, women around the country were ready for a realistic assessment of their most intimate concerns. The groundbreaking publication, which came out in late 1970, dealt frankly but compassionately with such topics as female anatomy, sexuality, contraception, pregnancy and abortion. Without competition - nothing equivalent was available - Our Bodies became the mouse that roared.

The initial version of the book consisted of a mere 193 typewritten pages published on inexpensive newsprint. "The first edition cost only 75 cents," explains Jane Pincus, a Vermonter involved with that endeavor as a founding member of the Boston Women's Health Collective. "We dropped the price to 40 cents for the second edition, in 1971. The next one was 30 cents."

By January 1973 the group had sold an astonishing 250,000 copies of the compendium. Their politically radical publishing company, New England Free Press, couldn't keep up with the demand. So Pincus and her colleagues made a controversial switch. "We decided we could reach more women by going with a commercial press," says the Roxbury resident, now 66. "Our original publisher became angry and told us: 'You shouldn't do business with capitalist pigs!'"

In the spring of 1973 Simon & Schuster was the force behind a $2.95 hardcover version of Our Bodies with 276 typeset pages. From March through May, Pincus and the others took turns fanning out across America on promotional tours. The response was positive almost everywhere they went, although the hippie chicks occasionally ruffled feathers.

"When we were being interviewed at a television station in Cleveland, the switchboard lit up," she says. "There was someone who said, 'Why don't you tell that woman to get the hair out of her eyes?' So they gave me a bobby pin."

The book, which has since been revised and expanded several times, is still something of a best seller. It's high in the Amazon.com ranking system, for example, despite being eclipsed by the recent astronomical sales of Harry Potter and Hillary Clinton's autobiography, Living History.

The 1998 Our Bodies paperback mushroomed to 780 pages. Pincus, who has rewritten, co-edited or contributed chapters to each new incarnation, takes wistful pride in the group's pioneering effort. "It's been one of the great revolutions of our time," she muses, echoing Mosher's assessment. "Everyone learned that what was happening to you was happening to others." And what was happening to Pincus invariably found its way into the book. Over the years, she has included personal details about her own brushes with infertility, miscarriage and doctors who practiced "dangerous medical techniques" out of ignorance.

A native of New York's Westchester County, Pincus was a French major who graduated from Pembroke College (once the women's school at Brown University in Rhode Island) in 1959. That's where she met her future husband, Ed Pincus, a philosophy student who would eventually become an acclaimed filmmaker and professor of cinema studies.

The couple headed for Harvard in 1961, where he worked on a Ph.D. while she earned her master's degree in education, then did a stint teaching high school. Their daughter Ruth was born in 1965 and son Ben four years later.

"We were involved in civil rights, the anti-Vietnam War protests, draft counseling, Students for a Democratic Society," Pinchus says of her activitism in Cambridge. "But in 1968, about 100 women - white, middle-class women - started meeting. There was a lot happening in our lives: We were having babies."

At those gatherings, where no men were allowed, some of the town's arch-feminists would chant: "Down with the nuclear family!" and "Down with patriarchy!"

The less alienated participants "wanted to figure out what kind of health care we were getting," Pincus points out. "How-ever, we didn't really yet know the questions to ask."

But ask they did. In 1969, about 23 women decided to research one topic each. "I took pregnancy," says Pincus, whose first childbirth experience had been exceedingly problematic. "Another woman chose abortion because she'd had one. Someone else picked postpartum depression. We were all college-educated but had no expertise in these matters."

The group pored through the gynecology and obstetrics texts of the day. "Those books were appalling," Pincus acknowledges. "Women were supposed to be passive, dependent creatures, only meant to produce babies - all of the cliches. So we began our critique of the medical establishment."

The self-made scholars offered informal courses on the topics they had been studying. Through word of mouth, those classes filled with women who were eager to know more about their own biological process and life cycle. "Our first session covered sexuality," Pincus says. "It was dynamite. There were so many things people had never talked about before. We got a big reaction when someone wrote vagina on the backboard."

Success with this educational project prompted the collective, winnowed down to a dozen die-hards, to approach the all-male New England Free Press about a possible book. "When we suggested it to the guys, they told us: 'It's not political.' They published feminist work, but didn't see the connection with women's health."

So Pincus and her fellow activists pooled $300 of their own cash to pay for the first edition. And the rest is herstory.

Dr. Richard "Bunky" Bernstein remembers the impact of Our Bodies, Ourselves when he worked at the Women's Health Center and the People's Free Clinic in Burlington, beginning in 1973. "It was one of the first self-help, awareness books," he says. "We talked about it a lot and recommended it to everyone."

Since 1975 Bernstein has practiced at the Charlotte Family Health Center, where he makes sure to keep a copy handy for the staff. "I wonder how many women became paramedics or doctors because they were inspired by reading it," he muses. "It's really one of the touchstones of our culture."

Mosher agrees that the book has often served as a coming-of-age ritual. "For me, personally, it was a huge eye-opener," she says. "When I was a practitioner at the Plainfield Health Center in 1977, I began running groups on birth control, on sexual issues, on menopause. I used Our Bodies, Ourselves. When I went to Planned Parenthood in Barre, we sold it to our patients and it went like hotcakes."

Pincus acknowledges that the book helped elevate the role of women in a society dominated by men. "We have made a difference," she notes.

Our Bodies also stirred controversy. Mosher remembers how shocked some people were in the 1970s by the chapter on masturbation. Ditto for a later addition about lesbians. And when the Moral Majority condemned the book in 1980, a number of communities banned it. "Librarians defended us," Pincus says.

Proceeds from book sales have always been used to strengthen the collective. But a discomfort with money - along with a desire to recruit people of color - led to many internal struggles. "It was an incredibly difficult time throughout the late 1980s and 1990s," Pincus says. "We brought in consultants to help us formalize the organization and set up clear channels of communication."

The collective is now led by a board of directors and affiliated with the Boston University School of Public Health. Yet the original passion for "building a socialist women's consciousness," as Pincus puts it, remains evident in the writing. "It is intolerable that in this wealthy democratic country we do not treat access to good health care as a fundamental human right," suggests one passage in a 1992 edition of the book.

Over the years, the more mainstream collective has continued to create offshoot publications on related issues, such as Ourselves and Our Children in 1977, Ourselves, Growing Older in 1987 and Sacrificing Ourselves for Love in 1996.

Meanwhile, the Pincus family had purchased 120 acres with a century-old farmhouse on a hilltop in Roxbury. They've been there for the better part of three decades, during which Ed launched the Third Branch Flower Farm to sell tulips, lilacs and peonies grown on their fields to wholesalers.

Jane Pincus, who spearheaded various women's initiatives in the state, is also a batik and collage artist. Not to mention a grandmother. Tired of frequent trips to Massachusetts, she's recently cut has back on her responsibilities for the collective. But her 2001 trip to a conference in the Netherlands put Pincus in the company of delegates from nations such as Mexico, Bulgaria, Japan and Senegal who have translated Our Bodies into an array of other languages. This is one form of globalization that pleases her.

"I did feel in the mid-1970s as if I were at the center of the world," Pincus muses, adding: "I've been at this for 34 years. People come up to me now and say, 'That book changed my mother's life.