The Personnel Are Political

Emily Gordon Photos“The internet is good for some things, but not all. It’s always better to get together and talk.”

Joan Ditzion knew this well: She’s one of the original, and still active, founders of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, best known as the creators of the women’s health bible Our Bodies, Ourselves and its successors.

In a panel discussion at the opening reception for the art exhibit Our Bodies Ourselves at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art on Trumbull Street, Ditzion and fellow founder Judy Norsigian recounted chapters from the history of both the book and the movement in discussion with author and artist Rachel Kauder-Nalebuff; menstruation-product entrepreneur Vanessa Paranjothy; naturopathic physician Ginger Nash; and moderator Crystal Feimster, associate professor of African American Studies, History and American Studies at Yale University.

The panel discussion Sunday afternoon was frequently punctuated by what sounded like both startled and delighted laughter from the audience. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how many battles the collective is currently fighting, and how varied those battles are.

Intersectionality —  defined by the theory’s progenitor, Kimberlé Crenshaw, as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects”  —  can be challenging to put into practice, as Norsigian and Ditzion readily acknowledged.

Toward that end, Norsigian and Ditzion said that the Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) collective is directly supporting or actively promoting dozens of diverse projects and pieces of legislation. The collective touted films like the documentary Absolutely Safe, about the dangers of silicone breast implants.

Nodding to the surrounding art exhibit, Kauder-Nalebuff, who has produced feminist dance pieces and plays, quoted bell hooks, who said, “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is —  it’s to imagine what is possible.”

OBOS also endorsed the efforts of male allies —  “There are men out there who are partners in stopping gender violence,” said Norsigian —  like the creators of Voice Male magazine and others.

On the legislative front, the collective continues what Norsigian called five decades of midwifery advocacy through support of the Out-of-Hospital Birth Access and Safety Act in the Massachusetts legislature. (As she noted, aside from the inherent benefits of out-of-hospital births, research shows that when that access increases, in-hospital birth outcomes also improve.)

They also campaign for the Roe Act, which would guarantee access to abortion in Massachusetts regardless of federal legislation; enforcement and expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and the Healthy Youth Act, which would ensure comprehensive sex education. The group generates both education and action around cross-border surrogacy, which is rife with ethical, financial, health, and human rights problems.

Audience members admired the vintage copy of the now brittle but vibrantly illustrated booklet Women and Their Bodies, printed in 1970 and distributed for 75 cents. One edition or another of the oversized paperback of Our Bodies, Ourselves, with its bold cover lettering, may be a staple of many feminist households, but the collective’s intention is to focus on expanding the educational mission and increasing the number and variety of contributors in digital form. They have enlisted students at Suffolk University in Boston (where there will be a conference this May to commemorate the book’s 50th anniversary) to update articles and are inviting bloggers from all corners to contribute. Publishers’ advances aren’t what they used to be, said Norsigian in response to an audience member’s plea to keep the first book perpetually in print, and producing future editions of the book is likely to be too expensive. Still, there are new translations and adaptations of Our Bodies, Ourselves in countries including Canada, France, Morocco, and Mongolia are in progress.

The kind of essential information in Our Bodies, Ourselves can still be diffused by the cacophony of the internet, and parents may not be passing it down to children. But Kauder-Nalebuff observed that there was something very powerful for her as a child about paging ahead in the book to learn what was coming up in her life. During puberty, “I had so much more information than my classmates,” she said, because her parents owned the book. “I felt more prepared for the rest of my life because I flipped through those chapters. Even though it seems so analog, I don’t think we’re past the power of books and print.” She produced a book of her own with Alexandra Brodsky, The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future. 

Now that they themselves are aging, said Ditzion, the collected resources in the companion book Our Bodies, Growing Older are not only vital tools for daily life, but talking points for combating ageism. As Ditzion pointed out after the event, the science is clear that elderly and young people benefit each other in myriad ways, and the isolation of elderly people comes at a cost that is impractical as well is inhumane.

A frequent criticism of second-wave feminism is that it lacked diversity. Norsigian and Ditzion acknowledged that criticism.

“People say we were a white and middle-class group, but that’s just a fact,” Ditzion said. At the same time, she noted, the portrayal of 1970s feminism is itself limited, failing to showcase central figures in the movement across race, class, and other identifiers, such as Shirley Chisholm and less famous names left out of mainstream coverage. In its modern incarnation, a key and stated aim of OBOS is to serve women and trans women in every way it can, whether in their writing or in their public advocacy. Feimster noted the continuing urgency of inclusion, praising the 2014 book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community as a kindred spirit to the series.

A striking theme throughout the panel was how much things remain the same after 50 years. As Paranjothy explained, 70 percent of women in the world are denied opportunities as basic as schooling because there is no sanitation where they live, especially sanitary products. To this end, she and her sisters, Rebecca Paranjothy and Joanne Paranjothy, based in Singapore, have developed the Freedom Cup, which they both give away and sell around the world. Members of the audience passed around the cup, which is bright aqua and sturdy (it lasts up to 15 years, and can be boiled for safe reuse).

Even previous versions of such devices are hardly new, Paranjothy said; an inventor (and actor) named Leona W. Chalmers patented the first one in the United States in 1937, and, according to The New York Times, “in her promotional pamphlets referred to earlier European designs.” Still, it would be many decades before such devices were popularly available, and no one has distributed them at this scale. The Paranjothy sisters were neither medical historians nor engineers, but Vanessa saw the need and took the leap.

“You don’t have to be a professional to be an expert on our bodies,” she said. “That’s right,” chimed in Norsigian with approval. Talking about and touching the rubber cup was, one sensed, itself a radical act for some audience members.

While the #metoo movement and current feminist rhetoric and practice are keeping the movement energized and evolving, Ditzion observed that American attitudes toward gender seem to be increasingly polarized, with evidence of both far better behavior than in the past and far worse. While Donald Trump is an obvious example of the latter, she said, she sees plenty of evidence of a backlash against women’s progress. Sexual assault remains a pernicious problem, and basic sex education is still (or newly) hard to find in many areas.

Still, it was obvious from Norsigian and Ditzion’s reminiscences that a considerable amount has changed in the way women feel authorized to speak about their bodies and themselves.

“You never were public about being pregnant and all that,” said Ditzion, whose own mother gave birth Betty Draper-style, drugged into “twilight sleep,” then presented with her newborn. The original collective gathered to discuss novel subjects like natural childbirth, which is now openly discussed by expecting parents and doctors of all genders, and internalized sexism, which social media discussants address hourly. “Reproductive choices affected every woman from the beginning of time,” Ditzion said.

The packed room contained woman (and a few men) from nearly every generation, and generous yielding of seats, standing room, and speaking time ruled the day. People who told personal stories told them to an absolutely quiet room. The panelists expressed mutual praise with sincerity and substance. After the panel, women gathered in spontaneous knots to keep the conversation going, forming connections and alliances, trading business cards and phone numbers, offering to make zines and asking about apps, and for a moment, the eras of consciousness-raising groups, Kauder-Nalebuff’s utopia, and the complex vagaries of the present overlapped to reform into a common mission.

“So much of the material out there was men describing women’s experience,” Ditzion said. “We never intended to write a book. We’re one of the few surviving founder groups from the early days of the women’s movement, and to me the intergenerational bonding is the main thing.”

“Our Bodies, Ourselves” runs at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art, 51 Trumbull St., through April 10. Admission is free. Visit the Ely Center’s website for hours and information about ongoing events.

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