Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Bodies Bible: A Revolutionary Book About Lady Parts

Vilunya Diskin & Jane Pincus
Good-bye 2012. Good riddance. In the United States, you’ve been the year of reprehensible ideas: mandated vaginal probes, outlawing contraceptives, “legitimate rape,” rape-generated pregnancies as something “God intended to happen.” You were the year of the War on Women. Those who struggled for equality and self-determination in past decades couldn’t believe so much darkness might now be encroaching on hard-fought enlightenment... 
Courtesy of the psychedelic zeitgeist, people in my generation explored the unknown depths and heights of our minds during the 1960s. But many women witnessed the doors of perception opening to reveal some truths elsewhere in the human anatomy. Feminism was busy being born, along with babies, for gals who previously had limited knowledge of their reproductive systems in a male-dominated society that would soon react to the shockwave of gender liberation. As a popular slogan of the era trumpeted, sisterhood is powerful. In December 1970, an iconic and inspiring work emerged that eventually would find its way into some four millions homes: Our Bodies, Ourselves, which covers a range of topics on women’s health, started out as a 193-page newsprint publication that was stapled together. It had been written by a dozen women, many of them moms, living in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts. Their goal was to make information about about female anatomy, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth and other related subjects accessible to everyone.

What Americans may now think of as ordinary came across as a radical departure from the norm. No equivalent text was available anywhere. “It was revolutionary,” suggested Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s Democratic governor from 1985 to 1991. “Nobody had described women’s health and sexuality before. And they did it in such a clear, no-nonsense way. The authors were really pioneers.” Among those who penned the landmark book in the Bay State, Jane Pincus has been a Vermonter for the better part of almost four decades. She runs a wholesale flower farm in rural Roxbury with her filmmaker husband, Ed Pincus, and remains a strong advocate for the thorny issues addressed by the tome. Jane Pincus contributed to and/or edited subsequent editions until 2005. Published by Simon & Schuster, it has since swelled to 944 pages.

The Boston Women's Health Collective in the 1970s
Many of the recent Republican measures attempting to turn back the clock sound like the stuff of fiction. The nonfiction produced by Pincus and her colleagues frequently stunned a public that was far more sheltered than it is today. The lexicon was a-changin’, along with the times. “There were women at the first course we gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970 who gasped because they had never heard the word ‘masturbation’ before,” recalled Pincus, who also remembers a nervous reaction in the room when someone wrote “vagina” on the blackboard. These educational sessions grew out of simple need. The participants were searching for knowledge about the basics of their own physiology. Pincus and longtime friend Vilunya Diskin, an Our Bodies alum who still lives in the Boston area, were both pregnant just before joining the frontlines of feminism. They first met at a 1965 Lamaze childbirth class in Cambridge. Each had encountered problems with previous pregnancies.

Many women were beginning to grow tired of “getting coffee for the guys” in local civil rights and anti-war activist circles, according to Pincus. “They wanted to talk about themselves for a change.” She was going through a difficult time after the birth of her second child, feeling isolated and insecure, but suspected other women probably could commiserate. The idea of sharing realistic assessments of their most intimate concerns took shape. “Vilunya and I were in a ‘personal group,’ the sort of thing that was later known as a ‘consciousness-raising group,’” she said. “We were nursing our babies then.” The first workshop, called “Control of Our Bodies,” came out of that milieu in May of 1969 during a women’s liberation conference held at Boston’s Emmanuel College. An article handed out at that event had a militant edge to it: “Men and male society oppress women by viewing us only in terms of our bodies – as sexual objects and as a source of cheap domestic labor.” Pow! “Women kept wanting to meet,” Diskin added. “They didn’t want to stop talking. So, that’s how we started.”

About two dozen women interested in health began gathering at each other’s houses in September 1969. “We wanted to figure out what kind of healthcare were were getting,“ Pincus explained. “But we didn’t really yet know the questions to ask.” They decided that each person would research a particular subject. “One woman had had an abortion, which was still illegal then, and so she chose that,” Pincus said. ”Vilunya picked postpartum depression. I took pregnancy. We were all college-educated but had no expertise in these matters.” Gynecology and obstetrics books of the day that they began reading in this pursuit seemed “appalling,” Pincus said. “Women were supposed to remain passive, dependent creatures, only producing babies. We had to begin a critique of the medical establishment.” Their scholarly approach led to a survey conducted at various women’s gatherings. “We devised a questionnaire to help us make a list of good doctors,” Diskin said. “We got lots of responses, more than 200, but not one could recommend a doctor.” Pincus has a slightly different recollection. She believes the outreach was for help in understanding how to evaluate doctors, but did not result in condemning any of them.

Two women who enrolled in a subsequent 1970 course at MIT – then “a bastion of male supremacy,” Pincus noted – worked for the New England Free Press, a now-defunct radical collective in Boston that printed pamphlets and posters for movement organizations. They encouraged the organizers to turn what they were teaching into a book. The men in charge of the political publishing endeavor were reluctant at first. Supportive of feminist causes in general, they somehow failed to see a connection to women’s heath, but finally agreed. During the summer of 1970, women from the original health group wrote about their research and their own personal perspectives. Pincus touched on nutrition, physical changes and emotional demands. She even included photos of herself, unclothed and extremely pregnant, to illustrate the chapter. The book was necessarily graphic but also framed in the storytelling tradition, with wisdom that could be passed down through the ages. At the end of the year, the completed manuscript – then titled Women and Their Bodies – was printed. Pincus remembers that each copy cost 75 cents because “the Free Press didn’t believe in making a profit.”

The project mushroomed. “We revised our work in 1971 and incorporated ourselves as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective,” Pincus said. A second edition went for only 40 cents. “Without our knowledge, though, a quarter-million copies were sold,” she pointed out. “Colleges had been putting one in every student’s mailbox.” Money was never the object, but the authors did envision an even wider audience. “It was clear we could reach more people by going with a commercial press, Simon & Schuster,” Pincus explained. The New England Free Press, which was having trouble keeping up with demand, told the women, “You shouldn’t do business with capitalist pigs!” Pincus and her comrades ignored this warning in the interest of improving women’s lives on a grander scale and, in the spring of 1973, a new version of Our Bodies with 278 pages was available for $2.95. In between raising children and similar domestic responsibilities, the book collective members fanned out across the country on promotional tours.

At a TV station in Cleveland, viewers responded enthusiastically by phoning in about the hippie chicks who had launched a nationwide awareness campaign. In one instance, a caller complained that Pincus should get her hair out of her eyes. “So, they gave me a bobby pin,” she reminisced with a laugh. The women writers would also come under serious attack. The Moral Majority, led by Reverend Jerry Falwell, once described the book as “obscene trash” and it’s authors as “liberals and advocates of pornographic sex education.” That charge was leveled in 1981. By then, despite being banned by some conservative schools and libraries, the project was a proven success with an expanded 1979 edition. “A book like Our Bodies, Ourselves was almost enough to air out the last few dusty centuries," wrote the late author Grace Paley, who divided her time between a New York City apartment and a home in Vermont.

Forty years ago, the health collective was all white and middle-class. Before long, the book and those who were updating it began to reflect society’s diversity in terms of multiculturalism, economic status and sexual identity. Readers also started to mail in their narratives, which were stirred into the mix. “The day before and sometimes the first day of my period, my whole abdominal cavity feels unsettled,” is one woman’s anonymous quote in a section about the menstrual cycle. “My kid is dancing inside under my heart,” wrote another, whose poignant entry is in the pregnancy chapter. Our Bodies has been translated into Spanish, Russian, Polish, Turkish, Armenian, Bulgarian and Korean, to name a few of the foreign-language editions. A handful of offshoot books, such as one devoted to menopause, also became part of the equation.

Generations of women have benefitted from the groundbreaking effort. Erin Narey of Peacham, who is 37 and teaches English at Lyndon State College in Vermont, might be a prime example. The book is emblematic of women’s liberation, a concept that she considers a badge of honor. But upon hearing Narey describe herself as a feminist, other young citizens often ask: “Aren’t we done with that?” Not so much. “If nothing else drives people to action, maybe fear will,” she said, referring to the contemporary furor about reproductive rights. Madeleine Kunin, who penned The New Feminist Agenda earlier this year, is flabbergasted that old battles are now reigniting.”Whoever thought contraception would be a hot topic again?” she asked rhetorically. “I wouldn’t have dreamed this could happen. It’s a wake-up call. We’ve got to hold on to what we have. These (Republican) men are saying, ‘We are your moral authority.’”

Vilunya Diskin acknowledged that she “vacillates between being enraged and really worried about the future: “They want to take over not just our bodies our our entire political system.” Jane Pincus echoed that assessment: “I think the War on Women is also a War on Democracy,” she surmised. “We always have to fight for what is right and what is humane.” They believe their literary legacy, Our Bodies, Ourselves, is still incredibly relevant for women from all walks of life. But it once seemed shockingly controversial, even in a certain liberal former governor’s household: “We were so innocent and ignorant then,” Kunin said. “You couldn’t leave that book out on your coffee table.”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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