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Our Bodies, Ourselves—40 Years Later

by Dr. Barb DePree

Maybe you remember reading Our Bodies, Ourselves in the 1970s. Maybe for you, as for me, it demystified your own anatomy. Maybe that knowledge empowered you with a sense of self-determination. For a few people, as for me, it was liberating and challenging enough to inspire a career in medicine.

And even if you don’t remember reading the book, you were probably affected anyway by the changes toward women’s health care that it ignited.  “Women were treated as ‘small men who have babies,’” says Dr. Susan Love, a well-know surgeon and breast cancer specialist. “Men were the model, and women were sort of this extra thing.”

Our Bodies, Ourselves challenged that paradigm. With explicit, well-researched, and no-nonsense information about women’s bodies and their sexual and medical issues, the book “changed the basic discourse” within medical circles and cultures around the world.

This approach was revolutionary. The book began in quintessential female style, almost literally around the kitchen table when a group of women began meeting during the summer of 1969 to research their collective questions about women’s health. They compiled a 193-page course called “Women and Their Bodies.” The first book under the present title was published in 1971 and quickly sold 250,000 copies. It was, apparently, a topic whose time had come.

Our Bodies, Ourselves turned 40 this autumn. The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective—which grew from that first group of girlfriends—has now published several books targeted toward various demographics, including Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause, so the generation that came of age during that seminal edition can grow old with this one.

While health issues have changed (HIV/AIDS wasn’t around in 1971, for starters), the perennial appeal of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which now includes the book, the website, and the collective—the group of women who run the whole shebang and who work together to compile the books—remains strong. The group is marking this milestone with a new edition, which includes entries from over 300 contributors.

Even in this post-feminist, technological era, where health information is a few clicks away and women are more strongly represented in medicine than ever, Our Bodies, Ourselves remains a practical, “girlfriend” guide for women. It may (and has) been argued that it created a new genre.

“The legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves is that it spawned a whole new kind of book,” said Courtney E. Martin, an editor at in a recent interview, “like your best friend sitting down in a room with you and telling you about your body and how it works without any embarrassment.”

Kind of like this blog, we hope.


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