From Radcliffe to Our Bodies Ourselves
By Talia Weisberg
This article is the first in Talia’s column on women in Harvard history, which appears every other Tuesday.
Ever since its establishment in 1879, Radcliffe College graduated thousands of women who went on to do good in the world, from philanthropy to psychology to journalism. Even after it merged with Harvard over the course of the 1970s, Radcliffe graduates continued to take pride in their connection to the women’s college. One such graduate is women’s health activist Judy Norsigian ’70.
Originally from Watertown, Massachusetts, Norsigian decided to stay close to home for college and attend Radcliffe. At first, she planned on concentrating in biochemistry. Her STEM plans were derailed when her interest in philosophy was piqued by Professor John Rawls, a preeminent moral and political philosopher. After Norsigian decided that philosophy was not for her, she opted to concentrate in Social Relations, the precursor to the current Social Studies concentration.
Since Norsigian played the cello, she performed with the Bach Society Orchestra and Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, both of which still exist at the College. She was also interested in education, so she worked at an arts camp for children during the summer as part of her work-study arrangement.
Even after she graduated, Norsigian was unable to stay far from Harvard Square. After spending a year living in a commune in upstate New York, she came back to live in a commune in the Boston area. Knowing that she was interested in women’s health issues, one of her commune-mates told her about a new group called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. The Collective had published a pamphlet titled Our Bodies Ourselves that demystified women’s bodies and provided clear, accurate medical information.
Such a publication was unheard of in 1971. At the time, what little information was available about women’s health was written in highly technical jargon, largely inaccessible to the lay population. Our Bodies Ourselves was revolutionary, teaching women about their bodies in a straightforward manner and empowering them in that knowledge. Its first edition was a 136-page booklet compiled by 12 feminists living in the Boston area, sold for 35 cents. Over 250,000 copies flew off of New England shelves without any formal advertisements, prompting Simon and Schuster to pursue a deal with the authors. They published the first mass-market edition of the book in 1973. Since then, Our Bodies Ourselves has sold four million copies in 26 languages plus Braille.
Norsigian attended an Our Bodies Ourselves meeting while it was still a ragtag group of activists shortly after the original pamphlet was first circulated. She has been involved with the organization ever since, writing chapters for all nine published editions of the book and serving as its executive director and primary spokesperson since 2001.
Although Our Bodies Ourselves has declined in popularity since its debut, it was named one of the 88 books that shaped America by the Library of Congress and one of the 100 best nonfiction books since 1923 by Time magazine. Historically, its import is undisputed, as it gave women the chance to feel confident in their knowledge of their bodies. The book and website still provide understandable, unbiased, nonjudgmental information about women’s health, using the best research available.
It’s no surprise that a Radcliffe graduate has been so instrumental in a book and organization that made such an indelible mark on American history. Make sure to check out the interview of Judy Norsigian featured in the print edition of Manifesta later this month!