by Talia Weisberg
Judy Norsigian Radcliffe ’70 is the executive director and cofounder of Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS). Originally called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, OBOS is a global nonprofit that promotes accurate, evidence-based information on girls’ and women’s reproductive health and sexuality, and addresses the social, economic, and political conditions that affect health care access and quality of care. In 1971, OBOS published a pamphlet about women’s health titled Our Bodies, Ourselves. Still in print today, Our Bodies, Ourselves has been an invaluable resource for women’s health concerns for over 40 years. Judy Norsigian kindly took some time to discuss her time at Harvard and with OBOS with Manifesta.
In what year did you graduate from Radcliffe College?
What was it like being a woman at Harvard then?
You know, it was fine. I didn’t know what to expect. I remember meeting a lot of interesting people and doing interesting things while I was there.
I had no consciousness about feminism at that point, so I would probably not have noticed any subtle sort of sexism. It would have had to be more obvious for me to realize it was there. One example that I did notice was when I was in high school, I was told that it was too bad that I won a science award because if a certain boy in my school had gotten it, it would’ve helped him get into MIT. He got in anyway, but I thought it was a bizarre comment I got. My dad was into STEM and he thought it was an odd way of thinking too. We didn’t have a word for it then, I didn’t know it was sexism.
I don’t remember that many cases of women deferring to men during classroom discussions. I’m sure it happened, but that wasn’t one of the scenes I experienced. Radcliffe women weren’t about to be silenced by anyone. It wasn’t a problem on campus.
What was the relationship between Radcliffe and Harvard when you were there?
My class was the first year that Radcliffe graduates got Harvard diplomas… The next year we started to have dorms where one floor was men and one floor was women. Little by little the two started integrating, it happened gradually. There was mixed feelings about it too, a lot of people didn’t like the idea that Radcliffe would be swallowed up by Harvard. I think if you look back at what Radcliffe had, I think Radcliffe got a raw deal, but that’s another conversation.
Why did you choose to go to Radcliffe?
I grew up in Watertown, so I was nearby. I didn’t apply to that many schools, we didn’t have that much money and even the application fee, which was little, seemed like a lot to us. I chose Radcliffe because it was a good education, it wasn’t far from home so there wouldn’t be any travel expenses, and I knew the campus a little bit because after my junior year I had taken Chem 1 over the summer there, so I liked feel of the place. They had a good orchestra, which was important to me because I played the cello. There were lots of reasons.
What did you expect to do with your degree?
I really thought I might get into some form of education, student-directed learning. I had worked in the Newtown court during the year as part of a work-study arrangement, and then I worked at their summer arts camp, which was a program for younger kids, so I was interested in education.
Then I got involved in the communal movement that was getting big then. Some friends and I went to upstate New York after we graduated and, with a group from Fordham University, bought a farm. We lived there for a little over a year and I got very interested in collective living and what that means. Environmentally, I got interested in organic gardening and farming.
After a year, I came back and lived in another group situation in Boston. I decided to work with a teen center in north Cambridge, where the administration was funding a juvenile delinquency prevention project. I worked with kids and got interested in several issues that impacted them, including sexuality.
It’s serendipity that I was working as a street worker with teens, because that’s how met the original cofounders of Our Bodies Ourselves. I started going to meetings, where we discussed the first commercial edition of book. By the time I got involved there had already been a newsprint edition, so in December 1971 I said that I would do a chapter on nutrition – there hadn’t been one in the first edition – and that’s my start with Our Bodies Ourselves. Then it was called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. It was incorporated in early 1972, and we made a contract with Simon and Schuster.
Explain exactly what Our Bodies Ourselves is today.
It’s an organization committed to providing evidence-based information, particularly about reproductive health and sexuality across the life span, avoiding conflicts of interest – we never take drug or pharmaceutical industry funding. We have a network of hundreds of people who work for us, helping with the book or blog or online content. We have a global initiative with many partners around the world that help us do translations of Our Bodies Ourselves and adaptations of the book, which are sometimes booklets or electronic. We just released versions of Our Bodies Ourselves in Vietnamese, Farsi, and French language for Canada. We may release a new Chinese version too.
Different countries are doing different things, based on the needs of their women. For example, in Armenia, promotion of Our Bodies Ourselves can be accused of genocide because it’s a pronatalist country, and genocide is a touchy subject there. People in Armenia don’t work on the book, but focus more on gender-based violence.
How does Our Bodies Ourselves compare to what it was like when it was first established in the 1970s?
The book is not as well known. There was a time when it was a bestseller and there was competition about women’s health issues. Now there’s commercial stuff on the Internet, so we get drowned out a lot even though experts in the field evaluate our information. Most young women aren’t aware of Our Bodies Ourselves unless they read it in a gender studies class, are given it as a gift, or are looking for info online.
We started a webpage featuring great stories about the impact of Our Bodies Ourselves in women’s lives, it’s the best example to draw from – real women of all ages and how the book saved their lives in some cases. We still encourage people to add their stories there.
Why is Our Bodies Ourselves important to you?
It’s an incredibly important source of information, nonjudgmental, and clearly written, unlike many distorted sources of info on the Internet. We’re not the only group out there that presents information, but we also present the information with a feminist and consumer perspective and we don’t shy away from advocacy where it’s important. We don’t tell people what to do for personal decisions, but if there are attacks on contraceptive access we’ll challenge it… We’re willing to be advocates and activists.
What inspires your activism?
Women’s access to good information to make better decisions for themselves and political decisions. That’s why we did the Our Bodies Our Votes campaign in 2012. A lot of young unmarried women weren’t planning to vote, they needed to know what was at stake, so our group brought that message. My niece wasn’t planning to vote, but she did! And all her friends registered too. There was definitely a need. Every election, young unmarried women are the least likely to vote, since they’re not plugged in politically the way they should and need to be.
What are your basic principles?
In terms of women’s health, they would be that you stick to the evidence when you make public policy. All that attack on emergency contraception had nothing to do with evidence, we had to fight so hard to get over-the-counter allowed for no good reason. Another basic principle would be giving funding for critical women’s health research. We need better research on silicone gel breast implants. There’s also no research on the long-term affects on women egg donors, but there are significant number of young women who have donated eggs who are having problems, except no one’s doing anything for them.
Why do you think Our Bodies Ourselves has become such an important part of history? What about it made it so inherently important? Why has it lasted?
In the beginning, it filled a crying need for basic information. It demystified women’s bodies and healthcare, since there was nothing out there in lay language, so it filled an enormous vacuum. We didn’t realize when we first started going how much was done to women’s bodies in name of OB/GYN that was not evidence-based, the awareness of that came later, so at first we just demystified how bodies work and started to ask hard questions about efficacy, where’s the evidence? Often there’s not any, so we call for research in key areas. That’s been an important agenda for us. The book still brings these issues together with a feminist perspective in clearly written lay language. There are few other books with the scope and breadth of Our Bodies Ourselves, it ranges from violence to politics to women’s healthcare. It’s commonly used in women’s health courses because it’s a good teaching tool.
The Library of Congress ranked it as one of the 88 books that shaped America, and Time named it as one of the 100 best nonfiction books in English since 1923. This is recognizing, over many decades, its impact. Right now if you were to ask young people, “Do you even know what this book is?” they would say no, but its impact can continue in indirect even if not direct ways.