Episode 2: Body of Knowledge (Transcript)

Episode 2: Body of Knowledge

Nahanni Rous: Forty-five years ago, a group of women in the Boston area jointly published Our Bodies Ourselves, a groundbreaking book about the radical notion that women could get to know their own bodies and take charge of their health and sexuality. It began as a packet, stapled together and distributed by hand, but it quickly became the bible of the women’s health movement.

[Theme Music]

Nahanni: I’m Nahanni Rous and this is Can We Talk?, from the Jewish Women’s Archive. This month, we’re talking about the pioneering book and organization Our Bodies Ourselves. There have been nine editions of the book since 1971. It's been adapted into 30 languages, with more than 4 million copies sold. With battles over abortion rights and supreme court rulings about birth control, so much of women's health is politicized. It’s easy to forget that our health is grounded in our own intimate relationships with our bodies.

[Scraping snow sounds, car door closing, low driving sounds]

Nahanni: One snowy February night I set out in a car with Judith Rosenbaum, who directs the Jewish Women’s Archive. Judith is a historian and an expert in the women’s health movement.

Judith Rosenbaum: The story of Our Bodies Ourselves is really interesting to me because, in part because, it’s a story of a community and a story of women who didn’t even set out to do this necessarily and it kind of grew in a very natural, organic, grassroots kind of way and was incredibly radical but also incredibly just, personal…

[Driving sound, blinker]

Judith: No one of that collective was someone who was a scientist and was like, I believe I can compete with doctors in terms of providing information. They just had to sort of empower each other and themselves to take this on and to trust themselves and to trust their own voice and no one really told them that was okay they had to tell each other that.

Nahanni: We’re driving to Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood in Boston, to meet Vilunya Diskin, one of the founders of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which created Our Bodies Ourselves. Nine of the 12 founders were Jewish, and Vilunya, a child survivor of the Holocaust, is one of them.

[Car door closing]

Nahanni: We stomp snow off our boots as we climb the steps to Vilunya’s front porch. Vilunya lives in a two family house with her daughter Leah Diskin and granddaughters Nadia and Kiera.

[Climbing steps, knocking door]

Vilunya Diskin: Welcome you intrepid folks! Hello!


Nahanni: The house is warm. Vilunya calls up to the second floor.

Vilunya: Alright girliecues, they’re here!

Nahanni: 11-year-old Kiera bounces down the stairs wearing a feather boa. Her 14-year-old sister Nadia and their mother Leah follow. We settle in around a coffee table and Kiera snuggles into her mother’s lap.

[Tea pouring]

Nahanni: Vilunya pours tea, and begins telling us about what she calls the “heady days of the women’s movement” in 1969. That’s when she joined the group of women who would soon form the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.

Vilunya: A lot of us were political activists, we’d been in the civil rights movement, we’d been in the anti-war movement, and all of a sudden, there was a movement for women, you know, to discuss women’s issues, and that was really exciting.

Nahanni: One of the issues that emerged in the group discussions was women’s relationships with their doctors and their own medical care. Vilunya says pregnancy and childbirth were a big focus for the women.

Vilunya: Some of them had had terrible experiences with abortion, which was illegal at the time, and also with all kinds of health issues, particularly around birth.

Nahanni: The childbirth discussion was important to Vilunya, too.

Vilunya: Leah, who’s sitting right here… so she was born in 1965 and I wanted natural childbirth. Of course, in those days, that was very unusual.

Nahanni: Friends of Vilunya’s had found one doctor in the Boston area who let his patients labor without drugs and surgical interventions. Despite his openness, Vilunya felt this doctor was condescending, referring to patients as “his girls.”

Vilunya: I had just given birth, it was natural, it was a high like I’ve never had in my life, but it was labor, they don’t call it labor for nothing and this doctor said, “Ahh, look what I did for you!” Oh my god… [Laughs]

Nahanni: It got worse than that, too. Another woman in the group needed stitches after labor. Her doctor bragged that he had stitched her up so well she was, quote, “tight like a virgin.” “Your husband should thank me,” he said.

Vilunya: This attitude of condescension and this attitude of just dismissing women, that was very prevalent.

Nahanni: Here’s a little historical context: In the early 1970s, women needed a note from their husband to get birth control. Abortion was illegal. 95 percent of OBGYNs were male, and the prevailing attitude seemed to be that women shouldn’t ask too many questions. Talking about sex was not something respectable women did.

Nahanni: As the women in The Collective shared their stories, they made a list of topics they wanted to know more about... anatomy, sexuality, birth control, abortion, the medical care system… They were looking for accurate information, information that wasn’t filtered by male doctors, and they prioritized learning from other women’s experiences. They didn’t set out to write a book.

Vilunya: We just thought we’d inform ourselves and then share that information.

Nahanni: After months of research and writing, the women had created a 193-page packet called Women and Their Bodies. They write about feeling alienated from their bodies, about the objectification of women by their gynecologists, about inequities in access to healthcare. They also celebrate the power and pleasure of their bodies and their sexuality. In 1971, they published Our Bodies Ourselves, renamed and in book form. There are chapters on anatomy, rape and self-defense, childbearing, menopause, birth control, and abortion. None of the women in The Collective were lesbians, so a separate group of women wrote that chapter, naming it “In America They Call Us Dykes.”

Vilunya: You have to remember that in those days, the word masturbation was never said out loud. Clitoris, the same.

Nahanni: And here came Our Bodies Ourselves, telling women they could know themselves, touch themselves, tell their sexual partners what they want. The book has pencil drawings of hymens. It shows how pregnancy occurs and different ways to prevent it. In one photograph, a woman holds a mirror between her legs so she can look at her own vulva. Throughout the book, medical information is mixed in with women’s first person narratives.

Vilunya: Everybody spoke very openly and frankly, because they felt really liberated. They felt trusting.

Nahanni: Speaking of trust, Vilunya is having this whole conversation with her granddaughters right here in the room. They’re taking everything in, and 11-year-old Kiera has heard a word she doesn’t know yet.

Kiera: What is clitoris?

Leah: It’s a part of your vagina.

Kiera: Oh, ok.

Vilunya: I’ll show you a picture after.

Leah: You’ve seen pictures, but it hasn’t been as relevant.

Nadia: Big words are hard to remember.

Vilunya and Leah: Yeah.

Leah: We’ve had a lot of conversations about how many holes do we have, and looked at the diagrams and stuff.

Kiera: I thought you had a baby out of the pee hole. [Laughs]

Judith: I think a lot of people think that.

Leah: You are not alone.

Leah: You thought the vagina was the pee hole, so it kind of makes sense. Kiera’s very curious, earlier than Nadia was… and she just asked tons and tons of questions, so we started to get books and talked a lot and then the dolls started having sex. I remember once you left two pairs in my bedroom, naked, and you said, tomorrow morning when we come back they’ll have kids.

Nadia: I remember that.

Nahanni: The atmosphere in the Diskin home is remarkable, though maybe not surprising. It reflects the kind of openness that’s at the heart of Our Bodies Ourselves. Vilunya says she leaves copies of the book in every bathroom in the house, perhaps a recognition that private exploration is just as important as sharing. It’s time for Leah to put her girls to bed, so we’ll step away from the Diskins’ home for a moment.

All speaking: OK. Ok, goodbye guys. Aw, bye bye. [Kiss] Close the doors tightly! We will.

Nahanni: Our Bodies Ourselves sparks conversations not only within families and between friends. All over the world, the organization brings women together for workshops. In 2011, three dozen American women participated in a month-long online dialogue to help shape the latest revision of the book. It’s a 21st century version of The Collective’s early living room conversations:none of the participants ever met in person, and most chose to use pseudonyms. Juanita Crider was one of the participants. She’s lived in Indiana for most of her life, but grew up in Baltimore. She first discovered Our Bodies Ourselves when she was in high school.

Juanita: A lot of girls wanted to read it because they felt like there was information in there that maybe our mothers weren’t really telling us that we wanted to know. I remember going to the public library and actually looking at the book.

Nahanni: Three decades later, Juanita found herself becoming part of the project.

Juanita: I was 50 and you know, I was really wrestling with what sexuality and sensuality will mean to me in my later years.

Nahanni: That’s also an academic interest. Juanita is writing a dissertation about representations of elder sexuality in film and television… or more accurately, the scarcity of it. The Our Bodies Ourselves dialogue connected Juanita with other older women who had wrestled with similar questions about sexuality.

Juanita: It was an emotional experience but it was good… There were other women who had already answered these questions but there were other women who were finding themselves through this process also. it was almost like it was therapeutic.

Nahanni: The virtual forum for this conversation also provided something that the original Collective hadn’t-- diversity. Some feminists have criticized the fact that all 12 original members of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective were white and middle class. Juanita is African American. When she first discovered Our Bodies Ourselves in high school, she says...

Juanita: My little peer group, we were so thirsty for information, that didn’t even cross our minds.

Nahanni: In retrospect, though, she thinks the early editions of Our Bodies Ourselves were missing some important perspectives. For example, that a history of forced sterilization made some women of color fearful of free health clinics. That a person's gender identity or sexuality might be fluid. The 2011 dialogues brought together women of different races, income levels, genders, sexual orientations, abilities. Juanita says she loves the final product… but it was the dialogue itself that was most transformative for her.

Juanita: It helped me be more open and honest and to think about shame, you know and how that plays in how we feel about our own sexuality.

Nahanni: Many women of color, Juanita says, especially in her generation, were raised with the overwhelming notion that they need to be respectable.

Juanita: Because of the stereotype of a black woman being promiscuous. So a lot of times that has bound us to feel ashamed of things that are just normal.

Nahanni: Things like sexuality and sensuality.

Juanita: Oftentimes black girls and women are raised to combat that by downplaying, almost keeping your sensual self in a closet, or keeping it locked, you know. I found that to be detrimental. It’s a normal part of being human. I’m not responsible for how my body is read historically or how my gender and race is read historically. i’m just responsible for what pleasures me and what pleases me.


Nahanni: Back in Vilunya Diskin’s living room, there is a floor to ceiling bookshelf.

Vilunya: This row here, and this row here, and that row there are all OBOS in different translations.

Nahanni: The newest edition sits among many adaptations of the book.

Vilunya: And this is the Hebrew one that came out… oh my god.

Nahanni: It’s a thick, heavy book!

Vilunya: The Arabic and the Hebrew one came out at the same time.

Nahanni: Vilunya gestures to them proudly. This bookshelf represents a body of collective wisdom that has evolved over time and across borders. Our Bodies Ourselves’s Global Initiative now works with more than two dozen women’s organizations worldwide. Here in the US, much of that work is focused on helping women filter out the noise… the plethora of medical information, much of which is driven by a profit motive or a political agenda. In some ways it’s the reverse of what first motivated the group -- too little information. There are still many other issues as well. Vilunya laments the quality of sex education in her granddaughter’s public school, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and the persistence of sexual violence.

Vilunya: You know, we can think of it and get very discouraged or we can think of it in the long term and say, you know, change is incremental.

Nahanni: And some of the changes have been huge. Birth control is widely available in America today. Same sex marriage is legal. Medical training is much more focused on patients as whole people, and 75-percent of OBGYNs are women. Vilunya radiates optimism, but she’ll never be one to just sit back.

Vilunya: Women’s rights always have to be fought for. Reproductive health, reproductive rights, I think, for a big portion of the population are just anathema, you know, because it means that women really control their bodies, and therefore themselves, and therefore their sexuality.

[Music, then car sounds]

Nahanni: On the way home, Judith is still turning over the question of how much has changed in women’s health.

Judith: I can never decide, like I go back and forth between being like “Oh my god, things are so different now, like I can’t believe right around the time I was born was when it became legal for women who weren’t married to get birth control like in 1972.

Nahanni: So in many ways, it feels like a different world. Our Bodies Ourselves had a lot to do with that.

Judith: Then at the same time, I feel like women’s health and women’s self determination over their bodies, by the mainstream society, is still treated as this kind of scary, dangerous thing, and I feel like that is so key to women’s ability to be free in any other way in our lives.

Nahanni: So what is freedom, when we’re talking about health and sexuality, and how do we achieve it? That’s the evolving question Our Bodies Ourselves is still helping women ask and begin to answer.

Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk? Our team includes Jewish Women’s Archive Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and Director of Engagement Tara Metal. We had help this month from Bella Book. Ibby Caputo edited the script. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.

[Theme Music]

Nahanni: Visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk to listen, subscribe and make a donation. To help others find the podcast, please consider reviewing Can We Talk? on iTunes. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous, and I’ll talk with you again next month.

[Theme Music fades]


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 2: Body of Knowledge (Transcript)." (Viewed on January 25, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-2-body-of-knowledge/transcript>.


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