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Feminist Book Updates Its Health Topics

March 12, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

In 1966, when natural childbirth was still a bit avant-garde and feminism was in its infancy--it was the year the National Organization for Women was founded--Jane Pincus and Vilunya Diskin met in a childbirth preparation class. Both were to have daughters and go on to become members of an extraordinary writing collective whose big book has sold 3 million copies.

Pincus and Diskin are two of the original 12 members of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, a coalition still intact (save for one dropout) 15 years after publication of "Our Bodies, Ourselves," a book by and for women that dared to talk about things like masturbation and lesbian sexuality at a time when, Pincus noted, "You didn't say those words out loud."

Attempts at Censorship

It also discussed in detail reproduction, rape, venereal disease, abortion and birth control and, although "Our Bodies, Ourselves" wasn't banned in Boston, there were widespread censorship efforts and public denunciation by the Moral Majority, which called it "secular humanistic garbage."

But the book, published first as a stapled 75-page newsprint volume by the little New England Free Press, two years later expanded in hard cover by Simon & Schuster, quickly established itself as the bible of the feminist health movement. Its message: Women can, and should, have some say about their treatment at the hands of a male-dominated medical Establishment.

Now there's "The New Our Bodies, Ourselves," exploring the '80s issues--the ethics of surrogate motherhood, donor insemination, sex pre-selection--dilemmas that didn't exist in 1970 when vegetarianism was for kooks and women didn't report to offices in dress-for-success suits and running shoes.

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In the spring of 1969 when the women who were to become the Boston Women's Health Collective met for the first time at a workshop on "Women and Their Bodies" at Emanuel College, writing a book, and a book that would make money --$200,000 annually for some years--wasn't even a fantasy.

But the workshop helped them to focus their frustration and anger as women who saw themselves, and other women, as pawns in a medical maze presided over by male doctors perceived as condescending, paternalistic and secretive.

The 12 women agreed to keep meeting; they would spend the summer researching topics of special interest to them and, in the fall, each would write a paper. The papers would be mimeographed and offered as a 10-week course to interested women.

Initial Critique

These were white, college-educated, middle-class women in their 20s and 30s; still, it was their first critical look at the medical hierarchy. In 1970, it is noted in the introduction to the new volume, "Many of us were still getting pregnant when we didn't want to."

The women were not medically trained (although one went on to become a therapist, two others to earn master's degrees in public health) and they were politically rather naive. But they knew their subject. As Pincus said, "I've had two kids, but I've also had a miscarriage and I've had infertility problems."

The book, Diskin said, was "a phenomenon. It came at the right time, for the right reasons. It filled a gap. We get hundreds of letters every week from women all over the world. (The book is in 17 foreign language editions.) We all share the same bodies; the same processes happen. And we all lack information."

A Growing Network

"There's a real women's health movement out there, and we're part of it," said Diskin, 42, who lives in Lexington, Mass., has two children, a master's in public health and has worked for health organizations in India and Mexico.

Pincus, 47, a former French teacher, mother of two and Batik artist, now lives in Roxbury, Vt. and only gets to the collective's weekly meetings in the Boston area once a month, but was drafted as coordinator for the new "Our Bodies."

And, "if I have anything to say about it," she noted, the new revision will be the last revision: "Having to edit your friends' writing is real hell, especially when your friends aren't writers."

There were 10 collective members who had final editorial approval, with Pincus and Wendy Sanford as "editors and midwives." (Ruth Bell, one of the original 11 members, lives in the Los Angeles area now and did not work on this book). And, Diskin said, "We called on a lot of other women to write things they knew about. There were some 88 writers."

Added Pincus, "And at least 400 people critiqued it, both lay people and medical people." There were a dozen doctors involved, half of them women, but, Diskin acknowledged, "The physicians we asked to read the book for the most part had the same philosophy we have."

Among the collective's goals: "To reach as many women as possible with the tools which will enable them to take greater charge of their own health care and their lives, deal with the existing medical system and fight whenever possible for improvements."

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