40 Years On, Women’s Health Group Still Educating


A great deal has changed in our nation and world during the nearly 40 years since a group of women met at a conference in Boston to talk about their medical experiences and share knowledge about their bodies. While the women associated with the group have never changed their primary focus of educating women about their own bodies and health, the changes — both outwardly and inwardly — have had an impact on how they approach their task.

"[When we started,] we were all younger," said Judy Norsigian, executive director and one of the founders of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, which now does business under the name of their best-selling series Our Bodies, Ourselves. "No one had gone through menopause. … Of the group that incorporated in 1971, there were 12 of us and I was, at that time, 23 and one of the women was almost 39. She's now 75 and just about to be 76. It has grown with us and it is partly because we became older that we became interested in menopause and issues beyond the early years."

The original booklet, which put women's health in a new political and social context, was published in 1970 on newsprint, and quickly became a success. Three years later, the first commercial edition was published by Simon & Schuster. Since then, the book has undergone several revisions and has been translated into numerous languages. In 2006, the group published a new book focusing on menopause. Another book, this one with a focus on pregnancy and birth, is scheduled for release in March.

Norsigian came to Iowa on Saturday to serve as keynote speaker for the 2008 annual Choice Dinner in Iowa City, an event that benefits the Emma Goldman Clinic. She agreed to sit down for an exclusive interview following the event.

"I think, over the years, the controversies have really varied too," she said. "We didn't have as much awareness of what the drug industry was doing early on. It has definitely grown in both its influence and its power. That's why we focus on things like advertising hype — whether it is drug or surgical procedures — and the importance of getting balanced information."

The Internet, she says, has opened many new avenues for women to learn about their health — not all of them necessarily good.

"There's a lot of bad stuff on the Internet, but there is also a lot of good stuff," she said. "You have to know the source of the information. Is it credible? Find out who is funding the website. Things like that can help you in deciding if the material really makes sense. We take no funding from the pharmaceutical industry. So do a number of other women's health groups like Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco and the National Women's Health Network in [Washington,] D.C. As such, you know there isn't a conflict of interest.

"There are some women's groups who do pull punches when it comes to being honest and open and calling a spade a spade. That's because they don't bite the hand that feeds them. So, that is a problem. Even groups who think they would never do that ultimately do. We know that about human nature and that's why we created this policy, even though that means it is harder to survive. You have less source of corporate money. We are very committed to keeping evidenced-based, commercially-free information that's not driven by corporate bias."

Even as the group has expanded to include specific areas of interest to women of certain age groups, Norsigian said they are also now re-focusing on some of the issues they struggled with from the beginning.

"We've been very concerned about a lot of the issues that we championed early on — midwifery, options for childbearing," she said. "We got them for awhile, and then they started to really reverse direction. For instance, breastfeeding rates and breastfeeding promotion was on the rise, and now — except in some places — there has actually been a trend in the wrong direction. There's this fear that women have that their breasts are going to look terrible if they nurse, so they won't nurse because of that. Or they are given these 'goodie bags' by the hospital that contain infant formula."

When considering what can be done to reverse the breastfeeding trends, Norsigian points to Portland, Ore.

"The one city that finally got rid of [hospital 'goodie bags'] is Portland," she said. "Also, last year Oregon passed the strongest breastfeeding legislation in the entire country. It's a real model for everyone else. That was a primary example of activists working together."

Working with other organizations and individuals — even those that may not be considered friendly — was a topic Norsigian discussed both in the interview and when she gave her keynote address. While speaking to the group, Norsigian recalled the story of a young woman from the evangelical community who wrote the front page article in The Nation that outlined the specific purpose assigned to Dr. W. David Hager when he was appointed to lead the Food and Drug Administration's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs. He was put there by the Bush administration for the sole purpose of ending emergency contraception, something which is now widely credited as a reason for the nation's reduced abortion rates.

"It was something that couldn't be proven until [Hager] inadvisedly admitted it at a speech he gave in Kentucky," she said. "It was taped and this young researcher got ahold of it and ended up meeting with [Hager's] wife and finding out a number of sordid details about their life as well. This became a big story, and he was not re-appointed to the committee. Those kinds of things happen — where you have to sort of lock hands with people who care about integrity, of the scientific process, people's personal integrity."

Norsigian also told the group about how a family friend, a priest, was given information that caused him to reconsider some of his previous actions.

"Working with groups and collaborating with groups, building coalitions, is extraordinarily important and it requires a certain amount of training," she said near the end of her public remarks. "Don't take it lightly, I think all of us need this kind of training in working with groups, working with people, developing listening skills and understanding that the people we disagree with — even powerfully disagree with — may have some important things we need to hear.

"I remember a long and extraordinary conversation with a priest, who was very close to my family. He didn't like abortion and he preached against it every year. A woman in his congregation came up to him and told him that she had an abortion and told him why his sermon made her feel horrible and why she thought it was wrong, morally wrong. I won't give you the details, but I want to tell you that he listened and he heard her. He told me that he wasn't giving that sermon ever again. His last words were, 'Don't get me wrong, Judy, abortion is still killing, but now I know abortion can be the right and the moral thing to do.' I don't know who that woman was, but that's the kind of intervention that makes a difference."

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