For women coming of age in the 1970s, the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was as ubiquitous as spider plants in macrame hangers. The book became an essential home reference: part medical dictionary, part political manifesto, and a place where girls and women could investigate their secret fears about sex and their private parts, in private.
The book grew out of a workshop at a 1969 women’s liberation conference at Emmanuel College. That led to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which in 1970 published a 193-page stapled “booklet” called “Women and Their Bodies.” The next year, the book found its real name, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” It has since grown to 928 pages, been updated about every five years, been translated into 30 languages and spawned special editions on childbearing and menopause. During the 2012 Presidential campaign, Our Bodies, Ourselves conducted an Educate Congress campaign, delivering a copy of the book to every member of Congress.
Joan Ditzion became a founding member of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and is one of the original co-founders/co-authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Now 74, and a grandmother of three, she became a geriatric social worker in 1985 and is now focused on issues of aging.
Senior Planet: So, take us back to the late 60s, early 70s. What was missing from women’s health care and how did the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective change the discussion?
Joan: I was newly married and living in Washington and I was at an anti-inaugural Nixon event, and there was a group of women from Boston and they said, “We really have opinions on these issues. We don’t want to just take notes and make coffee. We have ideas and we want to be part of the political process of decisionmaking and we’re starting a new movement.”
I thought: “We’re moving back to Cambridge. I really want to find out more about this.” There was a conference at Emmanuel College, a Bread and Roses conference on Women’s Lib, and there was a workshop on women and their bodies. I wasn’t in town at the time, but the idea was that women didn’t know. There was a lot of information out there that we really needed to learn. A course was put together and I joined that initial course. I can still remember going to this circle and sitting around with women and there was this big picture of a vagina with anatomical detail and I had never in my life seen such a thing in a public place. (Laughs). And we’d talk about clitoral orgasms and vaginal orgasms and masturbation and it was like oh wow!
It was an amazing time and it’s amazing to us still. We almost can’t believe that our project to help women deal with reproductive health and sexuality has come so far and really has gone global. We just finished celebrating our 45th anniversary.
Like many, I had been socialized in the 50s that, as a woman, I was inferior to men, I was an object to please them. And this whole experience was like, Oh wow! I could really embrace a woman-centered view of the world and understand that sexism is a social construction and a patriarchal view of the world. And that the personal is political and that we really needed to change the world. I had been active in other movements but this one touched me in the core like no other social change movement had.
Senior Planet: What happened next?
Joan: Initially this was a course; we decided that we wanted continue this course because the main thing was to just have women talking together, learning together and sharing life experiences. And after a little time we decided that it really would make sense to do a pamphlet, but not to have the pamphlet as the end result. The pamphlet was a way to use this information and keep this process going. The New England Free Press asked if we wanted to do a pamphlet; it started out as Women and Their Bodies, but then we realized it was not third person, it was our bodies. I was 26 at the time.
Senior Planet: What I remember most was the cervical self exam. It seems like now if you asked millennials to do it they would just go ewwwww; after all they’re shaving their pubic hair. What do you think about that?
Joan: I think shaving the pubic hair is a new trend that’s not as self accepting. The whole philosophy for us is you accept your body as it is. We’re not trying to be objects to please men. There’s sometimes new super standards that women have set for their own selves in a way. It’s not men setting the standards. It can be as oppressive as the old days.
Senior Planet: What about the intervening 45 years? What has been the both the impact on and the input from other generations? How has Our Bodies, Ourselves touched other generations, and how has the other generations responded and perhaps joined the team?
Joan: My generation has grown up with the book. One of the things that I’m actually concerned about is that many younger women don’t even know about this book. Many younger women — not all, but some — are like, “Okay, your generation dealt with all this. We’ve been the beneficiaries of this. But we don’t really need to do more on women’s rights.” For me the hope has always been that there would be intergenerational dialogue. It’s so important that the generations really work together. We now have a new executive director — a lovely woman, Julie Childers — whose mission is to build on the legacy and touch a whole new group of women. We’ve always been intergenerational. Every book has had stories and voices of women of all ages. That’s always been our message and vision.
Senior Planet: Let’s talk about your interest in aging and ageism.
Joan: I have been in geriatric social work since my 40s and I was very close to my mother. I was involved in her care in her final years — she lived till she was 90 — and it really sensitized me to the needs of aging women. One of the things I started feeling when I was in my 50s and early 60s was: “Am I over the hill? Am I entering that aging world where I’ll become invisible and marginalized?” It hit me that I was happy to be aging, but I wasn’t being supported to age with purpose and passion and power. I began to experience ageism personally. I had realized firsthand what sexism was about. It was a social construction; it wasn’t a biological given. I really began to take to heart that we live in a culture that doesn’t honor and respect aging people and the aging process. The thing that’s so peculiar about it is that, ultimately, if you’re lucky enough to age it will affect everyone. So I keep thinking there’s something wrong with a society where everyone has agreed that it will turn on itself as everyone ages.
Senior Planet: And wouldn’t you say that aging in our society is harder for women?
Joan: We definitely have a harder hit. I think women still have these impossible standards of youthful beauty, and our sexual or reproductive capacity is what we’re valued for. And so we are more vulnerable in our post-reproductive years than men. Yeah, definitely. There’s this is a wonderful quote by Germaine Greer: “A grown woman should not have to masquerade as a girl to remain in the land of the living.” You know, it’s not good for anyone, but especially women. And statistically women tend to outlive men, so it’s really women who are the most impacted by the issues of aging: the benefits and also the disadvantages and challenges.
Senior Planet: Is there a feminist point of view on plastic surgery? Is it like any other choice in feminism, where it’s okay if you want to do it it’s okay if you don’t want to do it?
Joan: Philosophically, of course, we’re very not supportive of the anti-aging movement and the idea being that you have to maintain a youthful appearance. I guess it’s up to any woman to decide these things. But this is certainly not the optimum goal to remain youthful and have surgery to perpetuate that.
Senior Planet: In the [Our Bodies, Ourselves] menopause book, the last chapter talks about women’s support groups. I’m wondering whether women in their 60s and 70s and 80s are still good at sharing intimate secrets about our bodies and our sexuality?
Joan: I think there’s a tremendous need for this. The American Society on Aging, an organization that I’ve been a part of for years, has done something called On Being an Aging Woman: A Conversation. It’s basically what we’ve been advocating for. We have to revive the consciousness-raising groups of the 60s. It’s even more necessary because there’s no clear road.
We have greater longevity, with possibly better health for a longer time. There’s no clear roadmaps of new normal. I think there’s a real need for women to create safe spaces where we can talk together about how we’re dealing with aging: our aging bodies, our aging lives, our aging relationships. I think there’s a total need for it because the stereotypes in our culture about aging are so limited and so off. The fact is, we’re in living lab because we’re in an unprecedented demographic boom. It’s not as if there are any experts out there that know. We’re all at a new stage of evolution in some sense. I think it’s really important.
Senior Planet: How about body image as a theme that goes through a woman’s life, starting with girlhood? Your boobs are too big or too small, or your thighs hit each other, or whatever. What is it about body image that just won’t go away?
Joan: Well, we have our bodies our whole lives. I was recently part of a conversation where a woman who was talking about raising her young daughter. She wants to get the girl to see her energy, her vitality, and not focus on her appearance in some objectified way. One of the benefits of aging is that we don’t feel we have to conform as much to these impossible standards. When we look in the mirror, we’re looking just for our energy, our life force — not so much a wrinkle or a grey hair.We really have to embrace diversity. There’s a huge range of women’s bodies and let’s celebrate that instead of setting perfect standards.
Senior Planet: And the last question is, what does aging with attitude mean to you?
Joan: Aging with attitude means aging proudly and powerfully and feeling a sense of pride as we age. I think we’re learning that the most important thing about aging is feeling a sense of meaning and purpose and engagement with life in the world. So for me, it’s hopefully aging with meaning and purpose and engagement until, hopefully, our — my — last breath. Always adapting to life, but just having a sense of that.