“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. The stereotypes in our culture about aging are so limited and so off, and we’re in a living lab, because we’re in an unprecedented demographic boom. We’re all at a new stage of evolution in some sense.”
For young women in the 1970s, the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was as ubiquitous as spider plants in macrame hangers. With a cover flaunting female empowerment and solidarity, 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.
But more than all that, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was a prompt for us to become vocal about female anatomy, sexuality, reproduction, childbirth and birth control, and for women to rely on each other for information. Many of us remember the book most for its somewhat shocking instructions on how to do a cervical self-exam using a speculum, flashlight and hand mirror.
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” grew out of a workshop at a 1969 women’s liberation conference, which led to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which in 1970 published a 193-page “booklet” made of stapled newsprint called “Women and Their Bodies.” By the next year, the book had found its real name. It has since grown to 928 pages, been updated several times and translated into 30 languages. Over the years, it has spawned special editions that deal with women’s life stages: adolescence, childbearing and menopause.
Joan Ditzion was 26 when she became a founding member of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. In the more than 45 years since, she has been a contributor to all nine editions of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” She became a geriatric social worker in 1985 and now focuses on issues of aging.
Ditzion spoke with Senior Planet by phone from her home in Cambridge, MA.
So, take us back to the late 60s, early 70s, and how the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective changed the discussion around women’s healthcare.
The idea was that women didn’t know. We didn’t know much about reproduction, we didn’t know much about sexuality. There was a lot of information out there that we really needed to learn about.
I was newly married and living in Washington, and I was at an anti-inaugural Nixon event where a group of women from Boston were saying, “We don’t want to just take notes and make coffee. We have ideas and we want to be part of the political process, and we’re starting a new movement.”
So a course was put together and I joined it, and it was an amazing experience. I can still remember sitting around in this circle of women, and there was a big picture of a vagina with anatomical detail. I had never in my life seen such a thing in a public place. We’d talk about clitoral orgasms and vaginal orgasms and masturbation, and it was like, oh wow!
Like many others, I had been socialized in the 50s to believe that as a woman, I was inferior to men, I was an object to please them. And this whole experience was like, Oh! 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.
It was an amazing time, and many years later it’s still amazing to us. 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.
What happened next?
We decided that we wanted to continue this course, to have women talking together, learning together and sharing life experiences. After a little time we decided that it would make sense 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.
So talk about the the intervening 45 years. Can you talk about how “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has touched other generations and how these other generations have responded?
One of the things that I’m 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.”
I guess for me the hope has always been that there would be intergenerational dialogue. It’s so important that the generations really work together. We’ve always been intergenerational—every book has had stories and voices of women of all ages, and that’s always been our message and vision.
Let’s fast forward to now. By the way, how old are you?
So let’s talk about your interest in aging and ageism.
I have been in geriatric social work since my 40s and I was also involved in my mother’s care in her final years —she lived till she was 90. We were very close, 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 began to hit me that I was happy to be aging, but I wasn’t being supported to age with purpose and passion and power. I really began to experience ageism personally.
I had realized firsthand what sexism was about—it was based on a social construction; it wasn’t a biological given—and now I saw ageism in the same way. 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.
And 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 that turns against old people, even though we all know that we will eventually get older ourselves.
Would you say that aging in our society is harder for women?
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 are. There’s 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.”
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 sexuality? Are we still sharing in any kind of organized or casual ways?
I really 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,” and it’s basically what we’ve been advocating for. We have to revive the consciousness-raising groups of the ’60s.
I think it’s even more necessary now because there’s no clear road. We have greater longevity, with possibly better health for a longer time. There’s no clear roadmap for this new normal. So 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. All of that. I think there’s a total need for it, because the stereotypes in our culture about aging are so limited and so off. And the fact of the matter is, I feel that we’re in a living lab, because we’re in an unprecedented demographic boom. And it’s not as if there are any experts out there who know. We’re all at a new stage of evolution in some sense. So I think it’s really important.
Can you talk about body image as a theme that goes through a woman’s life, starting with girlhood? Your boobs are too big or your boobs are too small, or your thighs hit each other, or whatever it is. What is it about body image that just won’t go away.
[Laughs] Well, we have our bodies our whole lives. I was recently part of a conversation where a woman was talking about raising her young daughter. When she looks in the mirror, she wants to get the girl to see her energy, her vitality, and not focus on her appearance in some objectified way. I think 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.
I think 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.
And the last question: what does aging with attitude mean to you?
Oh, aging with attitude means aging proudly and powerfully. 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 my last breath.