Forty years ago, a book came out that changed women’s health forever. Our Bodies, Ourselves (Touchstone) was published in 1971 in an era when women were just beginning to step out of the roles that had defined them for centuries. In 1971, birth control pills had only been around for a decade and were available primarily to married women, often only if she had her husband’s permission. Natural childbirth was just coming into vogue. Fathers weren’t allowed in most American delivery rooms. Breastfeeding was considered a bold, controversial choice and breastfeeding in public was unheard of. Midwives weren’t allowed to practice in hospitals and those that attended home births could be prosecuted and jailed. About 90 percent of doctors were men and the chances you’d find a female obstetrician to deliver your baby was slim to none. Rowe versus Wade wasn’t the law of the land yet so abortion was still illegal in many parts of the US. The c-section rate in 1971 was only about five percent. Women spent about a week in the hospital after having a baby.
Our Bodies, Ourselves was the kind of book most girls weren’t allowed to read - a plain brown wrapper kind of book. If it found it’s way into a girl’s or young woman’s home, it was hidden like Playboy behind canned goods or the top shelf of the closet. There were chapters about all kinds of shocking subjects like abortion, masturbation and birth control. There were graphic pictures depicting childbirth and stories from women whose doctors preferred to discuss their health concerns with their husbands instead of with them. I remember one chapter about sexually transmitted diseases that said if a woman went to the doctor and he diagnosed her with gonorrhea, the doctor told her husband, not the woman. I remember wondering, “but she probably got infected by her husband. What if he doesn’t tell her?”
I grew up in Los Angeles, the youngest of eight children born to Catholic parents. My siblings were mostly grown adults by the time I reached adolescence. That meant my sexual education had a split personality – equal parts Catholic dogma (which outlawed contraception and abortion and sexuality outside of marriage) taught by my mother and hippie-chick-feminism demonstrated by my sisters and sisters-in-law who lived in communes, had lovers and were on the pill. When Our Bodies, Ourselves showed up on the coffee table in one of their homes, I viewed it as a contraband textbook that I had to study. This was stuff I needed to know; important stuff I certainly wasn’t going to learn in a Catholic school science class.
The chapters on sexuality were fascinating, titillating, and magnetizing for every adolescent who got their hands on the book, but the chapters on childbirth were the ones I studied. That’s because several of my siblings were having babies and each one was bucking the standard medical trends of the times. One sister was among the first in the maternity unit to ever use Lamaze techniques during labor. She was treated like an unreasonable, uncooperative patient because she insisted on using breathing and relaxation techniques instead of her doctor’s anesthesia. She had the nerve to demand that her husband stay by her side.
My brother’s baby was born at home because his wife didn’t like the way she was treated by a condescending, over-controlling obstetrician who bullied her. Instead, she found an old doctor who still attended home deliveries, one of the only female obstetricians in Los Angeles. My sister-in-law had her baby safely, surrounded by family and friends, myself included. That was the first birth I ever saw.
That was then, this is now. Abortion is legal, birth control is readily available, breastfeeding is normal and natural childbirth is encouraged. Women outnumber men in medical schools and finding a female obstetrician or a midwife to deliver your baby is a piece of cake. Was Our Bodies, Ourselves responsible for turning the tides that gave women control over their own health care? I’d argue it was a key and critical factor that changed the landscape for women’s health all over the world forever. It gave women a voice and information they couldn’t get anywhere else, certainly not from their doctors. Remember, this was before the Internet, before Planned Parenthood and before books about sex, pregnancy and breastfeeding filled shelf after shelf of every bookstore. Back in 1971, this book was banned in most schools, condemned by many religions and considered pornography by leading medical authorities. This book, which educated women about their own health was a major threat because it provided the power for women to gain control of their own healthcare experience.
We’ve come a long way since 1971, but it hasn’t been easy travel and we still have a long way to go. It’s still 1971 in many parts of the developing world where women can’t access healthcare without their husband’s permission. They can’t get birth control. Abortion is still illegal, but just like here in the US before Rowe versus Wade, it’s also still done, performed in dangerous conditions that cost women their lives. Women’s health in America isn’t completely rosy either. Our c-section rate is still rising (now 34 percent), healthcare is unaffordable and inaccessible for many women and infant and maternal mortality rates are outrageously high. It’s time for another book that tells the story of women’s health in 2011 like it really is. Yeah, we’ve come a long way, baby, but we have a long, long way to go.
Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org and it may be answered in a future blog post.
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