Our Bodies Ourselves’ Judy Norsigian: Activist, Educator

Judy Norsigian
Our Bodies Ourselves' Judy Norsigian

In 1969, women met at a women’s liberation conference at Emanuel College in Boston. By sharing their stories and helping one another seek answers to the many questions they had, they had their collective consciousness raised about the sorry, unenlightened state of women’s reproductive health care. They vowed to keep meeting, and each picked a topic to research and bring back to the group, to be augmented by their own and other women’s personal experiences of reproductive health, routine procedures, illness and dealing with doctors (92 percent of whom were male at the time). This was the beginning of the phenomenon now known as Our Bodies Ourselves, a book first published in 1970 as a 75 cent newsprint edition under the name Women and Their Bodies by the New England Free Press. The authors — the Boston Women’s Health Collective — saw the book sell 250,000 copies in the next couple years, after which it was published by Simon & Schuster in 1973. Today, more than 500,000 people a month visit the Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS) website, and the book has been translated into 30 languages. Considered a seminal text on women’s health, the Library of Congress in 2012 ranked it as one of the 88 books that shaped America. The book has a featured role in the film, 20th Century Women, and the producers offered free screenings for friends and supporters of Our Bodies Ourselves.

Our Bodies, OurselvesJudy Norsigian joined the group in 1971, shortly before they incorporated, and has been an author and sometimes editor for each of the nine editions. She is an internationally renowned speaker and author on a range of women’s health concerns. Norsigian officially left her post as Executive Director of OBOS in 2015 after 14 years. She continues to volunteer for the organization to help with fundraising and outreach for several current projects.

Judy Norsigian spent a good deal of her time answering the questions below.  I can’t overstate the joy and significance, for me, of talking to Norsigian as she and her colleagues were anticipating a large OBOS contingent for the Boston Women’s March on January 21st.

Betsyann Faiella: What is your plan now that you no longer have the day to day responsibilities of being the Executive Director of an iconic non-profit?

OBOS Women's March
OBOS at the Women’s March 2017

Judy Norsigian: Well, I had a plan to devote most of my time to climate change and to start playing my cello more. However, with the current political climate, I am getting involved in a number of different efforts related to stopping sexual violence, reversing voter suppression, causes in Armenia and supporting Community Works, a Boston-based coalition that raises funds through payroll deduction charitable giving programs. I am also learning more about how Title IX might protect more high school and college students from sexual violence in their schools.

BF: What led you to reconsider and bifurcate your focus?

JN: In a word, the election results. For example, I expect to see a spike in school-based sexual harassment and violence because there will be more young men who may perceive a freedom to grope that Trump seems to have unleashed. We need more positive male role models and community leaders to step up to the plate and be part of the solution to ending gender-based violence — much like the Massachusetts White Ribbon Day campaign does in my own state. When young people live with fear of violence, it affects everything else in their lives, of course. That’s why I support efforts to engage men and boys in violence prevention and will encourage more men to attend the 10th annual White Ribbon Day at the historic Faneuil Hall in Boston on March 1.

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BF: What makes climate change a women’s issue?

JN: Obviously, this ought to be everyone’s concern, but I see women serving as a unique moral compass in many communities, and women are often quite skilled at mobilizing others to take action. In less industrialized countries, women take more of the brunt of climate change, often doing triple duty. They are usually the ones who have to gather water and food for the family, protect children during climate-related disasters and deal with diseases on the rise as a result of climate change. These hardships make it less likely that women will have time to improve education or work on other critical matters.

BF: Can attention to climate change be accomplished at a grass roots level?

I support efforts to engage men and boys in violence prevention.

JN: There are things that can be done at a more local level to mitigate the effects of climate change, and some mayors across the country are developing innovative projects to educate people about things like receding shores and new weather patterns that threaten agriculture and other important activities. We can join in on these efforts and educate others who have been misinformed about what’s really going on with climate change.

BF: Whom are you working with on climate change?

JN: I am beginning to get more active with 350.org and Mothers out Front, both of which have local affiliates in my own city of Newton. Mothers Out Front is currently active in four states, and after the election, they received calls from all over the country seeking help with developing more local chapters. Both groups have good websites, use social media well and address such issues as clean/renewable energy, energy conservation, carbon taxes and halting fracking. They engage people to contact policy makers such as governors and state legislators. I also have worked on divestment issues with classmates and other alumni from Radcliffe and Harvard. [Norsigian is a Radcliffe alumna.] For my 45th college reunion in 2015, I helped to organize a panel discussion on climate change for one of our symposia and believe that it stimulated an ongoing dialogue for many who attended. Some of us subsequently supported some students involved in civil disobedience, when they attempted a sit-in at the Harvard Management Corporation offices and later had to go to court.

BF: What is on your mind about advocacy?

JN: What we do post-election to make sure our voices are heard, how we can preserve our democracy now under attack in so many different ways. I am particularly interested in finding new ways to involve more people in the vital work of small, non-profit grassroots groups like Community Works, where I have served on the board since its inception 35 years ago. Fundraising, of course, is always a big piece of this work. For the near future at least, our successes are more likely to be at the local level, and then, when we see the pendulum swing, hopefully with the mid-term elections, more work at the national level can be fruitful.

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BF: What are your international associations?

Local work with grassroots orgs is vital.

JN: I am Armenian and it’s my father’s and grandparents’ homeland, so I feel very connected to feminists there. I’ve been working for more than 20 years with the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA), helped to organize some of our conferences and plan to be at a major empowerment conference for women and girls in Yerevan in April 2017. I am especially interested in supporting beginning efforts to engage men and boys in violence prevention. Armenia has pretty high literacy rates (though these have fallen in some places) and less serious hunger problems than in many other parts of the world, but the country has an enormous problem with male over-entitlement and a tremendous amount of gender-based violence, especially towards women. There have been incidents of men killing their wives and then still expecting to avoid any prison sentences because they were “justified” — an attitude that sometimes even drew support from members of the judiciary. Creation of a civil society, especially with the additional pressures from Russia to reject policies that would support gender equity, has been a major challenge in Armenia, and AIWA supports projects like the Women Support Center (WSC) in Yerevan to help promote the social change we seek there. The WSC has opened the first shelter for battered women in the country that follows best practices and is now seeking to open a second shelter. It also conducts community education and works with the police, legislators and media to reduce violence against women.

The Women’s Leadership Project in cooperation with the American University of Armenia (AUA) is another project that AIWA helped to start. For me, the AUA is like a beacon of light and has become a major force for civil society in the country. Speaking with students there has been inspiriting for me, and I have arranged for thousands of books about health, women and gender studies to be sent to the AUA library via a special program that provided free shipping for both books and medical supplies.

BF: How surprised were you at the election results?

JN: I wasn’t blindsided, because in some of my own family and friendship circles, I was well aware of how potent and profound the anti-Hillary factor was. I also think some of the people who ran her campaign made serious errors. Voter disenfranchisement played a great role, too. If you read articles by Greg Palast, one gets a more detailed picture of just how many legitimate votes were thrown out, especially in a few of those critical swing states. A strong case can be made for this having been a “stolen” election. Possibly, Hillary would have won without such widespread malfeasance. I think the media distortions were part of the problem, too. Our country may pay dearly for all of this anti-Hilary sentiment.

BF: Are you familiar with relatively new field of Narrative Medicine? The OBOS emphasis on narrative was prescient.

JN: Yes. This is a good moment to mention some terrific books that analyze the narrative style of OBOS: The Making of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” by Kathy Davis, Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave by Wendy Kline and “Our Bodies, Ourselves”: Reading the Written Body by Susan Wells.

BF: Has the focus of OBOS changed over the years?

The cover of the 1973 edition.
The cover of the 1973 edition.

JN: The biggest change was about a decade ago, when OBOS decided to emphasize women’s reproductive health and rights across the life span rather than all women and health issues. The focus is still broad and includes topics like the peri-menopause, health care reform, the environment and violence, as these all have connections to reproductive health, rights and justice.

Since many foundations don’t support groups that explicitly work on abortion, as OBOS does, that has made fundraising somewhat harder for OBOS. OBOS has also taken on an area that is not addressed by most reproductive health and rights groups — cross boarder commercial surrogacy. OBOS has partnered with a few other groups to help better educate the public about this multi-billion dollar industry, its intersection with the widespread and misleading marketing for young women as so-called “egg donors,” and related issues such as egg freezing (where women freeze their eggs for future use in assisted reproductive technology procedures). Amongst important human rights concerns raised by commercial surrogacy arrangements are extreme constraints on a gestational mother/surrogate living arrangements and requirements to undergo a cesarean section as the mode of delivery when giving birth. OBOS has created a unique website designed for people considering surrogacy arrangements — Surrogacy360.org — and recent funding will allow OBOS to expand this work further.

BF: What are some things that give you hope?

JN: The higher likelihood of local victories, even as we struggle more at the national level. For instance, we have so many progressive people in office here in Massachusetts. There is also a rumor that our incredible Attorney General — Maura Healey — may run for governor. She is someone who already has demonstrated extraordinary leadership, and there are many of us who would work hard for her. She may be the one person who could go up against our current governor, who is quite popular himself. She’s brilliant, articulate, has about an 86 percent positive rating and has built a strong team. She’d also be our first woman and first gay person to be governor.

I’m also greatly encouraged by all the activism I see on college campuses and even in high school. Impressive young leaders are emerging, and this is always hopeful. Very often, they take on difficult issues, as did this 12th grade high school student who recently blogged for OBOS about sexual violence in our schools.

If we give up on all these causes, then we may sentence our children and future generations to an earlier doomsday. I feel this way especially about climate change. Pessimism is easy to feel about so many things, and I do get pessimistic at times. But I can’t linger there too long, as I don’t want to sink into paralysis either. For me, working with others has offered the best antidote to giving up, and finding ways to play AND work together makes it easier to hang in there for the long haul ahead.