THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“My own consciousness has been raised in the last couple of years about the key role that residential segregation has played.”
Interviewed by Judith Waxman, April 2021
JW: Start with your full name and when and where you were born.
JN: Judy Norsigian. I was born in Brighton, Massachusetts at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts, right next to Boston.
JW: When was that?
JN: I was born in 1948 so I’m 73, almost. I lived in Watertown pretty much my whole career in elementary, high school, even for part of my college years. I lived a few miles away in Harvard Square, but my home was still on Charles River Road in Watertown.
JW: What was your childhood like?
JN: There was no consciousness at all about the women’s movement or anything that had been done earlier in the 20th century. My mother, however, was a woman who felt cheated out of what she wanted. She wanted to go to medical school, she grew up in an Armenian family where the father didn’t even want the females to speak. “Women should be seen and not heard.” She didn’t get to go to medical school, though she was valedictorian of her class and she played the violin and she was really smart.
She ended up becoming a lab technician and drawing blood, a phlebotomist, at Mass General Hospital for a few years before she took a train out to the West Coast and met my dad. I grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts. My father had escaped the Armenian genocide at the age of five, spent some time in Marseilles, came to Boston English High School when he was about 15. He knew Armenian and French and learned English pretty quickly and was a math wizard. Even though he got a scholarship to go to MIT, he had to work during the day and do night classes at Northeastern because his dad died and he had to support the family.
He and my mother raised a family of five kids in Watertown, Massachusetts. I was number two and I enjoyed a pretty happy childhood. I played the cello, I played sports, I had a great neighborhood life. My father was unusual in that at the age of 12 he gave me a copy of Marriage and Morals by Bertrand Russell. In the first few chapters it says that people shouldn’t get married till they live together first and know they’re well suited. Things like that were a little mind blowing for me as a 12-year-old. He said things like “You need to go to college and have a career because you’ll never know when you need to support yourself.” He was less concerned that I find a man to support me, although he assumed I would get married and have children.
We shared a love of mathematics, and I think he helped me to develop a really strong sense of self. My mother was in the League of Women Voters. When she was working on a couple of presidential campaigns, she had me tag along with her so I got a sense of her as civic-mindedness at an early age. She arranged my music lessons and went out skating on the Charles River with all the kids in the neighborhood. She was a pretty neat mom.
But I didn’t have any idea about racism until I was in eighth grade and a Black girl entered our class (her family was one of very few living in Watertown at that point). I was then a member of Rainbow Girls (part of the Masonic Order, which my father had only recently been allowed to join, when a WASP co-worker at Hood Rubber advocated for him). A few classmates and I said to her, “Oh, Thelma, you should join Rainbow Girls.” We had no idea that Black people were not allowed in Rainbow Girls nor any other Masonic Order group, and after we filled out the application with her and she was told she couldn’t join, a number of us were absolutely horrified.
We wrote a letter to the local leaders, and the (what we considered) “idiot” adults responded that “The rules were made in the South, we don’t make the rules up here.” We told them, “That’s a lousy excuse,” and most of us up and quit. But not all of the girls quit, and that’s when I saw the fault lines in relationships with some of my friends. There was one in particular who didn’t quit Rainbow Girls, and that was the beginning of a deep divide between us.
My father was totally supportive of our effort, though he himself did not quit the Masonic Order right away (I assume now that he needed those social connections for some reason). So this was my introduction to the kind of exclusionary practices that were widespread in the United States. I hadn’t seen it before because Black people had not yet moved into the Watertown area.
Another incident involved my sister, two years younger, who started to date a young teenage Black kid from Cambridge, Massachusetts. My aunt, who lived upstairs was horrified and would yell at my father, “How can you allow this?” (She was one of many in the Armenian community who held racist beliefs.) My father would tell her to mind her own business and go back upstairs, as he was comfortable with my sister dating this boy, as long as there was proper supervision (I think he viewed ALL teenage boys as “out to get sex” and also thought of my sister as overly interested in amorous adventures).
So we had to confront racism in our own family, and my father sometimes alluded to the larger problem of racism in our society as well. Another example comes to mind: While at rehearsal music camp week for the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra (where I played the cello), I met a young Kenyan man who was there as part of a separate group being sponsored by Boston University. We became friends during mealtimes, when the orchestra members mingled with others staying at the camp, and I invited him later to visit us at our home in the fall. My father was gracious and welcomed him, but my aunt upstairs threw another hissy fit. Such examples increased over time.
It was in college when I first thought more deeply about the civil rights movement, and about the anti-Vietnam and peace movement. I participated in the big Harvard strike and only because I got to Harvard Yard just after it had been cordoned off did I avoid the police brutality that took place that day at University Hall. (I had run back to my off-campus house for a babysitting commitment that the house parents no longer needed me for.)
Through all of this, I remained pretty ignorant of the feminist activity happening all around me. This tells you something about how insulated we can be, especially while buried in books studying. Even with my awareness about social justice, anti-war, and civil rights concerns, I was clueless about feminism. I began to get an inkling about gender roles and stereotyping much more when I was living communally on a farm after I graduated from college and lived in upstate New York.
It was through relationships at this commune and our meetings with folks on college campuses (sharing our experiences as an intentional community) that I became exposed to feminism. Plus, we were breaking down gender roles in our commune, where women were repairing cars, operating the farming equipment, and the men were doing child care and baking bread. This conscious breaking-down of sex roles and stereotypes was important to me, but I still didn’t know much about the huge women’s movement out there – and this was 1971.
I moved back to Boston in June or July of ’71 and was living communally again. One of the men in the commune was in a men’s group with Jane Pincus’ husband, Ed Pincus, a very well-known filmmaker who has since passed away. It was through that connection that I found out about this group of women called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (a fluid group not yet legally incorporated), and when I attended my very first meeting in Cambridge, I was deeply drawn to these extraordinary women. I kept going to meetings and felt right at home from the start.
Because I had been doing organic farming and gardening during my rural commune experience, I wanted to work on a new chapter about nutrition for the next edition of Our Bodies Ourselves and underscore how integral nutrition was to women’s physical well-being and strength. We called the chapter The Food We Eat, and that was my beginnings with the Collective in September 1971, when I became the youngest member of the group at that time.
Over time my interest in violence against women, reproductive health and reproductive justice, and other issues expanded. I look back now and recognize the serendipity of it all. I was so fortunate to meet these women at this point in my life.
The book first came out as a newsprint edition in December 1970, with the title “Women and Their Bodies” (changed to “Our Bodies, Ourselves” with the March 1971 printing). By January 1972, we made the decision to publish the next edition of the book with Simon and Schuster in order to reach a wider audience. We incorporated legally, we signed a contract in March of ’72, and the book came out in March of ’73 with Simon and Schuster.
So that’s my early connection to the group, and although I never had an abortion and didn’t have trouble getting birth control while in college, the issues we were discussing and writing about were clearly important. While a sophomore in college, when I needed contraception, someone told me to see Dr. Funkhouser, a kind, older obgyn in Harvard Square. He fitted me with a diaphragm and wasn’t bothered by my unmarried status, although it was still illegal for unmarried women to possess contraceptives then. (Even married couples didn’t secure the right to use contraceptives until 1965, with the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision.) I think his willingness to do so was related to his having something like five daughters.
JW: ’72 is the case that extended availability to birth control. I was one of those people who got the book as soon as it came out, I was in the DC area. I was always so attracted to the cover picture of the young women carrying signs, is there any story about that?
JN: I have the December 1970 edition, it wasn’t even called Our Bodies, Ourselves, it was called Women in Their Bodies. In March of ’71, the title, Our Bodies, Ourselves was adapted and notice that price, 30 cents.
JW: I didn’t realize that it was newsprint. I must have gotten the first Simon and Schuster edition.
JN: That’s right, that one was 1973, it had red letters.
JW: Yes, and it was revelatory, all the different chapters. I was in a consciousness raising group myself at that time and it gave us lots of food for thought.
JN: It’s fascinating to think about how things have changed over the last 50 plus years. Back then, there was NO information like that in Our Bodies, Ourselves readily available. We were all in the dark about so many things regarding our bodies. There was this incredible dearth, so it was such an awakening for all of us to read about these things, to share our experiences, to write them down.
Flash forward 50 years and the internet is flooded with stuff about all of these topics. Much of it is inaccurate, distorted, and even full of lies if it has to do with reproduction and abortion. You have to sift through a plethora of websites and information of all sorts to get at what we call the “good stuff.” High quality information – where the evidence is good and the language is clear – is not that readily available, especially for less sophisticated readers.
That’s one of the reasons why we’re so excited that Our Bodies, Ourselves Today is being launched at Suffolk University. Basically, it is a digital version of the book Our Bodies, Ourselves and will include concrete factual information grounded in women’s experiences, evidence-based advocacy, and a global perspective that will feature some of our longtime collaborators. We’re very excited that this curated digital platform will become widely available during 2022.
I hope it will advance advocacy in so many arenas. For example, it’s still a huge problem that most of what we call sexuality education is under local control. At the state level, you can sometimes mandate some level of comprehensive sex education, but local school authorities implement the specifics. Right now, there are so many abstinence-only curricula that purvey all kinds of misinformation. And this does so much damage.
I remember speaking to a professor at a medical school in Chicago a couple decades ago, when he noted that some medical students arrived there with such ignorance about things like condoms that they would get up in class and say “condoms will spread STIs, they’ll spread AIDS,” etc. And the professor would later learn that this misinformation came from an abstinence-only curriculum in high school. These students would then go through four years of college where this misinformation would not be corrected. It would take medical school to straighten them out.
That damage that we have seen over years and years of abstinence only sex ed is still continuing. That’s why we need so many of these other projects. SIECUS, the Sex Information and Education Council of the US, co-founded in 1964 by a wonderful visionary woman physician, Mary Calderone, is still supporting people at the local level who are struggling to get fact-based human sexuality education out there for young people. It is an enormous struggle, now as much as before.
JW: What was your role at Our Bodies, Ourselves over the year, did it change?
JN: In the beginning we were largely a group of volunteers. We were a collective that initially tried to make all our decisions by consensus. We did pay a few individuals for their work, and eventually we created a more traditional nonprofit model where a board of directors governed an organization with a paid staff of up to about 10 women. Many founders have served on the board at various points, and after several models of management were employed, a more conventional executive director model was adopted around 2001.
The transition to a community-based board of directors (with more conventional oversight of staff functions) was urged by some of our major funders like the Ford Foundation. They didn’t approve of a worker-controlled collective that didn’t have the degree of accountability and oversight offered by a community board of directors. As OBOS moved to that model, there were almost always a couple of original OBOS founders on the board.
Over time, the board included women from other parts of the world. And three men, one of them from Chile, also served as board members (not at the same time). The board began to have virtual meetings well before the pandemic began (partly due to major commuting challenges – some even local – facing some board members). Online Zoom meetings have been the primary mode of gathering for the past few years, with a few in-person gatherings during times when Covid-19 rates were quite low. The fun part of online meetings is that we occasionally get to see babies and children on screen. (And for mothers with sleeping babies, a Zoom meeting often enables participation for at least a portion of the meeting.)
Back in the early 1970s, I was one of the people who worked part-time for OBOS. I was not one of the first coordinators – the late Esther Rome took on that major role, coordinating with Simon and Schuster for their first 1973 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. At that point I was in my mid-20s and working with another young man as co-director of a teen center in Cambridge, MA. It was funded by the U.S. LEAA (Law Enforcement Assistance Administration), which had begun a program focused on “juvenile delinquency prevention.” We used our funding to create a teen center.
As I worked with teenagers in the Cambridge area, I introduced some rap sessions focused on sexuality education. These drew on my new knowledge gained as part of the OBOS group (then called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective). After a year or two I moved on to doing other things: I had learned a lot about auto mechanics when I lived communally the year after graduating from college, so I taught auto mechanics for women at the local YWCA in Cambridge. Back then, you didn’t need computers to do basic auto repairs, and simple tune-ups were a doable DIY task for many.
I got gradually more involved as a paid part time staff member at OBOS. We initially paid ourselves four dollars an hour, and we saw women’s volunteerism as a problem. Over the years, we’ve had a mix of paid personnel and volunteers who didn’t need the money and said use it for something else (for example, a group of low-income women working on a community project).
During the latter part of the ’70s I began to work more and more for OBOS and ultimately became a full-time staff member. During the years when we had various models of management, I was never an administrative director. I was mainly involved in programmatic issues. There were a number of seismic moments in the organization, some of these chronicled at the timeline posted at our website.
In 2001, I became the first executive director of the organization. We were somewhat downsized at that point and operating out of free space donated by the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). This was a great opportunity to get back on our feet. We’ve always had a close relationship with the BUSPH, especially with some of the faculty. George Annas, for example, had created a landmark patients’ Bill of Rights that we adapted for inclusion in an early edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. He mentored us for decades in our work around genetics and other health law issues pertaining to reproduction, along with Professors Leonard Glantz, Gene Declercq, Patricia (Winnie) Roche, and a few dozen other faculty members there.
In April 2021, one of our big 50th anniversary Zoom events was hosted by the Boston University School of Public Health and introduced by Dean Sandro Galea (https://www.bu.edu/sph/conversations/uncategorized/the-womens-health-movement-celebrating-50-years-of-our-bodies-ourselves/). Our relationship to BUSPH continues to be strong.
I stepped down as OBOS executive director at the end of 2014, because I became increasingly alarmed about climate change and wanted to volunteer more in that sphere. I also thought it was important to “pass on the torch” to younger leadership at OBOS. At that point, a somewhat successful fundraising effort enabled OBOS to hire this wonderful new executive director named Julie Childers who worked with the organization for a couple of years. Because sufficient funding was not ultimately secured to maintain the organization, a large meeting of board, staff, and founders met to determine next steps.
We decided in 2016 that OBOS would morph into a volunteer driven model. There were two board chairs until mid-2018, when I became board chair, a few months before our last part-time staff person departed. The transition to a largely volunteer driven nonprofit with no staff was possible because we did retain a few key paid consultants quite familiar with the organization and also had excellent volunteer help. A few multi-year grants have provided key support as well. For almost four years we have been functioning this way and I hope soon to pass the chair role to another board member.
Some of our close colleagues have been heavy lifters on some of the projects that continue to advance reproductive justice and other important issues for OBOS. We sometimes provide a supportive role: writing a letter; weighing in as asked to; signing on to amicus briefs; etc., but we’re not the lead organization as we used to be in the past.
One project that we created ourselves from the ground up – www.surrogacy360.org – is now managed by the Center for Genetics and Society, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that is still one of our closest colleagues. This website addresses the health and human rights issues for all parties involved in surrogacy arrangements. These include the concerns of gestational mothers, the health risks for younger women who provide eggs for research or procreation (both for others as well as themselves, if they employ egg freezing), and the challenges facing intended parents.
For example, most young women have no idea that we have no long-term safety data regarding multiple egg extraction, and that many women have experienced harms as a result of hyper-stimulating their ovaries to produce multiple follicles. Even though we are more limited in what we can do now, we hope to continue educational efforts in this arena.
So in some sense, OBOS is in a kind of “holding pattern” now. The future might include a merger with a larger organization, but at the present, it is feasible to continue our limited support of women’s groups in other countries that produce translation/adaptations of Our Bodies, Ourselves as well as some advocacy work. The partnership with Suffolk University could well grow, for example, to include support for our global partners producing foreign language resources based upon “OBOS.”
Recent examples of such book projects include the new “Notre Corps, Nous-Memes” (produced in France), “Nossos corpos por nós mesmas” (produced in Brazil), and “Corps accord: Guide de sexualité positive” (produced in Montreal, Canada). The new edition in France brought together younger feminists with a few of the older women who translated the first edition of “Notre Corps, Nous-Memes” back in the 1970s. Women in Morocco are working on a project, and women in Senegal will soon start an updated revision of Notre Corps, Notre Sante” for French-speaking women in West Africa. If we can help find funding, there is a group of women in Uganda who could produce a new Acholi edition (similar to the one in Lugandan). So the possibilities continue.
We just learned that the women in Brazil will be combining all three volumes of their new book into one printed volume and plan to self-publish. This will enable all the content to be made available online as well for Portuguese-speaking women everywhere. A generous donor helped OBOS support this exciting project, which is described in more detail at our website.
One of our board members, Diana Namumbejja Abwoye, produced the Luganda edition for women in Uganda a few years back. She hopes to see more material translated and adapted into Luganda, as well as an Acholi version of the book I just mentioned. In some cases, women were never able to finish their projects (for example, in Turkey, where Mavi Kalem has been immersed in other important work since embarking upon the Turkish OBOS edition more than a decade ago).
JW: I do want to go back to one thing. You said over time you had dramatic changes. I wanted to get a little into the substance of the book. Obviously your first edition was very basic — chapters on how your body works, things you should know. But you did change over the years and one thing I’m thinking of is when a book came out for older women, if you can talk about the evolution of the thinking of what the chapter should be or the focus should be?
JN: In Our Bodies, Ourselves, we began to add topics with every edition. We didn’t have menopause in that first newsprint edition, for example. We also had a chapter on rape in the first book, but we expanded it later into a chapter titled “Violence Against Women” and included sexual harassment, sexual assault of any kind, domestic violence, etc. The topic of violence against women is so broad, but initially we addressed primarily rape.
We also didn’t have a chapter on women and the environment in the first editions. We started to talk much more about the environment, particularly toxins that had deleterious effects on reproductive health – not just female reproductive health, but male reproductive health as well. We then started to include a focus on the environment in pretty much all subsequent editions.
We also expanded content on topics like women and diabetes, and women and heart health throughout the 90s and even with the 2005 edition. The 2011 edition focused exclusively on reproductive health and justice across the lifespan. This included a completely revised chapter on the perimenopause, but it didn’t include a lot of content of relevance to older women well past the perimenopause.
Let me go back and describe the genesis of a few other OBOS publications. After the first two Simon & Schuster editions (1973 and 1976, with the red and green letters on the covers), people approached the group and said that a book like “OBOS” was needed for parents. Yes, we need to demystify our bodies but what about parenting? What about the need for child care, shared child rearing, more sharing of household tasks, etc.? That led to the book Ourselves and Our Children (Random House, 1978). Then OBOS co-founder Ruth Bell and a few other colleagues produced a book for teenagers: Changing Bodies, Changing Lives (1980). OBOS co-founder Paula Doress-Worters and Diana Laskin Siegal then produced Ourselves, Growing Older (Simon & Schuster, 1987, 1994). This was welcomed by so many older women, of course, and is a book that definitely needs revision for older women today.
OBOS also did two single topic books: Our Bodies, Ourselves Menopause (2006) and Our Bodies, Ourselves Pregnancy and Birth (2008). Although both editions are somewhat out of date, they still contain valuable information and are read by many women still. The self-help techniques remain useful, and the menopause book contained important cautions about estrogen use even before the results of the Women’s Health Initiative results were widely disseminated.
We’ve since produced a lot of good information at our website. Occasionally, we have inspired other women to create valuable websites as well, for example www.WomenLivingBetter.org (managed by Nina Coslov, with help from a talented group of advisers). She has produced what might well be the best current resource on the perimenopause, and we are proud to promote her work. (We helped get sections translated into Armenian and Spanish, for example.) Because so many gynecologists are still largely misinformed about the perimenopause, particularly the early perimenopause, this website is invaluable for women coping with early perimenopausal problems.
Every time we learn of a valuable website like this one, we are pleased to promote it, make sure that Our Bodies, Ourselves Today includes it in their curated materials, and in this way help advance the work we no longer do in a day to day fashion.
JW: That’s wonderful. Do you have anything you want to add?
JN: One of the things that has excited me a great deal in the last year or two has been the number of women who are reproductive justice activists, who have woven in all the themes that surround our bodies and what we need to know: menstruation, giving birth, dealing with birth control, abortion. They’ve woven that into our growing consciousness about the legacy of slavery, the need for reparations, the need to find creative ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and so forth.
Black Lives Matter has produced a sea change in consciousness among so many. More of us now work to fight voter disenfranchisement, to block the awful voter suppression that’s happening across the country right now. We can be a nonprofit in any space – women’s health, working with teens, it doesn’t matter – and we can teach civic engagement, make sure that this is a priority as well. I am pleased to see more emphasis on voting rights and ways that people can be more engaged with setting public policies. This will be key to fighting the institutional racism that is still so prevalent, in fighting centuries of the legacy of slavery. How we offer health services, fight discrimination in all its forms, set up public safety services, support families struggling to make ends meet – all of this requires major collective effort with all relevant stakeholders at the table from the start.
We still have a long way to go in addressing gender-based violence, for example, but progress is visible – with police departments and other members of law enforcement, the courts, and other institutions that must protect our human rights. We also need to step back and think more carefully about whether incarceration of men who are perpetrators is always the best thing to pursue given what happens with our carceral system. What other approaches could be tried? This is where an intersectional approach could be invaluable.
The work of Barbara Arnwine and those at the Transformative Justice Coalition, the work of Kimberle Crenshaw at Under the Black Light (part of the African American Policy Forum), and the efforts of so many others give me hope, even with all the setbacks we have faced. Working on racial injustices has to be at the forefront of all we do now, whether it’s housing segregation or other areas where progress has been so slow.
My own consciousness has been raised in the last couple of years about the key role that residential segregation has played (for example, how zoning laws have perpetuated a kind of residential apartheid). Changing these zoning laws will not be easy, but it’s work we must do. And denser housing may be needed for environmental reasons, including environmental justice.
We can do so much to advance affordable housing and more diverse neighborhoods, as some municipalities already have done. I am sometimes surprised by feminists and other progressives who don’t see the central importance of ending housing segregation, but I am also encouraged by the many activists now working on this problem. As our communities become more diverse, I believe that we will better deal with many of the health, education, and employment problems before us.