5 Writing 5 Writing

Writing together

Our Bodies, Ourselves was the first commercial publication of what had been a series of papers produced by a women’s health discussion group in Boston, Massachusetts. Since then, the text has evolved through several editions and multiple translations into other languages. Its first major revision, The New Our Bodies, Ourselves was produced in 1984 and went online in 1996; a second, Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century came out in 1998 and Our Bodies, Ourselves: a new edition for a new era in 2005.

A group of women had begun to meet to discuss women’s health in Boston in 1969, incorporating as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in 1972:

In the beginning we called ourselves ‘the doctors group’… the process of talking was as crucial as the facts themselves… [T]hat is reflected in the changing titles of… the book – from ‘Women and their bodies’, to ‘Women and our bodies’ to, finally, ‘Our bodies, ourselves’.

BWHBC, Our bodies, ourselves, preface, 1973

In this way, the production of the text changed and consolidated the identity of the group. The group was a function or product of the writing process to the same extent that the book was the product of a group process. The process of translation and adaptation then expanded its authorial identity even further:

We decided to continue using the pronoun ‘we’ throughout but, as the Boston women explain in their preface, this does not mean that we all agree with everything that has been written. ‘We’, therefore … refers to the collective experience of all the women who have worked on this book.

Angela Phillips and Jill Rakusen, ‘Preface to the UK edition’, 1978

By the early 1990s, it was recognized that the first (1976) Spanish translation had become dated, and a new direct translation of the 1992 (American) English edition was made. Different chapters were then rewritten by 20 women’s health groups in 11 countries from North, South and Central America and the Caribbean. Redrafts were edited in Boston, supported by an experienced medical translator. At this stage, changes made for the new 1998 US edition were also incorporated.

The production of Nuestros cuerpos, neustras vidas entailed framing the work differently, changing the order and conception of sections and chapters, rewriting introductions and providing an essentially new structure for the book. Substantive changes to several chapters, like the one on abortion, made them more appropriate to different socioeconomic and political conditions. New resource materials were included. Notably, the book’s title and cover were changed, their core terms recast, the English ‘selves’ becoming Spanish ‘lives’.

This is the more significant because the Spanish translation itself becomes a source for new versions of Our Bodies, Ourselves. The principal source for the Bulgarian edition, for example, seems to have been a backtranslation into English of the Spanish Nuestros cuerpos, neustras vidas. In this way, translations accumulate into a body of knowledge, a way of thinking and a form of expression characteristic of a set of texts and fully or definitively realised in no single one of them. Our Bodies, Ourselves is no longer a unique text, but an idea that frames an open and evolving system of cross-national communication. Its source or centre is increasingly elusive, its meaning emergent, continually reproduced, as are its communities of writers and readers.

For the often widely dispersed members of social and political movements, the document substitutes for a meeting which cannot otherwise take place. There is little distinction to be made between the formation and expansion of the movement and the (re)production and dissemination of the document.

Writing the grant

The period of time… was probably the most exciting part of my life – the whole process of the grant being put together… The grant was written in this building in the community room and it wasn’t heated… people slept in shifts, huddled, covered on the floor. Several nights we worked right through and every weekend… And the instruction the group was given was write the grant as though the money would come and you’ve got everything you want… We proceeded to do this in an all-night session at my house. I was the coordinator of the committee to make sure that they were working and getting the documents in, where we put it all together. Each committee was reported in, and we had a big blackboard…

Helen Schwartzman, The Meeting, 1989

BWHBC (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective) (1973) Our Bodies, Ourselves: A book by and for women, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; see also https://www.ourbodiesourselves.org, and Kathy Davis, The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: how feminism travels across borders, Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2007

The reflection on ‘writing the grant’ is from Helen Schwartzman’s, The Meeting, op cit, p 188