The unparalleled success of the Boston Women’s Health Collective

The unparalleled success of the Boston Women’s Health Collective

Mike Selby

It was in the fall of 1970 when a small 35-cent booklet appeared for sale at a college in Boston. It was the brainchild of a handful of women who had met the year before at a women’s liberation conference.

This particular group formed because they all shared the same “doctor story”—their gynecologists and obstetricians treated them with patronizing superiority and disdain. More importantly, the women were never able to get helpful information from their physicians. This had to change.

Calling themselves the Doctor’s Group, the women spent most of 1969 collating information, conducting questionnaires, and interviewing health professionals. They printed their findings on inexpensive newsprint, and took turns stapling each booklet by hand. Running just under 200 pages, they titled their work ‘Women and Their Bodies: A Course.’

They also changed their name from the Doctor’s Group to the Boston Women’s Health Collective.

A price of 75-cents was mistakenly printed on the cover, as they only charged 35 cents per copy.

No one had ever seen anything like it. The women had put together one of the most open and frank books on women’s health issues ever published, discussing topics such as menstruation, sexuality, and even abortion (which was a criminal offense at the time.) Word of mouth and an ad placed in the counterculture Whole Earth Catalog (which wasn’t really a catalog), had the Boston Women’s Health Collective churning out 200,000 copies.

This caught the eye of the New England Free Press, who offered to put out a second edition. They raised the price to 40 cents, and changed the title. It was now called ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves.’

This second edition became one of the most important and influential books of the 20th century. It was reviewed in the New York Times by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (a man) who praised the book and urged other men to read it. Simon & Schuster took over publishing in 1973, helping it to be translated into 31 languages and selling 4 million editions. (Not everyone liked it: Jerry Falwell called it “immoral trash.”)

The book itself has gone through countless updates, and also has spinoffs, including ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves Menopause,’ and ‘Our Bodies Ourselves Pregnancy & Birth.’ The last major update of the original edition was in 2011.

And now it turns out the 2011 edition will be the last.

The Boston Women’s Health Collective can no longer afford to produce a print edition. They are going online only, with a web presence run by a handful of volunteers working out their homes. What went wrong?

The sales in the millions are no longer there, with a 2015 royalty statement of only $3,618. With each new edition (which involves the consultation with 300 health experts) costing $250,000 to produce, and all previous profits being donated to women’s causes, it became painfully obvious why the print edition had to be cancelled.

What went right?

Declining sales are a direct result to the unparalleled success of the Boston Women’s Health Collective. 48 years and 11 editions have successfully removed the stigma and shame of female health and sexuality, so much so that numerous other books, trustworthy websites, and new generations of physicians have made ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ no longer the only place to find information.

Of the Library of Congress’ “88 Books That Shaped America,” ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ remains one of the highest. Its legacy is incalculable.

Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library