Wells, Susan. Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Work of Writing. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010. Print.

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Summary:

In this book, Susan Wells looks at the work that went into producing various editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves between 1970 and 1984. Wells’s work in the book draws on archival research and interviews with women involved with the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective during the period in question, and traces the ways in which the New Left and the Women’s movements each function as important literacy sponsors in the work of the collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves is a significant work because it was one of the first major texts written about women’s health, and because it was one of the first to apply a specifically feminist political frame to thinking about women’s health. As Wells explains, the book is also significant because the collective was able to move the book from being produced in an independent, New Left publishing house to a major publisher while maintaining the political aims of the book. Ultimately, Wells argues that the book is also distinctive because of the way the book was written, produced and circulated by the collective.

While Wells’ analysis of the production of Our Bodies, Ourselves necessarily traces some of the history of the collective, her analysis is ultimately focused on what the text of Our Bodies, Ourselves does as a feminist intervention into discussions of women’s health and on the specific strategies and practices the collective employed to produce the text. Wells argues that there are three distinctive textual strategies at work in Our Bodies, Ourselves, and she fleshes these strategies out in greater detail in the books’ chapters. These textual strategies include:

  • Distributed authorship: The book is not merely a collaboration between members of the collective, but also included experts and readers as collaborators. Above all, the collective as a whole maintained ownership of the text.
  • The text breaches its own frame: The text invites the reader in as an agent and as a researcher, including narratives of women’s experience alongside more traditionally scientific information about women’s bodies. The reader is hailed by a collective “we” that simultaneously invokes a strategic essentialism while also creating a sense of a diverse and varied “we” with very different experiences of the body.
  • The body is invoked throughout the text as “reafferent”: Reafference refers to “the sensation of touching, viewing, or otherwise manipulating one’s own body” (12). Rather than a traditional patient-doctor model where knowledge of the body is passed from the top down, the text of Our Bodies, Ourselves encourages self-exploration as a way of establishing a sense of agency and autonomy with regard to one’s health.

Select Quotes:

“The writers of Our Bodies, Ourselves imagined the book as part of a conversation that was both intimate—the reader, book in hand, would look into a mirror at her genitals—and consequential—the book would provoke political organization and activity.” (100)

“Autonomy would not come easily; women were urged to decide things for themselves, but they were also warned that real choices could only be secured through collective action.” (109)

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