Feminist novelist Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” called for her Twitter followers to “come up with substitute words for the seven forbiddens.” Suggestions immediately flowed in by the dozens, some of the most striking for the word “fetus.” One of the favorites: “tummyling.” Others include “wombfiller,” “non-viable pre-human cellular group,” “parasitoid larva,” “clump of cells,” “protohumanoid” and “wannabebaby.”
But other Atwood followers, perhaps feeling a bit less playful, stressed the importance of embracing the forbidden words. “I refuse,” wrote a literature instructor, who teaches her students that “words have power. Words mean things.”
And they do.
For women, in particular, such a battle over words, particularly those linked to reproduction, has been part of the longer historical struggle to reclaim knowledge of and power over their bodies. Efforts to ban words such as “fetus” attack the agenda of women’s health activists, who have challenged the language surrounding these issues to increase women’s control over their own bodies.
Since the 1970s, feminists have used the power of the written word to demand bodily rights — birth control, abortion, freedom from coercive sterilization, choices in childbirth — as part of their quest to achieve full equality. The banned words don’t just try to silence women, they attempt to dismantle these feminist gains.
Women’s health first emerged as a major social and political issue in the turbulent late 1960s. Women inspired by the civil rights movement and its demand for equal citizenship created a new wave of feminist activism. At the core of this activism was asserting that the most private, personal aspects of their identity — relationships, sexuality, health and family life — were political. In other words, personal experiences rooted in sexism could be channeled into “consciousness-raising,” a form of political action designed to elicit discussion about such topics as women’s relationships, their roles in marriage and their feelings about childbearing.
Ideas and personal stories began to unite a broad range of women who came to identify themselves as feminists. Sharing stories became, by the end of the 1960s, a strategy for creating change. Women’s liberation conferences sprang up across the country to create consciousness-raising experiences for women to explore political aspects of personal life.
In May 1969, Emmanuel College in Boston hosted one of these female liberation conferences. But this one was different. It featured a two-hour workshop on Sunday afternoon, called “women and their bodies.” The 12 participants, some of whom had never before been in any kind of women’s group, spent their time sharing frustrating and enraging stories about bad experiences with their obstetrician-gynecologists.
They resolved to continue meeting after the conference, calling themselves the “doctor’s group,” with the idea that they would create a list of “reasonable” OB-GYNs in the Boston area. (By reasonable, they meant doctors who listened to the patient, respected her opinions, and explained procedures and medications.)
They quickly discovered, however, that they were unable to put together such a list — and, more important, that the women who attended the workshop shared a desire to learn as much as possible about their bodies and their health. So they decided on a summer project.
Each member would research a topic of personal importance about their bodies and bring the information back to the group. Members then shared their experiences and research related to this topic with the group. By incorporating personal experiences into the medical narrative, they began the process of transforming medical knowledge into something political and empowering.
Ultimately, this group, calling themselves the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, wrote the first comprehensive health manual for women, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” This was a book “by women, for women,” they explained. Long before the Internet, this book provided women with information about their bodies that was difficult to find elsewhere. “I think that I learned more about my anatomy than I had ever known,” one reader recalled. As of fall 2017, the book has been adapted into 31 languages and sold over 4 million copies.
More than just a source of information, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” challenged the male-dominated medical establishment by taking control of the narrative surrounding women’s bodies. Female bodies, argued health feminists, had been subjected to male medical authority; 93 percent of physicians were male in 1970 and, according to critics, they were paternalistic, condescending and judgmental.
By valuing women’s personal stories, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” legitimized the notion of experiential knowledge as a central component of health — the idea that every woman’s body contained the seeds of knowledge crucial to defining her own well-being. The well-informed female patient could therefore become an active consumer in the healthcare industry rather than a passive recipient.
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” was both a practical guide and a theoretical tool; an encyclopedia of information about women’s health, and also a dictionary that introduced a new vocabulary to define women’s health. Suddenly, women’s individual experiences mattered as much as clinical research. The book provided the tools for women to challenge medical decision-making and to seek alternative structures of care based on the notion of experiential knowledge.
And it dramatically altered readers’ understanding of their own bodies, as well as their relationships with their doctors. “I immediately sat and read through the book and felt a shift in my worldview,” recalls feminist historian Estelle Freedman. Her comment reflected the feelings of a generation.
And yet, such a profound shift in worldview was met with resistance, both within organized medicine and the political structure. Initial optimism that change would happen overnight dissipated as it became clear that the battle would outlast the decade, and even the century.
In the fall of 2013, the Our Bodies, Ourselves organization launched “education congress,” a campaign to ensure that all members of Congress received a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” after former representative Todd Akin’s infamous claims about “legitimate rape” unleashed a firestorm about the lack of accurate understanding about women’s reproductive health. Executive director and co-founder Judy Norsigian hand-delivered copies of the latest edition to dozens of legislators — a reminder that the movement she had helped to launch 40 years earlier had become more crucial than she had ever imagined.
And now, four years later, fetus has become a banned word. No doubt Norsigian is headed back to Washington for another “Our Bodies, Ourselves” delivery. It probably won’t be her last trip, either.
The social media response to the banned words suggests that this may be the next #MeToo moment. And it should be. Women have demanded that their voices and stories be heard. This is about speaking truth to power. Now it’s time to take the next step by insisting that we have control over our words, which is critical to ensuring that we control our own bodies.