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‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ co-author carries on mission

Joan Ditzion

Photo/Jane Keller Gordon

By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer

Region – Joan Ditzion, now 74, had no idea that joining Bread and Roses, an early woman’s movement group, would change her life. An art educator at the time, she became one of 12 co-authors of the ground breaking book, “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” which is now celebrating its 45th anniversary.

“Our Bodies, Ourselves” was a go-to source for a generation of woman who were empowered by knowing more about themselves. First published in 1973, it was an instant bestseller, which the co-authors never anticipated.

“I think that it changed people’s conversations about reproduction, sexuality and woman’s health,” Ditzion said.

A New York Time’s writer called “Our Bodies, Ourselves” a “feminist classic.” In 2012, the Library of Congress included it in a list of “Books That Shaped America,” along with “Silent Spring,” “Beloved,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Ditzion worked on all of the next nine editions of the book, which has been translated into 30 languages. The most recent edition was published in 2011. She also was a part of “Our Bodies, Menopause” and “Ourselves and Our Children.”

After growing up in a progressive family in New York, Ditzion graduated from City College, and then headed to the University of California, Berkeley to pursue a master’s degree in art education. About her time in Berkeley, Ditzion said, “I was arrested during the free speech movement.”

She already had strong feelings about women’s rights and social justice when she moved to Cambridge in 1969 with her physician husband.

That year, Ditzion and her Bread and Roses colleagues organized a women’s conference at Emmanuel College.

Ditzion said, “We needed to understand what women’s lives were about, and not from a male perspective.

The “Doctor’s Group” was formed by 20 women from the conference. Together, they wrote “Women and Their Bodies,” an evidence-based, carefully researched 193-page pamphlet covering woman’s health issues, sexuality and psychology. The pamphlet included stories from many women who attended the conference.

Printed on newsprint and stapled, the pamphlet was circulated in 1970.

By 1971, still a pamphlet, it was renamed “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and published by the New England Free Press.

That year, the group incorporated as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC). They signed a deal with Simon and Schuster to publish a book.

“The proceeds would support the collective. We had editorial control, and we were happy to have worked in a clause to get a Spanish translation, and a discount for clinic copies,” Ditzion said.

When the first edition was published, Ditzion recalled showing it to her grandfather who was at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, New York. “He opened the book and said, ‘Hymie, come on over here and look,’” she chuckled.

The BWHBC went on to update nine editions of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and expand its reach into books on menopause, pregnancy and birth, children, teens, and growing older. The work of the collective continues, now globally, through an active website and social media.

Ditzion was the first in the Boston Woman’s Health Collective to become a mother after the book was published. Some already had children.

“I felt like choosing to be a mother was an important choice in the context of reproductive choice for all,” she said. “I stayed home and did book work at that time.”

She had her first of two sons in 1974. She finds humor in being the mother of sons, and grandmother of three grandsons.

“My daughters-in-law are wonderful,” she added.

Ditzion is still enjoying a long career as clinical social worker, with a focus on geriatrics. She earned her MSW at Simmons in 1983.

Much of her work now focuses on ageism. She is passionate about our changing view of lifespan, and hopes to see ageing with a sense of power, purpose and affirmation.

She said, “We are pioneers in a way. We are in a living lab, with no expert knowledge about what this is about.”

Commenting on today’s politics, she said, “The younger generations of women are now seeing the misogyny and sexism that contributed to the women’s movement in the 1960s. I think that there is a mobilization of new issues, and I think it’s important for women of all ages to work together to defend the gains we’ve made.

“We are standing on the shoulders of women who came before us.”

Ditzion herself is still standing tall.


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