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Review: Women's Bodies and Feminist Subversions

Author(s): Linda Gordon and Barrie Thorne

Review by: Linda Gordon and Barrie Thorne
Source: Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 3 (May, 1996), pp. 322-325
Published by: American Sociological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2077442
Accessed: 20-05-2015 21:07 UTC

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in myview,are inseparablefromhis and each daygrowingbackto be eatenagain.

as a sociologist:to synthe- Perhapsthemetaphorappliesto thecyclesof
size, provoke,excite, and inspire. He is capitalistsociety,and perhaps also to the
of thosewho tryto comprehendit
reliably unorthodoxand brilliant.TMWS fortunes
began a sustainedchallengeto complacent whole.
of classical sociology: holistic analysisin References
service of freedom.Like Prometheus,who Burke,Peter,ed. 1972. Economy & Societyin Early
stole firefromthe gods and trickedthem, Modern Europe: Essays From Annales. New York:
has createdcivilization
by stealing HarperTorchbooks.
Wallerstein,Immanuel.1983. Historical Capitalism.
the forcesof nature.As punish- London:Verso.
and tricking
was chainedto a mountain,
. 1995. "The end of what modernity?"
and Society24/4:471-88.
livereateneach daybyan eagle,

Women's Bodies and


Universityof Wisconsin,Madison


Universityof California,Berkeley
No previousCS review.
In its influencein the United States,Our

Bodies, Ourselves may be in the same

Our Bodies, Ourselves:A Book by and for

Women,by The Boston Women's Health
Book Collective.NewYork:Simon& Schuster
[1973] 1992. 647 pp. ISBN: 0-6714-6088-9.
$20.00 paper.

categoryas the Bible and Rush Limbaugh.

Since initialpublicationin 1971, its trajecadventure,
tory has been a rags-to-riches
some of the dynamicsof the
cians decided to continue meeting.One-andwomen's movementin the late twentieth a-half years later they produced the first
century.Both book and social movement version of Our Bodies, Ourselves- 194 pages,
hold in tensiontheroughedge of a critique printed on newsprint by a small New Left
of male (and class and race) power with press,priced at 75 cents. Advertisedby word
pressuresto sand it down into a smooth of mouth and notices in women's and New
consumer- Leftpublications,it had sold 250,000 copies
and informed
becauseofitsconnectionto a by 1973, when the group signed with Simon
social movement,the book moves freely & Schuster. The authors, a collective of 11,
between the popular and the academic; it insisted on provisions rare in commercial
boundaries,drawing publishing: All profits go to the women's
cuts acrossdisciplinary
manybodies ofknowl- health movement, and the publishers are
upon and influencing
edge.The coincidenceofthesharedtwenty- required to make copies available at 40
fifthanniversaryof this journal and of percent of the cover price for nonprofit
an inter- health groups. By 1995 the book has sold 31/2
book affords
on theways million copies, not including sales of three
sociology. sibling books, Changing Bodies, Changing
has influenced
in whichfeminism
In 1969, at a conferenceof "Bread and Lives (for teenagers), Ourselves and Our
organiza- Children,and Ourselves Growing Older.
Roses,"a Bostonsocialist-feminist
tion,a groupofwomenwho came together The book is most famous for its positive
withphysi- and explicit discussion-and pictures-of
at a workshopaboutfrustrations

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The firsteditionbegan as a manual in which to look up specific

sex and reproduction.
on "Women,Medicine problems,frombatteringto breastfeeding,
withan introduction
It does not deferto
and Capitalism,"and then turnedimmedi- candidato cunnilingus.
atelyto the most burningtopic foryoung expertise;it will never tell you, as did Dr.
feministsof the time-sexuality.This was Spock and his colleaguesforso manyyears:
followedby chapterson VD, birthcontrol, "Ifin doubt,call yourdoctor."Itsassumption
and a that readers want this large quantityof
abortion,pregnancyand childbirth,
The information
is unexceptionabletoday,but
concludingessayon medicalinstitutions.
pages,priced onlybecause of its own extraordinary
influ1992 edition,750 magazine-size
at $20, beginswith a subjectpossiblyeven ence.
forwomen-body imageand
The book fits today's self-helpfashion
food- thenmoves on to alcohol and other because it helped to constructthat mode.
heal- Our Bodies could be analyzedto show that
drugs,sportsand exercise,alternative
and occu- bookscan be whatreadersmakeofthem-an
pationalhealth,and violenceagainstwomen, exampleofthepoststructuralist
of meaning.Or, takinga
before turningto sex and reproductive the indeterminacy
it continueswith a social-constructionist
approach, it can be
long chapteron women's aging,and con- understood as a cultural artifactwhose
sectionon thepolitics significancechanges over time. More precludeswitha lengthy
cisely,itstandsas evidencethatthemeanings
To oftextsarepowerfully
WhatmakesOur Bodies so influential?
the and social movement.It could be read as
answerwe need to recallhow sexuality,
the trajectory
of the secondbody,andgenderwerehandledinscholarship, demonstrating
andpopulardiscoursein 1971.There wave women's liberationmovementfrom
froman insurno open discussionof sex and radicalto culturalfeminism,
was virtually
in schoolsor thepopularmedia, gentchallengeto institutionalized
power to
condescendedto womenand ... eating healthy and learning to love our
and physicians
from bodies.Butthisdeclensionmodelmissesthe
theirfemalepatients.Social science and hu- dynamics
(outsidethe small,mar- includethe trade-offs
ginal,and suspect field of "sexology") in- radicalism;and it fails to appreciate the
emphasison connecting
cludedneithersex nor bodies;it treatedthe centrality
as universal. structural
hadno graspoftheconcept"genOur Bodies exemplifies
der" exceptforthe Parsonianconceptionof sive theoreticalinfluencein its insistence
"sexroles,"andtheirworklargely thatbody and sexual normsare politically
ap- constructed.
Today,some of the mosttheoignoredwomenas socialactors.Feminism
reticallysophisticatedscholarshipaims to
pearedonlyas a relicofhistory.
the bodyintopoststructuralist
The influence of Our Bodies, Ourselves is integrate
Our Bodperspectives.
inseparablefromthe impactof the women's social-constructionist
thelargestsocialmove- ies blazed thistrailand,moreover,assumed
mentin thehistoryof theUnitedStates,and thetasknotonlyofmakingthisanticommonone thatstillevokesintenseresistance.The sense argumentbut also of leadingnonacathesignificance
of demic readers throughit, which in turn
whenCNNrec- requireda standardof proof much higher
thisbookwas evidentrecently
in academicdiscourse.
by inter- thanis customary
Allofthebook'seditionsreston a critique
The CNNproviewingitstwoleadingauthors.
ducerreportedthatwhen she firstproposed of authoritatively
expertise,preto a largestaff
the interview
meeting,all the sented in popular languagebut fundamenwomenin theroomsaid,"Greatidea!",andall tally identical with the similar critique
presentedby scholars.The authorsrepeatthemensaid,"Whatis it?"
Our Bodies' appeal to women,like thatof edlyremindus of theirlay statusand of the
errors(and worse) of
the women'smovementas a whole, lies in historically
and moralauthorities.
the immediacyand,sometimes,the urgency medicalprofessionals
it contains.It can function The book continuesto devote substantial
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attention to a critique of the political

economics of the health, pharmaceutical,
food, and other related industries.Take, for
example, the chapters about body image and
food. Aftera feministculturalcritique of fear
of fatness,and a crash course in nutritional
awareness, the book discusses the influence
the food industryexercises over the FDA and
USDA; the advertising wars and constant
introduction of new products by the few
conglomeratesthatcontrol food manufacturing; how the dollar spent on food is
distributedamong grower,packer, packager,
transporter,etc.; how women workers are
treatedin the food industry.The authorsalso
remind us repeatedly of the collective
process of the book's production. In typically
New Leftfashion,the firstedition told us how
"sisters added their experiences, questions,
fears,feelings,excitement ... We all learned
together." The last edition adds a more
theoretical take on the process-"We are
increasinglyproud of our dependence upon
one another in a culture that so prizes
independence"-but also repeats the personal -"We have seen one another throughfour
divorces and three marriages,one case of hot
flashes and some long dramatic affairswith
men and women."
Justas some feministand minorityscholars
have challenged dominantdefinitionsofwhat
counts as theory and as science, so Our
Bodies integratesabstract,synthetic(masculine) knowledge with bodily, experiential
(female) knowledge that produces immediate personal consequences. Nowhere is this
integrationmore essential than in medicine,
which faces the conundrum thatthe primary
evidence of illness is pain, unknowable by
the physician. Many professions have laid
claim to their status on the basis of socialcontrol agendas, but few have had a more
directlytyrannicalpractice than medicine in
its attempt to heal bodies while minimizing
the authorityof the body in question-the
For at least 150 years one response to
expertise-in particularto "regular" medical
authority-has been self-help movements
that shade into mysticism,from the water
cure to SylvesterGraham to feministmoon
therapies. The agenda of Our Bodies is
different.Its goal is not to deny the benefits
of expertise but to democratize access to it
and insistthatits more importantvaliditytest

is not the opinion of professionalpeers but

thatof "patients."It emphasizes the diversity
of bodily existence and experience, resisting
the (social-)scientific and medical tendency
to create norms and measure deviationsfrom
them. In this priority, the book is not
uniquely feminist-i.e., forwomen-but constitutes a larger democratic and libertarian
challenge to expertise. The book uses citations to medical and other scholarlyjournals
sparingly,directing readers to studies they
could actually read, and it provides carefully
selected bibliographies for every chapter.
The recent editions use humor to make
points and to leaven political passion, as in a
cartoon that shows a woman on a gurney
sayingto-hersurgeon,"I hope you can justify
this hysterectomy to my women's health
Of course, Our Bodies, Ourselves was a
prime mover in the construction and diffusion of feminismand particularlyof a large
women's health movement,perhaps the most
vibrant contemporary expression of grassroots feministactivism. The National Women's Health Network emerged in 1975 out of
the kind of activism the book stimulated,
includingwomen's outrage at the dangers of
the oral contraceptives so cavalierly and
prematurely mass-marketed in the 1960s.
The impact of this movement has been so
large that much of it has become invisible as
women's health demands have been integrated into mainstreammedicine. There are
women's clinics in major hospitals and
HMOs; childbirthpractices have accommodated many feminist demands, such as
birthingrooms,nursemidwives,labor coaches,
familyparticipationin birth,and new methods of labor and delivery; some medical
schools now produce health newslettersfor
women; the inclusion of women in clinical
trials is now required (for decades standard
drug trials used only men); and there has
been a (belated) upswing in research funds
forwomen's diseases, such as breast cancer.
The changes do not affectonly women; the
women's health movement has been the
largestsingle pressure fora more democratic
medicine for everyone.
Our Bodies, Ourselves exemplifies the
influenceof feminismon both
popular and academic knowledge. Over the
last 25 years the impact of the women's
movement on the academy has been in a

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transdisciplinarydirection, and the most
challenging edges of feminist theory and
scholarshiprub againstthe grainof disciplinary structures and practices. The feminist
influenceopened forscholars an arrayof new
topics and challenges to traditionalassumptions,such as the distinctionbetween public
and private. Our Bodies draws together and
unfolds a broad swathe of the feminist
insights,e.g., into the political construction
of bodies and the gendered dynamics of
institutions, which have challenged and
enriched the social sciences. Now sociologists notice and thinkabout gender; indeed,
by the 1990s the Sex and Gender Section,
founded in 1973, had become the largest
research section in the ASA. But the movement of feminist ideas into sociology has
been uneven-widely transformative,but
also co-opted (e.g., by the practice of using
gender as a variable ratherthan using it as a
theoreticalcategory) and contained (ironically, by the institutionalizationof feminist
sociology as a subfield). In sociology, as in
other disciplines,the majorityof male schol-


ars do not read feministwork,attendfeminist

sessions at conferences, or incorporate gender analyses into their teaching.
This symposium'semphasis on "influential
books'? skewed the evaluation of scholarly
significance toward books by individual
social theorists.Because feministideas are in
constant interaction with a vibrant social
movement, they develop quickly, and any
one work is rapidlysurpassed. Feministideas
have evolved collectively, mixing genres,
ratherthan throughthe vehicle of individual
"theory stars." Social theory is a selfconscious genre whose canonized heroes -a
symbolicsource of legitimacyand coherence
in the fragmenteddiscipline of sociologyare all men. And in sociology therehas been a
persistentseparation between works labeled
"social theory" and works labeled "feminist
Our Bodies, Ourselves reminds us that
knowledge is produced not solely in the
academy, and that some of the most productive new veins of research and analysis arise
fromradical movements.

Sociological Visions
and Revisions

Universityof Texas,Austin
Charles Lemert and Donald Levine agree
about some importantissues facing sociology. Both believe the discipline is in crisis.
Both contend it is a moral crisis,and discover
the same symptom:Professionalsociologists
have lost their concern for the moral
dilemmas of modernity.Lemert and Levine
each locate the originand center of the crisis
in sociological theory. They even both
believe that professional sociologists must
submit their discipline to a sort of psychoanalysis in an attemptat "recovering buried
memories[and] reinterpreting
past experiences" (Levine, p. 12; see Lemert,p. 205).
But here the agreement ends. Charles
Lemert and Donald Levine differ on the
meaning of those buried memories and past
experiences. Consequently, the visions they
offer seem dramatically opposed. Charles

SociologyaftertheCrisis,byCharles Lemert.
Boulder,CO: WestviewPress. 1995. 252 pp.
$55.00 cloth. ISBN: 0-8133-2543-9. $14.95
Visions of the Sociological Tradition, by
Donald Levine. Chicago, IL: Universityof
Chicago Press. 1995. 365 pp. $47.50 cloth.
ISBN: 0-226-47546-8.
$15.95 paper.

Lemert finds that the sociological tradition,

like modern civilization,ignoreswhat he sees
as the defining feature of modernitydifferences-and, hence, is a tradition of
exclusion and distortion.He urges sociologists to follow the lead of those writingfrom
a perspective of differenceand exclusion:
"To a very large extent, these are the

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