- Published on Sunday, 20 May 2007 20:00
Nancy Gee (left) and Naomi Goodman share their commencement joy.
(5.27.07) - BUSPH Commencement speaker Judy Norsigian, co-founder and co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS), advised students to seek the ingredients of a fulfilling professional life that made her own rewarding: "a sense of meaning and purpose larger than yourself, and a community of people working with you toward a common vision of health and justice." (See full text of remarks below)
BUSPH Dean Robert F. Meenan, Student Speaker Jirair Ratevosian, and Commencement Speaker Judy Norsigian, executive director and co-founder of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Norsigian addressed the crowd of nearly 100 graduates and their families at the 29th commencement of the Boston University School of Public Health held at the Boston Sheraton Hotel yesterday afternoon. Those graduates in attendance included 85 who received master's in public health degrees and 14 others who received master's of arts, master's of science or doctoral degrees. Altogether 167 students earned degrees this spring.
Longstanding executive director of OBOS, the groundbreaking and iconic women's health organization and book by the same name, Norsigian recounted how OBOS grew as an influential force in public health and policy to be a "cross-border, inter-generational phenomenon" that today is adapted and translated into and in 21 languages. For her career-long efforts, Norsigian was also recognized by Boston University yesterday by being presented with an honorary degree during the commencement ceremony on the Charles River Campus.
BUSPH student speaker Jirair Ratevosian, who organized a number of public health awareness and fundraising efforts while he was a student, told fellow graduates that at its core, public health is about "reaching out and helping total strangers." He asked fellow graduates to undertake initiatives that will improve the lives of people around the world. "As public health professionals, we have to think globally and act globally," he said.
Judy Norsigian, Executive Director of Our Bodies, Ourselves
Boston University School of Public Health
May 20, 2007
It is a pleasure and honor to share some thoughts with you, as you either embark upon or continue your careers in public health. I bring greetings and congratulations to all of you from the founders, board, and staff at Our Bodies, Ourselves, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing a feminist and non-commercial perspective to the field of women's health and sexuality.
For housing our organization for more than a year back in 2001 and for participating in some of our key projects, many BUSPH faculty, staff, and students deserve a special thank-you. Our institutional connections actually go back to more than 30 years ago, when Professor George Annas contributed the very first section on patients' rights in the 1976 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
The concept of public health was barely in my consciousness when I joined the Boston Women's Health Book Collective in early 1972. This small group of Boston-area women was researching, teaching, and writing about issues that affected women's health and sexuality, interweaving clearly stated medical information with our own stories and a keen look at the politics of health care. Over the years, as efforts to improve women's health intersected with other movements for social, political, and economic change, it became clear to me that public health professionals and advocates were often our closest allies. Whether the problem was the excessive medicalization of childbirth, or the persistent discriminations that women experienced because of race, disability, age, language, or sexual preference, public health experts were often among the first to use their knowledge and skills to craft creative solutions in cooperation with community-based groups. I remember fondly many American Public Health Association (APHA) conventions where spontaneous gatherings and brainstorming sessions would develop the blueprint for a later campaign . . . and all the while, we built friendships and personal support networks that continue to this day.
Maybe some of you who are at the start of your careers know the APHA only as the site of nerve-wracking job interviews and cocktail parties full of people you've never met. But I encourage you to think of APHA gatherings and other public health meetings as places to develop two essential elements of a fulfilling career: a sense of meaning and purpose larger than yourself, and a community of people working with you toward a common vision of health and justice.
I have been lucky to find those two essential elements through my work with Our Bodies, Ourselves. In 1969, I was finishing my junior year in college when an historic women's liberation conference took place several miles away at Emmanuel College in Boston. Out of one of the workshops at this conference grew the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, a small group of women who have left a large imprint in the annals of women's health. At that time, I knew nothing of this conference and practically nothing about feminism. I was, however, part of several communes, both urban and rural, where I experienced firsthand what it meant to challenge sex stereotypes - drawing more men into housework, food preparation, and child-rearing responsibilities while at the same time urging women to develop new physical strengths and capabilities that were heretofore considered decidedly "unfeminine." We recognized that our personal relationships and family structures often posed obstacles to our full development as human beings, whether women or men, but challenging patriarchal norms was no simple task. Back then, we didn't have constructive and humorous texts like Chore Wars: How Households can Share the Work and Keep the Peace. But, more importantly, our society failed to provide child care, universal health and medical care, livable and equitable wages, and other social support systems that could ease these tensions. To this day, at least in this country, these failures continue, and the public's health suffers as a consequence.
One of the most satisfying and significant aspects of the Our Bodies, Ourselves story is the way in which it has grown to become a cross-border, inter-generational phenomenon that speaks not only to what we do, but how we do it. In our early days, many of us were just beginning to understand how the personal can be political, that our individual problems were also social problems requiring social and political solutions. Consciousness-raising groups were emerging across the country, and many women began to look more closely at power dynamics - between lovers, between husbands and wives, between doctors and patients, between lawyers and clients, between clergy and laity. As we became less isolated and identified similar needs, it was not a huge leap to recognize the need to organize, and to work together for changes inside legislative halls, not just inside bedroom walls.
We also began to look more closely at race, class, and other too-often neglected differences among those of us in the women's movement. We realized, for example, that we could not use the more personal term "we" throughout the text of Our Bodies, Ourselves and assume that "we" - at the time, a group of young, white, middle class, heterosexual, women - could possibly speak for all women. Over the ensuing years, women of color, women with disabilities, lesbians, older women, and others so often marginalized in the mainstream discourse all came forward with perspectives and skills invaluable to building a stronger movement for women's health.
The mutual support that developed in the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective was key to our staying power and to the lasting personal relationships that have so enriched our lives. If this kind of community is not already present in your lives, I urge you to consider building it. And don't forget to keep in touch with your favorite mentors, some of them undoubtedly among the wonderful faculty here at BU. My own mentors were enormously helpful, including my late husband Irving Kenneth Zola, whose extraordinary legacy in medical sociology, disability rights, and social justice continues to inform the internal moral compass for all I do. His writings about medicine as an institution of social control and his early conversations with a close friend and co-founder of our organization, Norma Swenson, were a profound influence on my organization's writings about the medicalization of women's lives.
As many of you know, the work and mission of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective resonated beyond national boundaries, especially as copies of the English edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves traveled around the globe. This publication now appears in 21 languages. Women's groups in India, Russia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Nepal, Turkey, Armenia, and Israel are now producing - with assistance from us - their own book adaptations and other print formats in nearly a dozen languages. Some organizations also use this information to bring about needed policy changes in their countries. With their small pots of money from sources like the Global Fund for Women, these groups are generating new conversations about women's health and sexuality, the environment, and globalization. As we read what they write, we see how their struggles are often similar, even as the cultural, political, and economic conditions might be starkly different.
And what are these challenges facing women both here and elsewhere? Let me mention two:
First, the struggle for reproductive justice. The recent Supreme Court decision ruled for the first time that a woman's health is not a doctor's primary concern if she needs a late-term abortion. In the words of Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women: "Indeed, the ruling effectively reverses more than 30 years of precedent requiring that laws regulating abortion ensure protection not only of the woman's life, but also her health. In the majority opinion, Kennedy makes clear that the most critical reason for upholding the law is to express the government's interest in the value of fetal life regardless of what that may mean for pregnant women." But as reproductive rights are being challenged and eroded here, they are expanding elsewhere: for example, the Mexico City legislature recently joined Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guyana in making first-trimester abortions legal upon the request of a woman.
Second, a plethora of ads and other media messages exhort women of all ages to engage in risky cosmetic surgery or to use prescription drugs of dubious benefit and possible harm. This past year is the first time that breast augmentation surgery became the number-one plastic surgery procedure in the U.S., surpassing even liposuction. Greater media literacy might offset the negative consequences of misleading advertising, but the increasing protections of corporate free speech will certainly make it harder to convey more accurate, balanced information to the public.
Because public health advances are usually long in the making and may involve repeated setbacks, we have to have fun along the way. In this respect, I often think of the activist Emma Goldman, who was imprisoned in 1916 for distributing birth control information. She most likely never said the quote so often attributed to her on buttons and stickers - "If I cannot dance, I want no part in your revolution." But in her 1931 autobiography, Living My Life, she did say this:
I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal . . . should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." . . . Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. [Living My Life (New York: Knopf, 1934), p. 56]
Emma knew the value of keeping our souls nourished with friends, culture, and the arts, and I encourage you to heed her advice.
As you go forward to live out your own ideals, I wish for you the resources to make your work possible and a community of colleagues who will support you along the way. It won't be easy in a world increasingly fractured by economic disparities, where war - right now possibly our gravest public health challenge - looms so large. But I am sure you will find ways to inspire others to become more engaged in the civic sphere and that what you've learned here at BU will serve you well. In the words of poet Marge Piercy, "every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes."