Dec/Jan 2008


Rebecca Walker

Like other progressive projects, including the civil rights and labor movements, the body of knowledge and practice commonly identified as feminism is in crisis. Beleaguered by conservatives crying “feminazi” and betrayed by beneficiaries who, depending on their location on the spectrum of identity, declare feminism white, imperialist, middle-class, separatist, unsexy, or just plain irrelevant, feminists have, by necessity, grown accustomed to conflict. The heat of this contestation has played a significant role in forging intersection theory, postcolonial criticism, and Third Wave activism. But it has also spawned “left melancholia,” an enervating malaise that robs workers for cultural justice of their sense of hope and possibility. Feminist thinkers who do not find the initial impulse in need of a complete overhaul, and who have not yet been felled by ennui, are left to assume the most popular position of contemporary Second Wave feminism: defense. But to say that Kathy Davis’s smart, sensitive, hopeful book about the thirty-five-year trajectory of the women’s-health guide Our Bodies, Ourselves is a response to the critique of the duly flagellated white, middle-class feminist lens would be unfair. The book is that—but it is also much more.

The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves is a compelling portrait of what Davis calls a “Second Wave feminist success story.” Written by women in the early throes of the feminist movement of the ’70s, Our Bodies, Ourselves began as a pamphlet encouraging women to, among other things, examine their vaginas and discover their clitorises. Over the next thirty years, that clutch of articles blossomed into an international best seller covering all areas of women’s health. Davis’s brief but comprehensive exploration of the publication’s epistemology reveals how the authors—the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective—were able to scale the political and aesthetic crevasse between margin and center. They focused less on holding on to such dated imagery as protesters carrying women’s-liberation signs and interlocked women’s symbols than on mak-ing the volume attitudinally inviting to all women, regardless of political persuasion. They achieved the latter through what can only be called an organically evolving multidecade collaboration. Our Bodies, Ourselves remained perpetually open to and shaped by feedback from readers. At key junctures, the collective expanded to include women of different orientations and backgrounds, who entered the text as respected cocreators. The result was a populist and exponentially inclusive masterwork, a seven-hundred-page guide that shaped at least one generation’s view of female sexuality and reproductive health.

Critics may justly dwell on the discomfort expressed by women of color, queer women, and younger women “brought in” to consult on the revisions, but that would be an example of the sort of critique Davis is trying to steer us away from. The women of the collective are not without issues, she argues, but such matters should not distract us from the “politics of knowledge” the contributors have to share. In a critical override of sorts, Davis turns her attention to the final criterion for the success of Our Bodies, Ourselves, namely, the way it has “traveled” across borders and into other countries and cultures, acting as a mythological feminist text that (Other) women can appropriate, adapt, and even defy in their ongoing struggle for self-empowerment. It is here that Davis makes her most pressing point about the state of contemporary feminism and what Our Bodies, Ourselves has to offer. At a meeting with a group of translators from Mexico, Senegal, India, Japan, Serbia, Poland, and Armenia, she marvels at their devotion to the process of “cultural translation,” in which the book is adapted to function in non-US contexts. She notes that while “the problem of negotiating differences was a central theme throughout these conversations, there was, at the same time and somewhat paradoxically, an attempt to establish a line of continuity between the US Our Bodies, Ourselves and its translations.”

Using this line of continuity in the midst of such extreme diversity as a point of departure, Davis offers the rousing argument that women’s “unity in difference does not have to be of the ‘common world of women,’” but that “community can be constructed imagina­tively,”and “differences in personal history, social and cultural contexts, and geopolitical circumstances” can be “momentarily transcended in order to create a liminal unity.” While this point is difficult to argue and offers immeasurable promise to a feminist project stymied by its inability to over­come difference, one has to wonder whether the women Davis claims as part of the feminist project consider themselves part of the same, or whether they are being used as proofs in a brilliant defense of the Second Wave premise that sisterhood really is global. For example, would the anonymous Tamil woman holding a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves on the cover of the Davis’s book want her image to be emblematic of the success of a feminist project designed and initiated by Western white women? And what of the need of Western feminists to claim ownership of the ideology of female empowerment? What is the effect of this on the psychologies of women portrayed as perpetually on the receiving end of this ostensibly superior consciousness?

Davis’s conclusions, while brilliant and essential, may in fact replicate the problems third-world women and women of color have articulated ad nauseam, including the tendency of Western white women to appropriate their experiences in a way that objectifies them within a narrative not of their own making. The politics of knowledge of non-Western women travels, too, and may have more to teach than we can imagine. But this would necessitate relinquishing notions of intellectual superiority, and whether Second Wave scholars are capable of this remains to be seen.

Rebecca Walker is the author, most recently, of Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence (Riverhead, 2007).