Health and reproduction

In the 1960s and 70s the medical profession was still dominated by men and consequently women had little or no say in the medical treatment of their own bodies. Explore the WLM’s relationship to subjects like fertility, contraception, abortion, sexual desire and relationships.

In this extract a woman recalls her traumatic experience of having an abortion as a teenager in 1969

The Women’s Liberation Movement wanted to change attitudes and institutional practices that resulted in women having little or no say as to what happened to their own bodies medically.

Rowena Arshad describes the reproductive control of working class women in Glasgow and in India

Sheila Kitzinger discusses pregnancy and childbirth

Doctor and patient

Before 1876 women were not allowed to train as doctors. In the 1960s and ‘70s the medical profession was still dominated by men, which disempowered women, not only as professionals, but also when it came to their own health and well-being. Books written by women for women were a fundamental way in which many of the messages and research of the Women’s Liberation Movement were spread. One such book was the publication Women and Their Bodies, which gathered together research about 12 different health topics specific to women and their experiences.

Barbara Jones talks about volunteering at a Rape Crisis centre

Lynne Segal describes the body / mind dualism

Women and Their Bodies – Our Bodies, Ourselves

Women and Their Bodies was born out of a women’s liberation conference which took place in Boston, USA, in 1969. At the conference a group of women discussed their experiences of doctors and, importantly, their knowledge of their own bodies. The editors explained the focus of the book in the following way:

Some people have asked us why the book is only about women. As women we do not consider ourselves experts on men (as men through the centuries have considered themselves experts on us). We feel that it would be best for men to do what we have done for themselves.

In 1971 the book was republished as Our Bodies, Ourselves and 250,000 copies were quickly sold. In 1973 the first commercial edition was published; the book has subsequently been published in translation all over the world, becoming one of the most beloved books of the movement. Kathy Davis writes about the transnational nature of feminist ideas through interviews with translators and publishers of the book in The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels across Borders (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). Angela Phillips and Jill Rakusen were largely responsible for creating the UK edition, with the advice of many others including Sue O’Sullivan (The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, 1996). Jenni Murray is just one who found the book an inspiring insight into understanding and accepting her own body. She says that she had no doubt that this book drove women in the 1970s to campaign for their health.

Jan McKenley talks about women having a choice about what to do with their bodies

Jan McKenley talks about the feelings she experienced after her abortion

Banner credit: Photo of TUC march in 1979 against proposed anti-abortion legislation. Credit: Photofusion / REX.

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.