Posted February 26, 2008

1973 feminist treatise a unifying theme for women’s health symposium

The book linked professors of English and public health, and inspired the pair to bring scholar Kathy Davis — author of ‘The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders’ — to Temple.

You may think that research coming out of Temple’s College of Health Professions and that from Temple's College of Liberal Arts have little in common.

If so, you will be just as surprised as Professor of Public Health Sheryl Ruzek and English Professor Sue Wells were when they realized that their current research interests relied on the same influential feminist volume, Our Bodies, Ourselves. First published in 1973, the groundbreaking book grew out of a small discussion group on “women and their bodies” in 1969 Boston and by 1999 had sold more than 4 million copies.

Ruzek described the serendipity of her encounter with Wells this way: “As an academic, you learn to feel you’re lucky if just about four people in your discipline read one of your published pieces, so you can imagine my surprise when I received a call from Temple’s English Department, of all places, shortly after my article appeared in the Journal of Health Services, Research, and Policy.”

“When I read Sheryl’s stuff, it blew me away. So, I called her and said that we had to get together,” recounts Wells.

As an expert in public health, Ruzek explores questions of women’s overall access to medical care, especially in a managed care setting. In 1978, she wrote the first history of women’s health, The Women’s Health Movement: Feminist Alternatives to Medical Control. So, it follows that in her most recent article, “Transforming the Doctor-Patient Relationship,” Ruzek would delve into the way that women’s relationships with their healthcare providers had been transformed by Our Bodies, Ourselves.

“When I met with Sue, I was floored to learn that she was putting the finishing touches on an article that also took Our Bodies, Ourselves as its topic,” said Ruzek.

As a rhetorician, Wells looks at written texts and how writing strategies work in the world. For example, her most recent book, Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine (Wisconsin, 2001), examines how writing practices by women doctors influenced medical discourse, such as methods of using survey information, taking patient histories and telling case histories, during the founding of the modern medical profession.

Wells’ essay, “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Reading the Written Body” will appear this spring in the flagship journal of women’s studies, Signs. In the essay, Wells explores the way the writers of OBOS invented a language that communicated their struggle to understand the female body and the scientific and medical disciplines that attend to it. For a current book project, Wells interviewed the writers of Our Bodies, Ourselves and analyzed the notes and drafts in their files.

As Ruzek and Wells discussed their projects over lunch, the pair naturally thought of finding a way to bring Kathy Davis — whose book The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders had been referenced by both Ruzek and Wells — to Temple.

On March 6, Davis, who hails from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, will present the keynote address at the Fourth Annual Women’s Health Interdisciplinary Research Symposium sponsored by the Center for Women’s Health Research, Leadership and Advocacy, of which Ruzek is founding co-director.

“The story of how the writers of OBOS worked collaboratively with women around the world to create translations, adaptations and versions of the book that can be reconciled with the demands of particular cultures while maintaining the integrity of the original is one that Davis is well situated to tell,” said Wells.

Davis’ work on the international dissemination of Our Bodies, Ourselves fits in perfectly with the theme of this year’s symposium: Women’s Health in Communities, emphasizing global perspectives. Presenters include Joanna Maselko and Adam Davey from the College of Health Professions, who will be speaking respectively on “Maternal Depression and Infant Health in Developing Countries” and “Women’s Health and Care Giving: International Perspectives.”

“From the start, the goal of the symposium has been truly to define women’s health broadly in all of its biological, psycho-social and socio-economic forms — not just as the absence of disease — and to bring together faculty and graduate students from across the university and region to make connections and share ideas and research,” Ruzek said.

In this sense, the symposium carries on in the tradition of the early writers of Our Bodies Ourselves, a group of 12 women interested in talking about their health-related experiences, passing on their knowledge about their bodies, and taking responsibility for their own health education.

Davis will also speak on the response to Our Bodies, Ourselves by feminist theorists on Wednesday, March 5, 2:45–4 p.m. in the Women’s Studies Lounge, Anderson Hall, room 821. A reception will follow.

What: Women’s Health Interdisciplinary Research Symposium
When: Thursday, March 6, 8 a.m.–3 p.m.
Where: Mitten Hall, Great Court
Registration: Free (lunch included). E-mail your name, affiliation and telephone number to the Center for Women's Health Research, Leadership and Advocacy at, or call 215-204-6318. Registration is due Feb. 29.