On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric: An Introductory/Manifesto Flow…

The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t have any feminism worth thinking about or writing about without the work of feminists of color. They have pushed feminism to be better and do better since the beginning. However, these feminists often are not afforded the credit they deserve for creating feminist spaces or demanding change within feminist spaces. During the Suffrage Movement it was Sojourner Truth’s speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, that demanded we recognize the voices and perspectives of all women. The work that Black women, lesbians and working class women did to push the mainstream white middle class feminism of the 1970s to speak across race, class, and sexuality made feminism stronger. Feminists of color in the 1970s writing in anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back, Home Girls, and But Some of Us Are Brave started building a third wave of feminism before the 1990s gave us yet another wave. It was a young Black and Jewish woman named Rebecca Walker who strongly proclaimed “we are the third wave” and sparked a new generation of feminists. And we won’t even get into the fact that many of the third wave white feminists of the 1990s who rejected their white mothers’ second wave feminism did so using the intellectual and activist work of second wave feminists of color…

It has always been the voices of feminists of color, most specifically, the voices of Black feminists, and even more specifically, the voices of Black lesbian feminists, that pushed feminist movements to realize the radical notion that all womxn are people. When we put out the call for this special issue “On Race, Feminism and Rhetoric,” we were looking for scholarly complications to the discourse around white feminism that critically engaged the idea: Feminism has never really been white. We maintain that people say feminism is white because it is easier than calling out white supremacy. Like Iyanla Vanzant, we and the contributors in this special issue demand that everyone call a thing a thing, beloveds. Like good rhetoricians, we know that words actually mean things. So you are not really doing feminism if your feminism is only concerned with white women. You are practicing white supremacy. PeriodT. If you are a person of color and you want to call out limited agendas masquerading as “feminist” that seem to only take white women’s issues into consideration, don’t call that “white feminism.” Call it racism, because that is not how feminism works.

We hope this special issue pushes the field to recognize that we need more nuanced approaches to dealing with the intersections of race and rhetoric. We need to be able to point out inequities in communities of color and make sure our responses to those inequities do not further marginalize other communities. We need to champion causes that support anti-racist initiatives, but we can not perpetuate discourse around those initiatives that weaponizes dehumanizing rhetoric and action against people of color. We need to hold space for tension and nuance in our discussions of race, feminism and rhetoric. For example, if we take into consideration the most recent incarnation of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States, we can illustrate the multiple needs for more nuanced conversations. We need rhetorical approaches that are coalitional and anti-racist. We need rhetorical approaches that can help us deal with the role that the white/racist/capitalist/patriarchal nation state played in stirring up anti-Asian hate in its citizens, because that same hate was coming from the mouth and Tweets of the President of the United States. We need rhetorical approaches that help us grapple with the fact that the same white/racist/capitalist/patriarchal nation state will use those hate crimes against Asian communities, that the discordant nation state provoked, in order to police Black and Brown bodies. Our rhetoric needs to recognize and call a thing a thing. All hate crimes are hate crimes. And we can no longer excuse, substantiate, or gloss over the cishet white males citizens who commit hate crimes. Because if it is a Black or Brown teenager assaulting an Asian elder in the street we will rightfully call it a hate crime. But when it is a cishet white guy on a killing spree who walks into massage parlors with his recently and easily purchased guns and murders the Asian women working to support themselves and their families during a global pandemic, then our political rhetoric makes room for excuses like adolescence, white fragility, or he was just “having a really bad day.” We can’t make this shit up, but we can demand that the double standards get called what they are and cultivate rhetorical approaches that help us to call it what it is. We need rhetorical approaches and rhetorical analysis that can hold in tension how quickly the Anti Asian Hate Crime Bill passed and was signed by the President of the United States when we still can’t get any version of an Anti-Lynching Bill passed in this country since the 1900s. We need rhetoric that is not afraid to complicate things and push past niceties and civilities to ask hard questions.

We need to start asking hard questions instead of being scared of answers. The work Ibram X. Kendi is doing around anti-racist education tells us the word “racist” is not a personal characteristic, like having blue or brown eyes, but a word that defines ideas that weaponize marginalization, inequity, and other systems of oppression onto people of color. In February 1837, John C. Calhoun stood on the United States Senate floor and argued that slavery in this country was a “positive good” not because it literally was, but because racism has to be intellectualized. Racism, your racism, is a habit of mind and you can not break those habits by being too scared to face the history they represent. Rhetoricians can not be so afraid of being called a racist that they aren’t recognizing that the linguistic construction of the word doesn’t support their fears–it outlines historic power imbalances that they have the responsibility to change. You want to know how to call a thing a thing? Start by asking better questions. Instead of: who, me? ask what just happened here? Because you will not find the traces of your racism in your fear or in your feelings, you will only find them in your history.

This contemporary moment, perhaps more than any other, has shown us the relevance and importance of race, feminism and rhetoric. The current global pandemic has put a spotlight on institutionalized inequities around race, class and gender. The ongoing protests and unrest around police brutality and murders have forced us to come to terms with the meaning of solidarity and coalition in the struggle. Extreme nationalism has ripped children from the arms of their parents and placed them in cages, going against every fiber of the founding lies of the United States. The recent election and the fact that yet again over 50% of the white women who voted cast their vote for Donald Trump has made clear that assumed alliances around gender are not to be taken for granted when we add race to the mix. Now more than ever we need to be in nuanced and critical conversations on race, feminism, and rhetoric. This special issue of Peitho is an opening to some of the conversations we might have.

From Fair Fight Now to the Black Lives Matter Movement, Black women have been the driving force behind the change we need in America today. In the wake of the 2020 US elections, we need to have more conversations about how feminists of color combat the normalization of the refusal to transfer power, concede losses, and acknowledge the truth. Like we saw with the Women’s March controversy, we can not continue to tolerate feminists of color being pushed to the margins in the spaces we created. This bridge can no longer be our backs. As ‘The Squad’ on Capitol Hill grows to include even more womxn of color voices, we need to make space for complex conversations around what diversity and equality really means while continuing to hold our leadership accountable to the progress we have made. Now is not the time for half-measures, talking points for views, and conservative approaches. We need to center the voices of feminists of color who are doing the work to ensure our futures.

In their response to the January 6, 2021 violent attempted insurrection on the Nation’s Capital the Rhetoric Society of America Board of Directors wrote: “Rhetoric has long associated its birth as a discipline with the emergent political practice of democracy; however, the historic foundations of both have a disturbing affinity with racism. This embedded and systemic relation has allowed injustices to continue for centuries and cultivated power structures that normalize and justify violences, as grotesquely witnessed currently in the United States, where the mobbing thugs proudly displayed Nazi, anti-Semitic, and white power apparel, where citizens and political leaders led and endorsed a wide range of acts of voter suppression, but most recently in the Georgia elections in DeKalb and Fulton counties where insufficient polling places, proposed roll purges, and accusations of fraud threatened to limit the rights of Black voters.” (Rhetoric Society of America Board of Directors’ Statement Condemning Insurrectional Rhetoric and Resulting Violence 1/6/21) In other words, rhetoric is racist and has been used for ill and we need to own that and fix that. Stat. In order to answer the call that the future demands of us as rhetoricians, we have to take stock of what is really real. That “affinity with racism” that rhetoric has been entangled with since its inception cannot be ignored away. If rhetoric is going to ever be its best self then, just like feminists of color have been pushing feminism to do better since the Suffrage Movement, we need to use these conversations on race, feminism and rhetoric to push rhetoric to be all it needs to be in these times. We hope that the essays in this special issue will help shed light on all the important and nuanced ways that race, feminism and rhetoric intersect across time, in this moment, and around the world.

And because rhetoricians can’t seem to talk about race and rhetoric without an obligatory MLK quote, preferably from the historic “I Have a Dream” speech, we thought we would add one here. On that day in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King said more than that he had a dream. He also said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take in the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlight path of racial justice. Now is the time.” In the few months since we put out the call for this special issue, things have continued to happen that make the “fierce urgency of now” even more pronounced and pressing. Now more than ever we need to engage these conversations on race, feminism and rhetoric and enact a feminist of color discourse that is more than just lip service.

The senseless killing of Ma’Khia Bryant, the continued freedom and the lack of charges pressed against the cops that murdered Breonna Taylor, Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open to protect her mental health, Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure at University of North Carolina, the ignorant and baseless attacks on Critical Race Theory, the failed attempts to censure Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the subjection and liberation of Meghan Markle, the troubling increase in anti-Semitism, the hate crimes against Asian American/Pacific Islanders, the ongoing uprising and displacement of the people of Palestine, and the countless unseen acts of violence against womxn around the globe, all drive home the point of the fierce urgency of this contemporary moment. Now, perhaps more than any other moment, has shown us not just the relevance and importance, but also the urgent need for scholarly complications to the discourse around race, feminism and rhetoric. We better learn to really talk about these issues in ways that move us toward action before it is indeed too late.

In the first season of the HBO comedy sketch show, A Black Lady Sketch Show, there is an ongoing sketch throughout all the episodes that takes place at the end of the world. The end of the world came and the only people left were four Black women because one of them built a fortified house and invited her girlfriends over for an end of the world party. Black women be knowing… In the second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show there is a very similar ongoing sketch with the now five Black women leads in a fortified warehouse at the end of the world. And again they are the only ones left. We find the idea that a group of Black women would be the only ones left at the end of the world compelling because as the world goes to shit all around us, it often feels like Black women are the only ones consistently trying to save us as we fight them every step of the way. We are reminded of Temptaous McKoy’s powerful Watson Conference keynote address: “‘…Had Y’all Simply Listened to Black Women’: A Call for Intentional Listening and Impactful Anti-Racist Action.” McKoy (like many Black women have been telling us in these internet streets #ListenToBlackWomen) made a powerful case for why we need to just listen to Black women before everything goes wrong. In the cover art image of this special issue,“Selfie at the End of the World,” Geneva Bowers brings the point home. The Black woman chucking the deuces and taking a selfie as the world is being destroyed behind her probably tried to tell everyone what was coming… But they didn’t listen. Shrug.

The articles in this special issue recognize the intersectional nature of feminist work around race, politics and rhetoric as a demand that feminist of color voices are the roots that sustain feminism. By sharing these scholars’ work we ensure our desires for change are heard in order to protect our collective futures. We were not surprised by the fact that the majority of our submissions to the special issue came from Black women across the Diaspora. As we have shown, Black women have always been important voices to these conversations and they will no doubt continue to be important voices. But those voices are not monolithic and the articles presented here highlight the variety in those voices and are joined by other feminists of color and white feminists’ voices. Their work is not the end of a conversation, but the beginning of many more conversations that need to be had in our field.

Efe Plange’s article, “The Pepper Manual: Towards Situated Non-Western Feminist Rhetorical Practices,” pushes us to a transnational Black feminist conversation that engages African Feminism and rhetoric that we have not seen in our field before. Her article traces the digital activism technique of creating hashtags and demonstrates an important counter-narrative to the male centered coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health crises in Ghana during March of 2020. Her article aims to start conversations that illuminate gender-based disparities in Ghanaian society through the digital activism of groups like Pepper Dem Ministries. Ronisha Browdy’s “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s): A Conversation Starter for Naming and Claiming a Field of Study” is an effort to demand the field recognize the naming of the work done by Black women towards making space for Black women’s unique ways of being and knowing as an intersectional, interdisciplinary, and rhetorically distinct sub-field called “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).” Browdy’s overall goal for her work is to further cultivate power for Black women within the field by naming their shared rhetorical efforts as a distinct rhetorical genre and sub-field of rhetorical studies.

In “‘We Want to Be Intersectional’: Asian American College Students’ Extracurricular Rhetorical Education,” Allison Ann Dziuba makes critical interventions into conversations about Asian American identity, intersectionality, coalition, and group dynamics. Through her ethnographic research Dziuba explores the differences between intersectionality as synonym for diversity and intersectionality, as Kimberlé Crenshaw defines it. She expands on the meaning and use of intersectionality by exploring how it works in the Asian American students she studies, as a key part of the metacognitive meaning-making process in both international and Asian American identifying undergraduate student groups. Kim Fain’s “Black Feminist Rhetoric in Beyoncé’s Homecoming” argues that the global reach of Homecoming through its distribution on Netflix calls for formal recognition of Beyonce as a skilled rhetor. Fain analyzes the rhetorical power of Beyoncé’s work and attests that Homecoming is an important rhetorical artifact of Black feminist discourse. Stephanie Jones’ article, “I Heard That: The Sociolinguist Reality of the Black Feminist Afrofuture” traces the interconnectness of science fiction to Black feminist praxis. By exploring popular science fiction and fantasy stories Jones’ work argues that the term Afrofuturism would not exist if it were not for Black feminist discourse. Jones’ article is the winner of the 2021 Geneva Smitherman Award for Research in Black Language, Literacies, Cultures, and Rhetorics.

“Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism” by Tracee L. Howell is a much needed disruption to the cis-male patriarchy coded into white feminist rhetoric. Howell suggests that the feminism she was taught in college in the 1980’s duped her and other white women who identified as feminist into thinking there was a universal experience of gender equality. Reflecting on the ways in which she has ignored the intersections between race and gender throughout her life, Howell provides a narrative history that interrogates mainstream white feminism. “On Testimony, Bridges, and Rhetoric” is a webtext created by La-Toya Scott, Kimberly Williams, Andrea Baldwin, and Laura Gonzales. Together, they have crafted a series of letters that unpack their fears and hopes for the field. Through a mix of prose, poetry, video, testimony, and storytelling their webtext calls for a coalition of love in feminist rhetorical studies. Disrupting the notion that white coded feminism is the origin of this discourse community is a heavy task and illuminating histories of oppression within the field is an even heavier task. The articles in this special issue are up for the task and they provide us with a new understanding of the rhetorical tools that sustain diverse histories across time and space.

Works Cited

  • Anzaldua, Gloria, and Cherrie Moraga, Eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color. New York, Kitchen Table Press, 1983.     -return to text
  • Hull, Akasha, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith, Eds. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men; But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. New York, Feminist Press, 1993.     -return to text
  • Kendi, Ibram X. “A House Still Divided.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Sept. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/a-house-still-divided/568348/.     -return to text
  • Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. One World, 2019.     -return to text
  • King, Martin Luther. “ ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech, In Its Entirety.” NPR, 18 January 2010, https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety. Accessed June 6, 2021.     -return to text
  • McKoy, Temptaous. “…Had Y’all Simply Listened to Black Women’: A Call to Intentional Listening and Impactful Anti-Racist Action.” Watson Conference, 22 April 2021, Online, Keynote Address.     -return to text
  • Rhetoric Society of America Board of Directors, “Statement Condemning Insurrectional Rhetoric and Resulting Violence 1/6./21.” Rhetoric Society of America, https://www.rhetoricsociety.org/aws/RSA/pt/sd/news_article/346430/_PARENT/layout_details/false. Accessed June 6, 2021.     -return to text
  • Smith, Barbara, Ed. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New York, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983.     -return to text
  • Thede, Robin, creator. A Black Lady Sketch Show. Issa Rae Productions and 3 Arts Entertainment and Jax Media. 2019-2021.     -return to text
  • Truth, Sojourner, “Woman’s Rights 1851,” Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall. New York, The New Press, 1995, pp. 36.     -return to text
  • Walker, Rebecca, “Becoming the Third Wave,” Women: Images and Realities: A Multicultural Anthology, edited by Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair and Nancy Schniedewind. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1999, pp. 532-33.     -return to text


We would like to thank Jen Wingard for giving us the opportunity to co-edit this special issue of Peitho. It means so much to us to be a part of the amazing work the journal is doing. Thank you to the phenomenal feminists who reviewed the work published in this special issue. We were heartened by the level of care and thoughtfulness that went into each review. We cannot name the names of these brilliant feminist reviewers because of the double-blind review process. But we just want to say thank you and to let you know we plan to pay the love and labor that forward in the future so that this feminist ethic of care and commitment carries on. Academia would be a better place if all reviewers were like the people who carefully read and offered feedback to the scholars published in this special issue. And finally, we want to thank the artist Geneva Bowers for allowing us to use her “Selfie at the End of the World” as our cover art for the special issue. Her work is breathtakingly powerful and we encourage everyone to go check out more of it on her website: http://www.genevab.com


Introduction to “Rhetorical Pasts, Rhetorical Futures: Reflecting on the Legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Future of Feminist Health Literacy”

This special issue is born out of a specific moment—the April 2, 2018, announcement by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective that it would no longer publish updated print or digital versions of its foundational text, Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) due to financial pressures and the changing nature of online health information (Shephard). As feminist rhetoricians of health and medicine, the editors of this special issue felt that this announcement was a moment deeply worthy of reflection. After all, OBOS is a landmark text in the history of women’s health activism, a text through which generations of women have learned to understand not just their bodies, but the power of bodily knowledge. First published in 1970, the nine print editions of OBOS have provided a roadmap of changing priorities and relationships within the world of feminist health activism; the texts represent important changes throughout the history of not only women’s health in America, but also broader discourse about health, knowledge, and empowerment.

Reflecting on the history and legacy of OBOS seems doubly important in this political moment, as we publish this issue at a time when the healthcare of many marginalized groups is under attack in the United States. We find ourselves a nation with exceedingly high maternal mortality rates, particularly for women of color. We see state after state passing heartbeat bills and other anti-abortion legislation with little concern for the health and well-being of people with uteruses and watch ongoing attacks on the federal and state levels against protections for the medical care of transpeople. In this moment, looking back at the almost fifty-year history of OBOS reminds us of how much has happened in that timespan: Roe v. Wade, the AIDS crisis, home pregnancy tests, IVF, digital health information—the list goes on. But the deep resonances of our contemporary moment and that earlier history, as the current attacks on healthcare illustrate, show us that we are perhaps closer to that history than we’d prefer to think. As we consider the history and legacy of OBOS in this issue, we must also remember and acknowledge that that legacy is far from linear, that the battle for control over bodies and knowledge and health justice continues to this day.

OBOS radically suggested that the healthcare system could be changed, that patients could come to know their bodies and that through that knowledge the system might change. This radical vision allowed the text to function as what Marika Seigel calls a “system-disrupting” manual (73). As a set of instructions for women, the original edition functioned to encourage women to see themselves as a “potential expert” and to attempt to change the system of medical care for women (81). This “system-disrupting” nature sets the book apart from other health manuals even today, which still often suggest that women should see themselves as inexpert patients. As Wendy Kline explains, the message of early OBOS was that “every woman’s body contained the seeds of knowledge crucial to defining her own well-being” (166-167). The move to combine the personal experiences of women into a medical guidebook “began the process of transforming medical knowledge into something subjective, political, and empowering” (223-224). Though as Donna Haraway argues, the text’s focus on individual bodily discovery may not provide for a more systemic feminist knowledge politics that can approach political and global inequalities, OBOS’s focus on embodied knowledge allowed generations of readers to better understand their bodies and the power that could come from coming to know it.

We can read this act of turning knowledge into power as one that is, in many ways, fundamentally rhetorical. Through the process of writing and reading the text, and exploring their bodies in concert with this process, both the authors and the readers of Our Bodies, Ourselves engaged in what Maureen Johnson et al. describe as a goal of embodied rhetorics—“mak[ing] all bodies and the power dynamics invested in their (in)visibility visible” (39). As feminist rhetoricians such as Susan Wells, the respondent to this issue, and Marika Siegel have explored elsewhere, the project of Our Bodies, Ourselves provides a case study for thinking about knowledge and writing itself. And thus, this issue dedicates itself to thinking about the history and legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, especially as that history resonates with feminist health rhetorics. In this introduction, we present a brief history of the organization and the varying editions before thinking about what the 50-year legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves means for feminist rhetorical studies.

A Brief History of OBOS

In 1969, a group of women who would become the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC) “got together to work on a laywoman’s course on health, women and [their] bodies” (Women and Their Bodies 3). The women translated the course into Women and Their Bodies, a nearly 200-page pamphlet published in 1970 by the New England Free Press, a radical publisher based in Boston. This pamphlet was sold to women in the feminist movement for seventy-five cents; as Jane Pincus recalls, the text’s success was quick and somewhat unexpected:

OBOS sold so quickly that the Free Press printed five more editions over the following two years. Although eventually we had to hire someone to send the books out because of the high demand, we had no idea that they were reaching thousands of readers. Women began sending letters about their own lives and experiences…We included their suggestions in successive books; many became the basis for additional chapters.

(Pincus 125)

After its initial popularity within the women’s movement, the text was later rewritten and reprinted in 1973 as the familiar Simon & Schuster version of Our Bodies, Ourselves. The final New England Free Press editions of Our Bodies, Our Selves1 feature a letter from the collective explaining their choice to move to Simon & Schuster, as well as a letter from the independent press that explains why the press disagreed with the decision to switch publishers. Feminists met the decision with mixed feelings, as they appreciated the desire to get cheaper copies in the hands of health clinics, but worried that a transition to mainstream publishing would come at the expense of some of the foundational philosophy of the text (Hobbs).

Part of that foundational philosophy came through the use of a collective model of writing, or what Susan Wells calls “distributed authorship” (10). In this model, “the work of writing was shared among dispersed networks of experts, lay readers, and editors that gathered information, organized activity, and carried on the political work of the group” (10). Though individuals were often in charge of individual chapters, each section’s authors were responsible for accounting to the larger Collective as well as outside readers. According to Wells, the original members of the collective still resist being called writers because of this collective writing process; the text belonged to no one and everyone (2).

Each edition’s revisions were chosen not simply because of publisher demands or because of changing times; rather, the authors revised each edition in order to incorporate their own changing political beliefs as well as reader feedback and criticism. Though previous editions had seen revision as the authors endeavored to make the text work for Simon & Schuster, it was not until a 1976 introductory note that the following first discussion of a revision process driven by the authors themselves appears:

When we started to revise Our Bodies, Ourselves, we thought it would be a simple two-month job of updating some facts […] The revised edition turned out to be 100 pages longer and more than two-thirds revised, because:

1. We ourselves have grown and changed with two more years of living, as we have worked, loved, played, read, heard from others and shared among ourselves.

2. Readers of the first edition have energetically urged us both by letter and in person, to include more of certain kinds of needed information—for instance, on menopause, breast cancer, self-help.

3. Much has changed in the health field, including improvements (like the increased availability of first trimester abortion and the emergence of various woman-generated health-care alternatives), and set-backs (such as increasing medical intervention in normal childbirth).

(1976, 13-14)

The sense of surprise indicated by this note would soon disappear as the act of revision became an institutionalized part of the book’s life. Indeed, over the years the members of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective have publicly discussed their revision processes through a variety of means, such as including introductory notes in each edition, reprinting previous introductions of the books in later editions, and publishing papers and interviews about the process of writing the books. For example, in 1984, the authors describe their sense of how the book has changed in the edition’s introduction:

This rewrite reflects our Collective’s long-time commitment to keeping the book up to date. Health and medical information changes quickly…Equally important, our own political awareness keeps changing: the more we learn, the less we believe that the medical system as it is structured today can or will alter to meet our needs. So in this book, less medically oriented than previous editions, we emphasize what we as women can do for ourselves and for one another, and we often discuss nonmedical perspectives as well as medical ones.

(1984, xi)

Similar introductions, which clearly state the overall philosophy of revision that accompanied the book, appear in each edition. These introductions give us valuable insight into the authors’ intentions; the changes the 1984 authors talk about can be directly seen in that texts’ engagement with women’s ways of taking care of themselves. So, too, does this introduction provide a sense of what this edition is not—it is “less medically oriented than previous editions” as it turns to a direct focus on modes of community care.

By the late 70s, the book had become institutionally secure; though the revisions of the 1970s did change the book, those editions remained fairly stable in their focus and technique. However, 1984 would see the release of The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, which even in its title sought to separate itself from what had come before. In order to do so, the Collective put out many calls like the following, found in a 1981 issue of the feminist journal off our backs: “We have just begun a major revision of Our Bodies, Ourselves. We need your help to make it speak to and for as many women as possible” (Members of the Collective 28). This habit of making public calls for personal experiences and critiques continued on listservs, websites, and journals through the 2011 edition’s publication. In order to disrupt the system of the health manual, OBOS did not just rely upon the knowledge and experiences of the Collective’s authors. Rather, the text incorporated the personal stories of a variety of readers, a practice that continued through its final edition.

These calls were doubly important due to the limitations of the text’s worldviews. As Jennifer Yanco argues, OBOS’s original creators represented a “group of highly educated urban women” who created the manual on “the assumption that their book would speak to all women, including rural peasant women and marginalized urban women” (515). Early editions of the text left out issues of import to women of color, lower-income women, LGBTQIA+ people, older women, and many others. As Kathy Davis notes, “Many readers have been critical of the lack of attention paid to perspectives of women of color and low-income women in early editions of OBOS, resulting in significant changes in later editions of the book” (153). The Collective worked hard to craft a more inclusive text in later editions, drafting many more authors from underrepresented groups and taking considerable feedback from readers, as well as documenting that process. Elizabeth Sarah Lindsey, for example, writes movingly of her experience reaching out to queer and trans people about their experiences as she revised the gender and sexuality section for the 2005 edition (Lindsey). The incorporation of this feedback led to material changes in the book that made it much more inclusive, though the sheer scope of its goal to speak to and for so many people remained a challenge throughout the text’s production history.

The “new” 1984 version of OBOS, as Susan Wells has argued, represents the largest shift in rhetorical practices surrounding the book, emphasizing “choices […] made by individuals, each reflexively for herself, but […] secured by collective action” (169). As a result, the 1984 edition brought with it the assumption that women are responsible for their own care and treatment. Though the 1970s editions implied this responsibility, they did so through collective knowledge—learning about your body would help the feminist cause. By 1984, Our Bodies, Ourselves compelled women to worry less about developing that understanding and more about choice and action. This slow change from embodied knowledge to choice and action would continue in later editions of the book.

As the text moved on through its later editions, it grew in size and rhetorical scope, and as a result its editorial processes continued to develop. While the 1970 text was widely inconsistent in voice and tone, the much larger later texts were kept more consistent by changes like the addition of a tone and voice editor in 1998 (Bonilla 175). Despite these attempts at consistency—or, perhaps, because of them—Marianne McPherson, the editor of the 2005 sexual anatomy chapter, argued that the 1998 text had too much of a “textbook feel” (191). This comment is worth pausing over, as it marks the distance between the later editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves and their origins. No one would accuse 1973’s text, with chapters such as “In Amerika They Call Us Dykes” and “Women, Medicine, and Capitalism,” of having a textbook feel; rather, the original book stood out in part because of its ability to present medical information, political activism, and personal experience side by side. The original editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves introduced subjectivity into medicine; however, after personal experience was accepted as a valid topic of medical discussion within larger culture, the text turned primarily to thinking about informed choice, as scholars such as Wendy Kline, Lisa Diedrich, and Kathy Davis have noted. A popular review of the 2005 revised edition in the New York Times argued that the “advocatory vigor, not to mention a sense of team spirit, is lacking” in revised edition (Jacobs). Eryn Loeb, another critic of the 2005 edition, asked

Has Our Bodies, Ourselves really changed so much in the last thirty-five years? Yes. No. Both not as much as it needs to, and too much. I guess that’s the way it goes, for a book whose continued relevance depends so much on its ability to be everything to every woman. And maybe that’s the problem.


As these critiques of the later editions illustrate, while OBOS was widely successful in bringing important issues in women’s health into popular discourse and in empowering readers to understand their bodies, the very ambition of its project—to provide inclusive healthcare knowledge for a global audience—also led to its struggles. The text’s use of a feminist “we,” for instance, represents a central point of concern; even among the authors of later editions, there remained debate over whether this “we” is useful or harmful to the spirit of inclusiveness (Bonilla; Lindsey; McPherson; Stephenson). The editions thus raise the question of how and whether it is possible for a single health text to do so much for so many without erasure, its successes and failures illustrating both the benefits and limitations of this ambition.

By 2011, the text had stretched to 944 pages and hundreds of writers and editors working hard to develop an inclusive view of the body that could inform a contemporary audience in a complex healthcare context. The BWHBC developed a strong web-presence, where parts of the text were updated to include new and shifting pieces of health information through October of 2018. But in our contemporary moment—the world of WebMD, social media, and health 2.0—the collective struggled to maintain financial solvency, shifting their mission to healthcare advocacy and social justice work in October of 2018. The almost fifty years of work left behind had radically shifted the discourse about how to navigate the healthcare system and one’s own body, after empowering generations of women to recognize the political potential of learning about and from their bodies. The articles in this issue, as we discuss in our next section, consider both the impact of OBOS over the years and how we as feminist rhetoricians might move forward—how do we view, write, learn about, and consider the body and women’s health advocacy in the era after OBOS?

OBOS and Feminist Health Rhetorics

Since OBOS’ publication as Women and Their Bodies almost fifty years ago, much of the writing and thinking around women, gender, and feminist studies has evolved. The field of feminist rhetorics—pioneered by such scholars as Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Patricia Bizzell, Shirley Logan, Andrea Lunsford, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Cheryl Glenn, and others—emerged as an interventional field of study that sought to recover the voices and narratives of women, people of color, and marginalized groups that had been “pretty much excluded” from the rhetorical tradition (Bizzell 50). Much like the early efforts of OBOS to recover women’s ability to speak about (and for) their bodies, feminist rhetoricians sought to reclaim and recover the voices, stories, and histories of women in order to account for the rhetorical work women had long been undertaking.

The field of feminist rhetorics has stayed true to its mission to preserve and recover women’s writing, while also moving into new areas of rhetorical study, including cyberfeminist rhetorics, transnational and global rhetorics, queer theory, indigenous rhetorics, and interstitiality (just to name a few). Similarly, the trajectory of OBOS has shifted over the last fifty years to respond to the evolving health exigencies of girls, women, LGBTQIA+ groups, indigenous peoples, women of color, and differently-abled individuals. 

One place where we see the trajectories of OBOS and feminist rhetorics converge is in the emerging field of feminist health rhetorics. In their introduction to a special issue on rhetorics of health and medicine (RHM) as an emergent field, Erin Frost and Lisa Melonçon highlight the ways RHM has gained significant traction over the last decade, particularly as concerns over critical health literacy, online health communication, and patient-doctor relationships have grown. Scholars of feminist health rhetorics are harnessing the often overlapping concerns of rhetorics of health and medicine and feminist rhetorics in distinctive and compelling ways, as demonstrated by an array of publications in areas such as rhetorics of reproductive justice (Johnson, et al.; Novotny and De Hertogh; Yam), embodied rhetorics (Johnson, et al.; Molloy et al.), pregnancy and motherhood rhetorics (Buchanan; Seigel; Owens; Johnson and Quinlan; Vinson), rhetorical theories and histories (Jensen; Segal; Koerber), and female sterilization (Davis and Dubisar).

We posit that the seed for disciplinary convergences between RHM and feminist rhetorics can be traced to the legacy of OBOS which—perhaps to a greater extent than any preceding text—ignited conversations about the need to acknowledge the fundamental feminist idea that knowledge over one’s own body and one’s self is essential for reproductive justice. As Wells puts it, early OBOS authors believed that “women who learned basic health information from other women would understand themselves, their relation to other women, and their capacities in new ways” and that such understanding would lead to “transformative practice[s]” around healthcare (70). Scholars of feminist health rhetorics share this aspirational goal—like early OBOS authors, we too strive to achieve transformative practices around the social, rhetorical, and cultural contexts that mediate the health and well-being of marginalized bodies.

Reflecting on the Legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Future of Feminist Health Literacy

The articles and artistic pieces in this special issue represent unique convergences between OBOS and feminist health rhetorics; these pieces also reflect intradisciplinary knowledge-making that can unveil new truths and perspectives on women’s health literacy. In doing so, contributors position the field to reflect on the rhetorical legacy of the past forty-eight years of OBOS, while also considering future directions for women’s health literacy and activism. Just as importantly, articles in this issue offer a starting place for more fully recognizing feminist health rhetorics as a powerful emergent field that interrogates, disrupts, and intervenes in health policies and practices in order to underscore the value of lived, bodily experiences and collective knowledge-making about one’s health.

We have organized contributions to respond to the overlapping rhetorical conversations we see happening around OBOS and feminist health rhetorics. As we read manuscripts, we identified four frameworks that represent distinct rhetorical approaches to feminist health activism and collective authorship around OBOS. These frameworks include:

  • creative responses to OBOS
  • the legacy and future of OBOS
  • OBOS in clinical contexts 
  • OBOS and women’s health literacy in digital environments

We begin this issue with creative responses to OBOS, one of which is the special issue’s cover art, created by Meredith Spence, and a personal narrative, written by Lynn Bloom. In her cover art, Spence draws from her talents as a digital illustrator to present a piece that echoes the style, color, and tone ofearly OBOS print editions. In her childbirth narrative “Hard Labor,” Bloom uses storytelling to remind us that OBOS was not written as an academic text, but as an accessible resource that any person could use to take “full ownership of their bodies” (OBOS “Our Story”). As Bloom’s story aptly illustrates, OBOS represented an ambitious ideal—a vision that each person could, despite the modern medicalization of childbirth, be empowered within “the obstetrical world” (Bloom) and fearlessly claim the kind of childbirth experience they hoped and longed for.

We next look to articles by Heather Adams and Clancy Ratliff, each of whom examines the rhetorical legacy and future of Our Bodies, Ourselves and the implications of that legacy for feminist health endeavors. Building on this historiographical work is Lillian Campbell’s investigation of female healthcare workers across editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, followed by Barry DeCoster and Wendy Parker’s archival work in the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, investigations that inform their analysis of modern clinical practices around pregnancy and labor. Finally, we turn to intersections between the legacy of OBOS and what the future of collective health authorship might look like in technological contexts. In this section, authors Maria Novotny and Les Hutchinson, Sarah Singer, and Melissa Stone consider feminist rhetorical implications associated with convergences between women’s health information and digital technologies and spaces. We conclude with a response by Susan Wells, who considers the implications of the issue and the ways it speaks to the past and future legacy of OBOS and feminist health literacy.

Regardless of the particular focus, each of the pieces in this special issue do important rhetorical work: they acknowledge the enormous debt feminist health rhetoricians owe to the legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. These pieces also illustrate the rarity of scholarly work that bridges feminist historiographic concerns with feminist health activism. Thus, we see this special issue as a response to an exigence for more of this kind of work—work that leads to new rhetorical discoveries that deepen how we understand our bodies, ourselves, and our futures.


  1. The text was renamed from Women and Their Bodies in 1971 “to emphasize women taking full ownership of our bodies,” and then again slightly renamed in the shift to Simon & Schuster.

Works Cited

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