"Simone de Beauvoir alone would never have gotten me from intellect to action"

By Kay Johnson — June 13, 2019

Note from OBOS co-founder Judy Norsigian: After publication of my reflections piece in the June 2019 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), I received this wonderful email from Kay Johnson. Her story reminds us all once again of how ONE life experience (reading a book/having a terrific teacher or mentor/participating in an eye-opening social justice action/etc.) can change the course of our lives and bring us into partnership with others also committed to racial, economic and social justice for all.

I am impressed by how many younger women now read the 2011 edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and resonate with its powerful messages about how the “personal is political” and how we CAN work together to bring about the changes we seek, especially in these challenging political times. As Dolores Huerta said on May 31 at Radcliffe Day: “Si, Se Puede.”

Although OBOS is now a volunteer-driven organization, we still appreciate your support of our more limited advocacy work and social media outreach. Do join us in expanding the ranks of our social justice communities!

The piece in AJPH inspired me to write to you about my personal experience related your work. By 1969 – 70, I had become a radical feminist. This despite the fact that I lived in a relatively small city in Indiana and was raised in a Southern Baptist family that had migrated north. Somehow, I was reading Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, sexually active and using the pill, and thinking about racism and equity. Still, I realize now how much reading “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was a turning point.

I did not recall it as newsprint, but the newsprint edition must have reached me in the summer of 1971.  For me, as for so many others, it opened the door to understanding my sexuality, my reproductive health, and the potential for change.

I would turn 18 that summer. I’d just become the first of my mother’s five children to graduate from high school and would be the only one to not be a teen parent. Life would take many turns from that point.

When I went to Franklin College that fall (a small liberal arts, Baptist-affiliated school just south of Indianapolis), I organized a women’s self-help group to explore our bodies, our sexuality, and our power.  In an effort to advance access to contraception, I contacted Planned Parenthood of Indianapolis and asked them to pursue a satellite clinic on campus. Of course the school would have no part of it, but the Planned Parenthood satellite clinic operating part time in the Memorial Hospital was the first access to family planning anywhere in Franklin County (particularly for unmarried women, of course). We fought to have residence halls without hours and doorkeepers, as well as changing dress codes. We insisted our male counterparts add women to the editorial board of our “underground” campus newspaper. We read Barbara Seaman, Adrienne Rich, and so many others.

My first career was as a teacher in child care, as a feminist statement beyond what a traditional teacher’s job in a public school would have been. My community service and volunteer time was devoted to women’s centers, rape crisis centers, take back the night marches, self-help groups, and more.  Later, at the start of the Reagan Administration, it all seemed too little. With the encouragement of Amy Fine and Arden Handler, I returned to public health school in 1983. Since then my work has been in policy advocacy and implementation.

Through leadership roles in APHA Maternal and Child Health Section, I got to meet Helen Rodriguez-Trias and others. Through a job at the Children’s Defense Fund in the 1980s, my work included alliance with Byllye Avery and interaction with Vivian Penn. More recently, I’ve had the chance to work on family planning studies with Susan Wood and to help guide the preconception movement away from a focus on birth outcomes toward healthy women. I’ve been learning from SisterSong. So many strong and brilliant women to learn from along my journey.

It’s a long and winding road, but I believe strongly influenced by reading “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (which I’ve since given to my nieces). Simone de Beauvoir alone would never have gotten me from intellect to action.

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