When your mother handed you a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” it meant one of two things: You were about to have a pained conversation with a parent wielding a hand mirror, or you were meant to take the book, read it and never mention it again. Either way, you were prepared.
For generations of girls, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was the starter pack to adulthood: It let you know whether your vulva was weird looking (it wasn’t), what kind of birth control you might want to use and whether you were the only one who had a special relationship with your pillow. (You weren’t, Page 162 assured.)
But after nearly 50 years, Our Bodies Ourselves, the Boston nonprofit home of the book, will stop publishing the pubescent tome amid a period of “transition.” The book, last updated in 2011, will no longer have new editions. The nonprofit organization housing their programmatic work — they reported $279,460 in revenue for its 2016 fiscal year — will now be led by volunteers.
“This is a really sad moment for our readers,” said Julie Childers, the executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves. “But we still have a strong, scrappy board of directors and 300 experts in the field to continue being a voice in the public sphere.”
That the foundational feminist text will cease to publish at this particular time seems strange. Trump’s inauguration was dwarfed by millions of women wearing “pussy hats”; abusive men across every industry are being outed by #MeToo; women in film, television and music are embracing the feminist label with gusto. This week, Janelle Monáe released a music video that is rife with imagery celebrating the vulva.
But feminist nonprofits, especially those founded during the movement’s second wave heyday, aren’t thriving in a way that reflects the moment. Stalwarts like the National Organization for Women and Ms. magazine still exist. But their profiles dwindle in the shadow of newer endeavors like Times Up, or Teen Vogue’s recent political makeover.
Longstanding feminist organizations have tried to keep up with their younger counterparts by expanding efforts online. Before Our Bodies Ourselves made the decision to stop publishing, for example, Ms. Childers said the organization tried to raise money for a large-scale digital project that would allow users to create their own books.
“It was very hard to create a digital future for ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ that people would agree to fund,” she said.
In an ironic cultural shift, many of the most successful new feminist projects have a distinctly retro feel and are deliberately offline. Consciousness raising groups and zines are back; Rookie magazine’s series of books are designed to look like well-worn yearbooks. And the women-only social club the Wing — in part inspired by the women’s club movement of the early 1900s — just raised 32 million dollars to open locations across the country. (Its revenue comes from corporate sponsorship and memberships.)
“There’s this embarrassment of riches in the digital space and it can feel exhausting,” said Emma Holland, who started a zine with two friends called “repro rights” after the presidential election.
Ms. Holland’s zine, which has published three issues, is available on what she calls a “janky website.” Girls from Oklahoma to South Africa have read it, and she’s heard from high school students who have handed copies out in their cafeteria or held “folding parties.” (The zine is printed on a single sheet and then folded into a booklet.)
Most of what “repro rights” covers is available in the pages of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” but the rite of passage of a mother handing over a women’s health bible to her daughter has become less common. Children are increasingly able to find sexual health answers online. And Ms. Holland, who also works at the Wing, said she thinks there’s a particular aesthetic appeal in things like zines that speaks to younger women: “It’s the same reason we like Polaroids or record players.”
As a feminist who got her start blogging — a phrase that now makes me sound absolutely ancient — I worry for a new generation of feminists whose cultural and political successes won’t necessarily translate into financial sustainability.
“There’s a perception that there’s this stream of funding that just doesn’t exist,” said Jamia Wilson, the executive director of the Feminist Press. “If people want our organizations to survive, they need to invest in them.” She points out that when you look at who has the best access to philanthropic funding and connections to major donors — like environmental groups — you’ll inevitably see executive directors that are white men.
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” has “always been a labor of love,” Ms. Childers said, but perhaps that’s part of the problem. Even as women’s work and activism has completely changed lives and shifted the direction of the country, we still have largely been expected to do it for little to no money, with women’s nonprofits relying on pure passion and urgent need.
As feminism becomes more and more culturally powerful, guiding voices with experience will be more important ever. The more mainstreamed feminism becomes, the easier it is to water down the values of the movement.
“Merriam-Webster made ‘feminism’ the word of the year,” Ms. Wilson said. “But we’ve been here for years, unafraid to take on books that were considered too radical or risky by other presses.” And Ms. Childers said that, while there’s an abundance of information on the internet, “it’s hard to sort out what’s accurate, what’s trustworthy and what’s from a feminist point of view.”
She’s right. It’s hard to imagine a future in which a mother lovingly directs her daughter to a URL to read about vulvas and pillows. I know when the time comes, I’d prefer to hand my daughter a book with dogeared pages and underlined passages rather than texting her a link.
But Ms. Childers doesn’t rule out the possibility of a miraculous return. Feminists, especially those who have been around for a while, have a habit of doing impressive things with limited resources. “I’m a feminist in my 40s,” she said, “and it’s been an incredible honor to work with the founders and this generation of second wave activists. I won’t be surprised at anything this group is able to accomplish.”
Jessica Valenti is a feminist columnist and the author of “Sex Object: A Memoir.”