Here is an event that combines tremendous historical resonance and real contemporary relevance. Thanks to the generous grant of the Conant Family Foundation, this year’s Doris Conant Lecture on Women and Culture features Judy Norsigian. A real mover and shaker, Judy may not be familiar to a wider public. But the organization she runs is – in fact, it has changed and continues to change the lives of millions of people.
Our Bodies, Ourselves
I am speaking of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the organization that has been publishing the eponymous book in ever-expanding editions since 1973. Formerly known as the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, it is one of the great products of the feminist movement, educating countless women on their bodies and giving the medical establishment a real awareness of the specificity of women’s experience.
I owe my own appreciation for Our Bodies Ourselves to my dear friend and colleague Rebecca Stumpf. Now, Becky is a primatologist, which means that she studies our closest biological relatives in an effort to draw inferences on the evolution of our species. It is amazing work that regularly takes her to various field sites in Africa where she observes chimpanzees in the wild. Yes – think Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.
A couple of years ago, Becky and I were having lunch – and as we were telling each other about our respective research, we realized that, our different methodologies notwithstanding, we were ultimately interested in very similar questions. I had undertaken work on lesbians and gays in an effort to understand contemporary transformations of human sexuality. Becky, too, was interested in the topic. In particular, she was trying to reconstruct the gender dynamics in the evolution of human sexuality. In the field, Becky had paid particular attention to female chimps, observing their mate choices and trying to ascertain whether they had sexual agency. Ultimately, we both tried to understand what is and isn’t “natural” when it comes to sexuality.
Here is the beauty of being an academic: as we were talking, we both had the same thought – why don’t we teach a course together? And that’s what we did.
We have now taught Sex in Nature and Culture twice, once at the undergraduate and once at the graduate level (check out our syllabus here). They have been among the most rewarding experiences I have had at the University of Illinois. I can’t begin to recount all the things I have learned from Becky – and we have been having a lot of fun debating topics from the biological status of monogamy to the evolutionary adaptation of the female orgasm.
But to return to Our Bodies Ourselves. Becky and I were teaching our course this past spring when the possibility arose of inviting Judy Norsigian to the CHF. I mentioned it in class, and Becky’s eyes immediately lit up. To her, Our Bodies Ourselves is a key reference point and one that had a direct impact on her own decision to pursue research with implications for women’s health issues. (If you are curious to see what this looks like in scientific practice, check out Becky’s major NSF grant on “Comparative Primate Microbial Biology”.)
I can’t wait to see what Becky thinks of Judy’s talk! We’ll probably talk about it over lunch. And who knows – some other cool idea might emerge in the process…
#508: Fri, Nov. 12 6:00 - 7:00 PM
Tags: sexuality, gender, feminism, medicine, anthropology