Books for the News, Commentary

Our Bodies, our Ack?!


The halls of feminist pop culture were a-chorus with their final “Ack!” this past Sunday, when long-running comic strip Cathy ran its final installment. Illustrated and created by Cathy Guisewite, the strip and its single everywoman heroine capped off a thirty-four-year run, departing a world noticeably different from that of its November 1976 debut (though the passage of time in semi-ageless Cathy’s world had a tendency to be marked by promotions and new boyfriends, and of course, evolution of the four “guilt groups”: food, love, Mom, and work).
In many ways Cathy aspired to be the archetypal late-twentieth-century career woman, less eye-candy than Transparent Eyeball for a generation that grew up with Jane Fonda, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and society’s changing pressure on and opportunities for working women. In a fitting end, the strip finished with Cathy announcing her pregnancy to her parents and tech-geek partner Irving, who quipped about viewing the sonogram on his iPhone. Love or hate Cathy, closing shop with an iconic pregnancy helps us remember something important about the comic’s origins.
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For ordinary women like Cathy, who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, access to information about issues related to their own health—contraception, pregnancies, abortion—helped to position the female body at the center of women’s liberation. In Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave, historian Wendy Kline offers a compelling account and vital history of women’s health and feminist activism, from the making of Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973) through the Depo-Provera FDA hearings (1983). Kline chronicles the ideas, expectations, and pitfalls that empowered women like Cathy and also divided them—according to race, class, sexuality, and level of professionalization. Bodies of Knowledge is fitting tribute to how far we’ve come—and an important look back over Cathy’s shoulder at what we were fighting for. Check out a recent review of the book here.