Hello from Melanie Pryor, Visiting Scholar at the Center for Women's Health & Human Rights

It’s a long flight time, from Adelaide, Australia to Boston, Massachusetts. I took two 13 hour flights, the long way around the world, because I had to book my flights at short notice as my visa only came through at the last minute. When I left home on March 27 2018, I left behind a string of swelteringly hot days, and nights of sleeping under a wet sheet that dried in the heat anyway. I packed a handful of books, the warmest jacket I owned, and stopped onto the plane that would take me to Boston where, for six months, I would be a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University to work on the initiative Our Bodies Ourselves Today.

The morning after I landed in Boston, I walked through Davis Square in Somerville, my scarf wrapped tight around my neck. I didn’t realize that when it gets cold enough, it hurts your teeth to smile. Strings of lights glinted in windows. My breath felt sharp in my chest. Bundled up in down jackets, passersby walked dogs, lugged shopping, went about their everyday lives. I strolled through it all, thinking to myself, I’m here, and not quite believing it.

My name is Melanie Pryor, I’m 29 years old, and I’m an Australian writer and academic. I met Amy Agigian, the Executive Director at Our Bodies Ourselves Today, in the summer of 2018 in California. I was doing a writing internship at a writing center in the redwoods. Amy was there for a week to work on what would become Our Bodies Ourselves Today. It took us one conversation to know that we were passionate about the same things, and I knew that evening, as we spoke over dinner about feminism, and activism, and action in the face of despair, that I wanted to work with her. I successfully applied for the position of Visiting Scholar at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, which Amy founded in 2003, for a six-month period to work on Our Bodies Ourselves Today. Having recently earned my PhD, which was on women’s stories of being in wild landscapes, I was thrilled to become part of a project dedicated to what I so strongly believe in: creating a useful, welcoming, informative space that advocates for women’s wellbeing.

When I arrived in Boston, I jumped right in. Amy introduced me to the staff at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, my new colleagues in the Sociology department, and the group of student interns who were working on Our Bodies Ourselves Today. I met the writer and educator Jaclyn Friedman, who is the Communications Director of the project, and whose work on “yes means yes” sexual consent I was very familiar with. Meeting Jaclyn was a little unreal, and the three of us—Amy, Jaclyn, and me—took a group photo at the end of the day: I wanted something that marked the beginning of this project, this adventure.

The first major endeavor I undertook at the Center was helping to organize the 50th anniversary celebration of Our Bodies Ourselves: the organization whose legacy Our Bodies Ourselves Today carries on. At an event-planning meeting with Amy, I met Joan Ditzion and Miriam Hawley, two of the founding members of Our Bodies Ourselves. It was a strange, powerful moment, meeting these two women. They were about my age when they co-founded the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Growing up in Australia, I didn’t know about Our Bodies Ourselves. There may have been similar organizations and women’s health and sexuality resources in 90’s available to my community, but I never knew of them. It has been a special and humbling experience, being in Boston, entering a world that has been so profoundly influenced by the work these women have done. Throughout our meeting, while we talked planning and logistics, I watched their faces, seeing in both women hundreds of other women, myself included. When the meeting ended, I told Joan and Miriam that I felt so privileged to meet them. The words didn’t seem enough. But Miriam took my hand, and said to me, “You are the future.” It was enough, so much more than enough, and a gift I have carried with me since.

The night of the celebration was a whirl of wonderful things—see here for a slideshow of the event. I understood, in way that I hadn’t before, the power of the work we are doing by launching Our Bodies Ourselves Today. When I say we, I mean everyone who showed up that night, everyone of all ages, who spoke about what women’s health and Our Bodies Ourselves meant to them. I mean everyone who celebrated and committed to assist Our Bodies Ourselves Today with their time, or financial support, or expertise. I won’t soon forget the look on the face of Norma Swenson, another founder, as she gripped the lectern during her speech and surveyed her audience, recognizing the span of generations gathered before her. It is easy to say things like “legacy” and “generations of women” and “it is an honor.” I have said these words. But what they don’t encapsulate is the pure, astonishing power of the feeling of being part of a movement that is there for women. That will advocate, and fight, and defend, and care for women, in a multitude of ways. And keep on doing so, again, again, and again.

The three months in which I’ve been in Boston have involved triumphant successes and also frustrating obstacles. Like any project that is being launched, there are hundreds of things that need to happen behind the scenes for it to function. Legwork is required. Whether this means braving wintry days on Boston streets to solicit food donations from local vendors for events you are hosting, or dealing with aggravating tech problems when you are trying to finish designing flyers on a tight deadline, or the ever-present hours of admin that accompanies every developing initiative. But the successes! Let me tell you of another incredible event.

On Friday May 17 Amy was contacted by NARAL asking if the Center would be willing to organize a protest against the abortion bans currently sweeping across the country, as part of the National Day of Action on Tuesday May 21. We said yes, of course, and, with three days’ lead time, organized a demonstration in Davis Square, Somerville. Using information from Planned Parenthood, we designed and printed a stack of flyers about the ROE Act, the legislation in Massachusetts that, if passed, will protect the right to safe, legal abortions. I had never organized a protest and or a demonstration before, and it was a terrific experience. When it comes down to it, as Jaclyn taught me, what do you want from the event you are organizing? So many of us feel rage, and fear, at the way a woman’s right to decide whether to have a child or not is being assaulted. So many of us want to, and are giving voice to this rage and fear. But, as Rebecca Solnit, and other human rights activists and writers have said, the most effective action in the face of fear and despair is action itself. So often, in the face of overwhelm, I feel myself crumble, wondering what can I do? Jaclyn, Amy, and I decided our demonstration to #stopthebans would provide an answer for when people asked that question. We made a brochure with information about what the ROE Act is; why it’s important; and how to contact your state legislator with a script to ask them to support the Act. Here’s the brochure we made. Have a look at some of the photos from the day on our Facebook page here! We had a fantastic turn out, and it was a huge highlight for me. Talking to other people who showed up and took part in the demonstration helped assuage, for a while, the crushing worry about what is happening to human rights under the current administration. It fed and strengthened me; reminded me that there are others, and we are seeking out and finding each other. As we stood on a street corner, holding up our banners in the bright sun, grinning with fierce satisfaction as passing car beeped and people cheered, the woman beside me turned to me and commented, “I was doing this in the seventies. Can’t believe I’m still doing this now.” And yet, there she was, turning up still, adding her voice. This exchange should perhaps have been disheartening but it fortified me. It’s going to be a long fight, but we’re fighting. Do not underestimate the compassion, and integrity, and courage, of the millions of people who care for other people.

In the lulls between executing events and planning them (keep an eye on us this summer! We’re planning Big Things!) I’ve had my head down, immersed in research. My current project at Our Bodies Ourselves Today is mapping the landscape of online women’s health resources in the U.S. As you might imagine, this is a vast task, and will in all likelihood be an ongoing one. From the CDC to goop, from women’s health research institutes to online magazines, there’s a lot of information out there. Which, after all, is why we’re building Our Bodies Ourselves Today; a place where you’ll be able to find trustworthy, vetted, and continually updated women’s health information.

I’ve also been exploring and getting to know Boston. In the way that it often does, time has ballooned strangely these last three months, the days seeming to at once have inched and also swept by. The grey, drizzly weather when I first arrived seems like a distant memory now. In what felt like twenty-four hours, I watched the tree outside my kitchen go from stripped grey and bare to being covered in a cloud of tiny white buds. I blinked, and the tree had burst into a bloom of new green. Walking through suburbs, tulips exploded, eye-wateringly bright. I stood waiting for the bus and a slight breeze blew a handful of soft petals down onto me from the tree I stood under. Spring swept in and swept me off my feet; but at the same time, I’ve found my feet, in this city of gilded buildings and steam puffing from vents at the crosswalks (a detail I find endlessly charming.) I have sampled a whoopie pie for the first time, heard some fantastic live music, and lost hours in the Harvard Book Store. My experience is expanding, my language is deepening, my skillset is developing. And, as I share conversation with and am mentored by the incredible women I work with, my certainty is growing: that raising up women’s lives and stories, protecting our rights and livelihoods, and forging connections and communities amongst us will always be my work.