Norma Swenson

Norma Swenson

Adjunct Lecturer on Social and Behavioral Sciences

Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Department of Society, Human Development, and Health

144 Ridge Avenue
Newton, MA 02459
Phone: 617.969.8444


  • Masters in Public Health [HSPH ’73]


Norma Swenson is one of the early organizers of the global women’s health movement. Working with colleagues across the world, she helped define and create the field of Women and Health today. A co-author and reader for many editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves [OBOS], the best-selling international women’s health and sexuality guide, Norma is also a Co-Founder of the BWHBC [formerly Boston Women’s Health Book Collective], the advocacy group called Our Bodies, Ourselves, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.* Through the initiatives of groups of women around the world, the book, OBOS, has been translated or adapted into more than 24 languages including Braille, and sold almost five million copies. Ms. Swenson was formerly a BWHBC Senior Staff member and the organization’s first Director of International Programs, traveling, speaking and consulting in North America and overseas, responding to requests for support from women’s health and human rights groups. She is also a Past-President of the BWHBC, and served as external advisor with diverse non-profits and NGOs, including the National Women’s Health Network, The National Black Women’s Health Project, Committee on Women, Population, and The Environment, and ISIS [in Geneva, Rome, The Philippines, Uganda, and India]. Norma also participated in the First Women and Health Meetings convened in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. During the UN Decade of Women meetings and related UN Conferences, Norma Swenson organized collaborations and presentations for Copenhagen, Nairobi, Vienna, Cairo, and Beijing, on behalf of BWHBC and the global women’s health movement. Previously an organizer in the maternity care reform movement, Norma Swenson is a Past President of the ICEA [International Childbirth Education Association], and BACE [The Boston Association for Childbirth Education], in addition to serving as Faculty and Symposia participant for the Maternity Center Association, now Childbirth Connection, in New York. She is among a handful of scholars who participate in all three areas of activism and investigation: Maternity Care Reform; Sexual and Reproductive  Health and Rights; and Global Health.

Current Course Spring 1&2 2011

“Women, Health, and Development: Reconciling Science and Policy”

[Expanded Narrative –See Registrar’s Description;Syllabus to be published when Registration is final.]

Background: Elective Seminar Course SHDH 210 is given Spring 1-2 every year. Begun by former MCH Faculty Dr. Jane Gardner in early`70’s, it is probably the longest running women’s health course in HSPH and the university. Currently it is among the highest rated courses at HSPH. Instructor: Adjunct Lecturer Norma M. Swenson MPH; HSPH `73; Co-Founder, Original Co-Author: Our BODIES, OURSELVES /Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, now Our Bodies, Ourselves. [Contributing Author: OURSELVES GROWING OLDER].

SHDH 210 Students are quite diverse, as in most schools; also may include doctoral students, MD/MPH candidates, Staff members, undergraduates, and graduates students from other schools within and outside Harvard.

Course Goals/Objectives: The essence of the course activity is to help students learn specific skills so as to enhance future activism and advocacy around [any] public health policy issues – in this case through examples drawn from the broad field of women and health [see Frameworks below] – and also to foster and encourage activism as an indispensable part of public health and scientific citizenship. Students are required to write formal legal testimony at least twice, to deliver testimony orally at least twice, and to write a formal letter to a health official in order to receive a grade in the course. Testimony [student choice] and letter assertions must be independently researched and scientifically documented. Finally, students are graded on their class participation in discussions by presenting analyses, arguments and opinions drawn from assigned course readings, or from their own research, knowledge, and/or experience, and from others students’ reflections in class. These resources may include presentations by guest lecturers or other HSPH lectures, audio-visuals, possible field trips, or any other outside activities.

Central objectives of the course are: to illuminate the gaps between the scientific evidence and the existing policies or laws and the actual practices on selected issues; to understand the crucial role various types of activism can play; to expose/analyze the scientific evidence, activism and advocacy that produced an existing policy, including the role of special interest groups, research quality, and uses of the media. With this foundation, students define the dimensions of their chosen women and health problems, and propose, craft and deliver hypothetical strategies and approaches to address it. Through testimony designed to change existing policies, laws, resources, and services class members identify gaps in research and argue ways to better align policies with the existing scientific evidence as well as human rights, gender analysis, and other concerns. Obliged to present data and document their assertions as in any real testimony, sometimes, in fact, students do actually present their testimony in the real world, or send their letters to real officials, and are always encouraged, though not required, to do so.

Design: The course itself is divided roughly into three units: First is a series of sessions focused on epidemiology, the range of determinants of women’s health, and the overrepresentation of paid and unpaid female labor in health and medical care systems worldwide; Second is a set of sessions covering selected women and health issues, some chosen by students as a group, and two sessions of testimonies presented by students; Third and last is a unit of 3-4 sessions investigating the most recent science surrounding health and medical care technologies developed expressly for healthy women through the life cycle, and the policy issues surrounding them. Included in the unit is an introduction to Evidence-Based Medicine {EBM} and a concluding policy reflection.

Activities and Methodologies:

– Readings, always changed in some way every year, are interdisciplinary, drawn from the widest range of public health and medical scientific literature, medical sociology and other social science literature, popular culture, print and electronic media, and other current or past ephemeral/fugitive literature from around the world [some from Instructor’s personal files/archives]. Readings are heavy, so as to offer students from diverse backgrounds a common ground for discussion while providing opportunities to pursue research and unique insights from other perspectives and disciplines. Reflections on readings are encouraged but not required.

– Data are identified, offered or presented from local, national, international and global sources on selected the issues. Case Studies may be identified.

– Guest Speakers visit course sessions frequently, and often include local leaders in current activist advocacy from Greater Boston, as well as national and international Non-Profits or NGO’s; or, international agencies whose missions are focused on improving health and well-being through education, advocacy, improved services, and through influencing policy. Students in the course with special skills or experience may present or lead discussions as well.

– Films, Videos, Slide Shows, PowerPoint, Etc. highly eclectic, are used selectively in class, drawn from the Instructor’s private collection, other public and private collections, and sometimes offered by students in the class. Some years a Classic Archive Series, open to the HSPH and the University community, with knowledgeable discussion leaders, is offered as an [optional] adjunct to the course, so as to provide historical perspective or additional activist examples. Instructor or students often note current media coverage of relevant issues. All these methods are used to illustrate how activism has influenced policy, or could do so, and students are encouraged to take the lead in making media or reading recommendations.

Field Trips, External Events: Each year students help decide whether or not one session will be devoted to a field trip, a conference, etc., among a range of options. [See Examples, below.]

– Frameworks/Perspectives: Arguably feminist or womanist, the course and Instructor’s perspective is women-centered, community-centered, and includes a gender analysis illustrating how and why the health of women and girls is affected differently from that of men, the role men and boys play in the health of women and girls, and the historical dominance of male-dominated systems and institutions, alongside research, in crafting and implementing health policy and services for women and health. This perspective is not limited to the bodily health of women and girls but also includes a strong focus on the relationship between women and the health and medical care institutions and services purporting to serve them. Care is taken throughout to keep race and class as well as gender in the analytic frame. The term “Development” refers to human as well as economic development as a determinant of health. Ethnicity, religion, and sexuality receive increasing scrutiny as elements within these frameworks. While in general the course does not include mental health issues for women as such, in a broader sense the Instructor does take a definite position. This position is drawn from both the evidence and the belief that war and violence, poverty, normative state and interpersonal discrimination against women, alongside the restriction of women’s rights, have persistent negative effects on women’s mental as well as physical health. In addition, the course is fairly systematic in approaching most issues from a global perspective [not to be confused with, though sometimes related to,  “Globalization” as an economic concept and reality].

A global perspective illustrates the increasing phenomenon of how women and health issues supposedly confined to the so called developed or post-industrialized world are already growing problems in the developing world, and that there are increasing interactions between the two; and also, how many of the struggles and health problems faced by women and families in the developing world are often remarkably similar to those issues faced by poor and minority women within a number of the “western” or industrialized countries. Migrants, immigrants, and trafficked persons are included as part of the poor –vulnerable populations considered the primary focus of public health mission and workers everywhere. Insofar as possible, the course attempts to break down the traditional disciplinary or field distinctions between “domestic” and “international” health as it has been taught over the history of public health in the US [and to some extent in Europe], to focus more on the similarities and less on the differences in the problems with which women and their families are coping in apparently diverse settings. At the same time these concerns remain woman-centered and focused on gender justice, in contrast to the conventional public health lens.

Past Field trips as a class to: the Our Bodies, Ourselves organization as well as diverse community groups; The Science Museum Exhibit on Women’s Health [Boston]; The Women’s March on Washington DC [2004]; guest lectures within HSPH or other academic settings; various external film showings, as well as trips to hearings in the Gardner Auditorium at the Massachusetts State House to hear testimonies and/or to deliver them.

Testimonies and/or Letters have been sent by course students or former students to: Ministries of Health in several countries; The Dean of The Harvard School of Public Health; Massachusetts Commission on Diversity; US Congress members; Heads of various Institutes of Health at NIH; Office of Women’s Health, Etc., Committees on specific women’s health issues in a variety of countries in the global south.

                                                                                      ã NMSwenson 2011