Once again, a giant of the movement to liberate women has passed on. Barbara Seaman, tireless pioneer and principal founder of the feminist women’s health care movement, passed away yesterday of lung cancer at the age of 72.
Beginning in 1960, with second wave feminism still in its embryonic stage, Seaman pioneered patient-centered health reporting. Under her watch, women were to learn for the first time that they were not receiving the information they needed in order to make good, informed decisions about contraception, childbirth, or breastfeeding (this last during a time when formula manufacturers were boasting that their products were better for children than mother’s milk.) An engaging and passionate writer, Seaman’s work was sought out and picked up by mainstream women’s magazines – Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle and Bride’s Magazine. Her essays appeared in major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. From time to time, she served as a consultant for television programs which dealt with health care issues.
In 1967-68, she won a Sloan-Rockefeller Science Writing Fellowship at the Columbia University School of Journalism. The birth control pill had by now been in use by American women since 1960, and 12.5 million women were taking it. It had been the first prescription medication for otherwise healthy people. Believing and hoping they might be able to ensure they would not become pregnant after years and decades and generations of pregnancies against theirs and their foremothers’ will, women eagerly asked for, and took, “the pill”.
But doctors, drug manufacturers and health care educators knew beginning in the very early ’60s that the pill was having dangerous side effects: Strokes. Blood clots. Embolism. Possibly cancer. Seaman researched these side affects and their harm to women, she listened to the stories of women and believed them, and in 1969, she published her first book, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill. Her book resulted in U.S. Senate Hearings into the safety of birth control pills which hearings came to be known, in the by-now burgeoning feminist movement, as the “Boston Tea Party” of the women’s health care movement. Young radical feminists, led by Alice Wolfson, repeatedly disrupted the hearings, demanding to know why patients themselves had not been called to testify before the Senate, why women were being used as guinea pigs, and why there were no birth control pills being developed for men. The result of the hearings, which were widely publicized by mainstream media, was that for the first time in history, a warning was included with a prescription drug. Perhaps even more significantly, for the first time, “informed consent,” so far as medical procedures and drugs, had became a national issue.
After her second book, Free and Female, was published in 1972, Seaman was acknowledged by the Library of Congress as the author who raised sexism in healthcare as a worldwide issue. Her third book, Women and the Crisis In Sex Hormones, persuaded the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, to impanel a government task force on an estrogen called DES (diethylstilbestrol), which was causing cancer in the daughters of women given it by their doctors to prevent miscarriages. Seaman served on this panel. She went on, in 1975, to co-found the National Women’s Health Network with Alice Wolfson, Belita Cowan, Mary Howell, M.D., and Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D. Later she spoke to doctors assembled at Harvard Medical School, confronting them over the minuscule number of women doctors and medical students.
Around this time, and in the context of the backlash against feminism of the 80s, Seaman began to be viewed as more than a journalist, more than an interesting, independent, challenging voice. Now she began to be perceived as a real threat to the status quo, to big pharma, to big establishment bucks supporting big establishment institutions. Mainstream magazines for which she had been writing columns, including Ladies Home Journal, Omni, and Hadassah, fearing the loss of advertising dollars from pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment, began to blacklist her, fire, or censor her. Doors began to close to her and finally slammed shut. As was true of by far most Second Wave radical feminist leaders and point women throughout the nation — who were similarly blacklisted, fired, censored, battered and beaten by campaigns designed to keep them from continuing to speak the truth, continuing to make real change for women — Barbara Seaman was silenced for a while.
She, and a generation of Second Wave leaders, turned their attention to other things.
Those vested in a patriarchal status quo, or who had axes to grind of various kinds, or who were simply sexists, lied about these leaders, published and circulated their lies, and the lies were believed, including by academics and the nation’s educators, resulting in a whole generation who never knew these women existed or what their lives and work meant to all freedom- and justice-loving people.
Seaman’s book, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill, was reissued in 1995 in a 25th anniversary edition. Science Magazine described it as the book that fueled women’s health activism, patient information and a “blossoming of women’s health research.” C.J. Levinson, on the other hand, the doctor assigned to review the book by the Journal of the American Medical Association, blew it off as ”a strange book not particularly recommended,” going on to state, ”I cannot in all good conscience recommend it for either the public or the profession.” Those who put their faith in Levinson’s review would have had no way of knowing, of course, that Levinson’s employment was through a consortium supported by at least two manufacturers of birth control pills and contraceptive hormones, Syntex and Wyeth Ayerst.
In 2000, Seaman co-authored For Women Only: Your Guide to Health Empowerment, with Gary Null, a critic of patriarchal medicine. In 2003 she authored The Greatest Experiment ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen Myth, a sequel to her book Women and the Crisis in Sex Hormones, written in 1978, a book which won a Matrix Award. Everything she foresaw and warned about in her 1978 book ultimately came to pass and culminated finally in the removal of hormone replacement therapy from the market in 2002. Over two decades after Seaman penned her warnings and what she had learned in her research, doctors acknowledged — or were forced to admit — how dangerous HRT really was to women.
In recent years, Seaman has been working with Laura Eldridge on on two upcoming books, The No Nonsense Guide to Menopause, now available for pre-order, and The Body Politic: Dispatches from the Women’s Health Revolution, also available now for pre-order. She had planned to publish the 40th anniversary edition of the Doctors’ Case Against the Pill in 2009.
I have dedicated this long post to the memory of Barbara Seaman, not only because she deserves to be honored, although she does, but because in so many ways, her story is the story of so many great women leaders of the last 50 years. So many of the most brilliant, the brightest, the most committed were summarily taken out when what they had to say was too honest, too true, and therefore, too threatening. We live in a time in which even among feminists and progressives, to challenge or critique patriarchal medicine or the pharmaceutical industry or patriarchal birthing practices or obstetrics and gynecology is to be attacked — by feminists and progressives! We live in a time in which feminists and progressives so often treat these institutions as sacred cows, somehow beyond criticism, beyond reproach. This despite a tidal wave of evidence of how women have been harmed by doctors and drugs.
I purchased an article by Barbara Seamans published in 1972, two months before I gave birth to my oldest son. I am reprinting it here in its entirety in honor of her life work on behalf of all women. It is an article that is as true and important and — sadly — as necessary as it was in 1972 when Seamans wrote it. I’m afraid young women and young feminists will mourn her passing without knowing what she did, what she stood for. I’m afraid they’ll be sad that she is gone, but will turn to the institutions she fought and challenged all of her life for help, not understanding what she believed in. And then, they will have to reinvent the wheel. Refusing to allow our great leaders to be erased is central, I believe, to our ongoing commitment to women. We simply cannot let their life’s work be forgotten.
Rest well, Barbara Seamans. You were absolutely amazing.
Thanks, Sis, for the heads up.
In 1957, pregnant with my first child, I told my doctor that I planned to breast-feed. “You wouldn’t make a good cow,” he said. To his mind that settled the matter, for he gave me a laxative that went straight to the milk and almost finished off my son!
In 1960 my oldest daughter was born “by appointment.”
All went well.
In 1962, pregnant again, I chanced to fall into conversation with a public-health pediatrician.
“When do you expect the baby?” she asked.
“My doctor is inducing her on October 15th.”
“Because it’s dangerous,” she explained. “Go back and ask him why he’s doing it– and he better have a good reason.”
I went back and asked him.
He was hoping to go on a cruise in late October.
If I had known then what I know now, having babies would have been a lot more enjoyable. Having miscarriages — and abortions — would have been a lot less terrifying.
Some women want to let their doctors “do the worrying for them,” but for those of us who don’t it has been extremely difficult to get honest health information. Women are making a valiant effort to correct the situation. In recent months, several important health books by women have appeared and there are more to come. I am thinking, for example, of “The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality,” by Dr. Mary Jane Sherfey; “Why Natural Childbirth,” by Dr. Deborah Tanzer and Jean Libman Block, “Vaginal Politics,” by Ellen Frankfort; “Our Bodies Ourselves,” by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective; “Women and Madness,” by Dr. Phyllis Chesler. There will even be a book telling women that radical mastectomy is not necessarily the treatment of choice for breast cancer.
These books have been and will be be misunderstood in many quarters. We do not expect men to be endlessly fascinated by the ins and outs of feminine plumbing, but it hurts when our own sisters reject us. A reporter for the New York Times complained that she was tired of hearing feminists badmouth their gynecologists. Why don’t they go to a woman doctor, she asked. She might as well have said, “Let them eat cake.” According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, only 3 percent of its members are female. Furthermore, there are some male chauvinists among women doctors too.
Let those who doubt that women have cause to be angry at their doctors leaf through the ads in almost any medical journal. One of the worst offenders sells a widely and often irresponsibly used tranquilizer. A shrewish-looking woman is depicted and the message seems to say: Doctor, get her off your back…Get her off her husband’s back…Shoot her up and shut her up with our product.
And let the skeptics, please, when the time comes, look up the January 1973 issue of the American Journal of Sociology. It will contain a study by Diana Scully and Pauline Bart on the images of women in gynecology textbooks. Even if the medical student starts out as a nice kid, he is bound to be a screwed up sexist by the time he finishes memorizing these gems:
”The traits that compose the core of the female personality are feminine narcissism, masochism and passivity.” (Dr. James Robert Willson, 1971.)
”The frequency of intercourse depends entirely upon the male sex drive. ..The bride should be advised to allow her husband’s sex drive to set their pace and she should attempt to gear hers satisfactorily to his.” (Dr. Edmund R. Novak et al, 1970)
”Of all human beings, he [the gynecologist] is made in the image of the Almighty, and if he is kind, then his kindness and concern for his patient may provide her with a glimpse of God’s image.” (Dr. C. Russell Scott, 1968).”
— Barbara Seaman, New York Times, published December 2, 1972