Barbara Seaman always believed that women knew more about their bodies than male doctors did. As a young mother in the 1950s, she made the revolutionary decision to breastfeed her child at a time when infant formula was considered nutritionally superior.
As a public figure, long-time crusading journalist, fighter for social justice and pioneer of the women's health movement in the 1970s, she encouraged women to inform themselves, trust themselves and stand up to medical "expertise."
When 72-year-old Seaman learned that she had terminal lung cancer, she set to work in a frenzy. She finished writing a new book about menopause and editing a collection of essays from what she called the "women's health revolution," focusing on everything from childbirth to reproductive rights to the over-medicalization of women's lives. She also arranged her papers and sent them to the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, where future generations will be able to trace the extraordinary impact of one woman on journalism, health, organizing, politics and the innumerable friends who sent messages of gratitude to be read to her in her last days.
What a history there is to chronicle.
If nothing else, Seaman, author of the 1969 book "The Doctor's Case Against the Pill," will be forever remembered as the person who raised the alarm about potentially fatal side effects of estrogen used in the widely prescribed contraceptive pill, dangers only acknowledged by the federal government three decades later.
When the Senate convened hearings on the matter, a group from DC Women's Liberation interrupted and demonstrated with "impolite" questions like why men didn't take a contraceptive pill and why no women had been asked to testify to the Senate committee.
One earth-shattering result of the fight was that – for the first time ever – patient information, including potential side effects, was printed and inserted in the packaging for various drugs. In 1975, Seaman and her sister activists formed the National Women's Health Network in Washington, D.C., to give women a greater voice within the health care system and provide information free of the influence of pharmaceutical companies, tobacco companies or medical device manufacturers.
Although not trained as a medical specialist, she was skeptical and knew how to investigate, which made her one of the first female science reporters in journalism history. Because she was a muckraker and a troublemaker, continuing for nearly 40 years to take on the pharmaceutical industry for the harm its drive for profits caused and the cover-ups it promoted, she was often blacklisted from magazines and denied a voice on television. It was not an easy career path. Yet she produced four more books and many short pieces, spoke on innumerable panels and was a familiar figure at demonstrations.
Her greatest contribution may have been personal. Hardly a woman alive who has faced a medical condition and felt flummoxed by conflicting information did not, somehow, reach Barbara Seaman, who made time for them all. Hardly a young woman yearning to be a feminist activist or writer did not receive a helping hand – or a phone number to call – from her. No one in the women's rights movement had better networking skills, more friends and contacts, and certainly no one was ever more generous.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.