Don't forget Barbara Seaman!
I read this New York Times article about the role of pharmaceutical companies in creating a market for treating menopause at about midnight, and I was so appalled that the article doesn't mention journalist and women's health activist Barbara Seaman that I couldn't sleep and got out of bed at 1 a.m. to write this post. What the New York Times is pointing out at the end of 2009, Barbara Seaman started to write about in the 1960s, publishing her first of several books on the topic of the dangers of synthetic hormones -- The Doctor's Case Against the Pill -- in 1969. Her book sparked the 1970 Senate hearings about the safety of the birth control pill, which resulted in an FDA warning to users of the Pill -- the first warning label for any prescription drug. (Later books, such as the 1977 Women and the Crisis is Sex Hormones and the 2003 The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women, focused specifically on the treatment of menopause with hormones.)
Seaman -- who had been a columnist for women's magazines -- came to women's health activism from the perspective of patient advocacy. She noticed that not only were pharmaceutical companies loathe to give information about the risks and side effects of their products, but even doctors were complicit in keeping information from their patients. Having personally encountered the "don't worry your pretty little head about it" response from doctors, she later heard the even more insulting justification from doctors that if they shared information on the possible side effects of the pill with their patients, they'd have to deal with the panic and hysteria of countless suggestible women, all sure they were suffering from these symptoms.
Seaman argued for a patient's right to be informed, but also for women's authority about their own bodies. In doing so, she became a feminist pioneer in the field of women's health activism. She co-founded the National Women's Health Network in 1975 and devoted her life to being a "muckraker" in the best sense of the word, providing information to women and challenging doctors and the pharmaceutical industry on their silences and investments in keeping certain information from patients. She felt the impact of those investments very personally, as she was blacklisted from several magazines due to pressure from their pharmaceutical advertisers.
I'm upset about Seaman's omission from the NY Times piece first of all because it makes invisible the contributions of this smart, brave, determined woman. It's shoddy journalism not to mention her; she was, for example, one of the first people to take on Dr. Robert Wilson and his Feminine Forever, featured prominently in the article and the accompanying illustration. It's also a step backwards for women's history. We lose a powerful role model and a significant piece of our history if we forget Barbara Seaman.
We lose something else, too, if we leave out the story of Barbara Seaman: the importance of the patient advocate/activist in general. What we're left with is a story about doctors, researchers, and business people. Patients enter the story as litigants, who have their place in health activism, to be sure, but it's a limited one. In this era of attempted health reform, we can't forget the role of the bold, loud, pushy activists like Barbara Seaman, the ones who never let the issue drop. Sadly, Barbara is no longer with us, but I hope her story and example will inspire generations of health activists to take up her work where she left off, keeping the story in the news and holding toes to the fire.
How to cite this page
Rosenbaum, Judith. "Don't forget Barbara Seaman!." 14 December 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/Barbara_Seaman>.