I came to New York City in 1993, age 22, to take an internship at Ms. Magazine. Within a few months, I was asked to fact-check a profile of Barbara Seaman, a pioneer in the women's health movement on the 25th anniversary of the publication of her classic The Doctors Case Against the Pill. I called her and three hours later got off the phone a changed person. She had answered my fact-checking queries, but then peppered me with friendly questions: Who was I? What was my background? Was I interested in health? Was I on the Pill? Did I know Mary Howell? No, I really must meet her. Was I working on a book? I was clearly smart, she could tell by our conversation. Did I want to attend a gathering with her at Erica Jong's house? I really must meet Erica.
The questions and opportunities went on and on. I was flummoxed by her interest and offers—didn't she know that I was just a lowly assistant (by that time) at Ms.? Did she have me confused with someone else? I had ambitions, sure, but I was far away from admitting I wanted to write a book; I just wanted the cool Ms. editors to learn my name.
Barbara continued to fax and call me at Ms., providing me with endless history, important contacts, and insightful analysis. She goaded me to get to know the feminists who she felt were being forgotten by history—women like Cindy Cisler (perhaps the most significant philosopher in the push to legalize abortion) or Dr. Mary Howell (the first woman to become a Dean at Harvard Medical School). She organized intergenerational gatherings in 1994 where I first met Leora Tanenbaum and Jennifer Gonnerman, who were my same age and who also began to think (with more than a little nudging from Barbara, I presume) that they would write books. (Leora went on to write Slut, Catfight, and Taking Back God; Jen wrote Life On the Outside.) Barbara asked me to introduce her at a party for her held in a gorgeous penthouse, saying, "I'd love it if you said a few words, Jen. Then Katie Couric will probably say a few things." She did introduce me to Erica Jong and Alix Kates Shulman, Margot Adler, Shere Hite, and countless others who adored Barbara.
Over the years, I gradually became to see myself the way Barbara presented me: smart, fearless, important, deserving to be in those rooms. And she became, despite our 35-year age difference, one of my best friends. She came to my birthday parties in 6th floor East Village walk-ups (the only person over 35 there), read my manuscripts at the drop of a hat, picked up the phone at midnight to talk, babysat my son, and pushed me to publicize my books using "The Jackie Susann philosophy." Barbara wrote Lovely Me, the biography—definitive and scintillating—of Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls). Jackie's whole thing is that no one will sell your book for you—you have to get out there, give donuts to the truck drivers that deliver your books, remember the names of the bookstore workers in Peoria, and do the interview conducted by the 12-year-old with the ham radio. Barbara admired Jackie and agreed—nobody is going to give women anything much, so go out there and build your powerful life.
Thinking about Barbara, I realize that she was a one-woman social networking site. She remembered everyone she had ever met and tried to connect them with everybody else she had ever met. She recalled where you were from, whom you dated, your health problems, and your writings or accomplishments and then she introduced to people who you should know. She was incredibly generous—if you needed something, she called everyone in her huge circle to try to help you, be it a review, a deal, a place to live, a referral for an abortion, or tickets to Kiki and Herb. I'm not even mentioning all of the incredible things she did to change the world and save thousands of lives, which are all on her wikipedia entry, because I'm overcome by all she did to change my world. Suffice it to say, she was really someone.
Barbara died of lung cancer this morning, having kept it to herself and been Barbara—funny, lovely, brilliant—for the last 8 months, finishing two books (both written with a young collaborator, Laura Eldridge) and getting her papers ready for Harvard's archive before she became too sick.
Given the heroic effort she made to finish two books in spite of her dire diagnosis, I bought her new books the moment I learned I was losing her. Her sales spiked on Amazon (others bought them, too) right before she passed, and I know that Barbara would be thrilled about that. Very Jackie Susann.
Barbara Seaman Raised Alarms, Answered Every Call
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 email@example.com.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Barbara Seaman, 1935 - 2008." (Viewed on February 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/seaman-barbara>.