On February 27, 2008, pioneering women’s health activist Barbara Seaman died. The following tribute was written by OBOS founder Norma Swenson.
Barbara Seaman and I were of the same generation, yet we had led quite different lives when the emerging women’s liberation movement brought us together in the early 70s. As a birthing reform activist I had already been following her health columns in women’s magazines for some time and sensed a kindred spirit.
When I saw the first Women and Their Bodies 1970 pamphlet in early 1971 her book, The Doctor’s Case Against The Pill, was already in the references of that first ever edition. As I was drawn into the “Bodies” group and began working on the next Our Bodies, Ourselves childbirth chapter revision (for the first 1973 Simon & Schuster edition), I continued to follow the saga of “The Pill”. I saw that Barbara’s questions went to the heart of the same issues troubling many birthing reformers: How was drug safety established? Why did women know so little about drugs they were given, and have so little to say about what they took into their bodies? Who controlled decisions at the FDA? I had also followed the career of Bostonian Dr. John Rock, one of the “fathers” of The Pill, and even organized a meeting where he spoke, so I knew that fear of women’s fertility and world overpopulation were his driving motives, not women’s safety.
When Judy Norsigian and I, as representatives of The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (now known as Our Bodies Ourselves) decided to take on the coordination of the 1975 Conference on Women and Health at Harvard, we had no blueprint. We did have powerful women to help us. Mary Howell, Harvard Medical School’s first ever Dean of Women and Minorities was one of them, and Barbara was certainly another. Barbara Seaman was powerful because she understood a lot about publishing and the media from the inside and as a New Yorker, in the midst of that world on a daily basis. She knew the people behind the scenes, and she was a born networker long before the term was invented. She had also been following for a while, as we learned to do, who was writing books about women and about health. But more than that she knew about Washington, and was ahead of us in learning, as those of us writing Our Bodies, Ourselves were about to learn, how key actors and special interests actually made the policies that controlled so much of women’s lives.
Her ideas and suggestions for the conference were invaluable, and when the time came Barbara was an authoritative figure who not only spoke from experience to the almost 3000 women there but had a vision of how we might change things. But above all, she was fearless. She spoke and wrote about ending Obstetrics and Gynecology altogether as we knew it!
After the conference Barbara organized and led many of the attendees at what was probably the first ever Boston demonstration of the women’s health movement on federal property, at the Region I JFK Federal Building. We had fliers and placards and marched around, calling for the end of the use of DES on women, and demanding justice for the women and their offspring injured by the estrogen drug. I had never seen anything like it. It was my first demonstration, but not my last. Ever afterwards, whether in barrios in the Philippines, marching with the OUR BODIES OURSELVES banner down Huntington Avenue, or on the streets of a small town in nordeste Brazil, I always remembered Barbara and the confident, determined way she led us in that demonstration. She radiated entitlement and the rightness of our cause.
Of course, that was only the beginning. As she and our friend Dr. Mary Howell co-founded the National Women’s Health Network, there were dozens of times over many years when we met and worked together, when she took us into her home in New York, or she spoke at a conference, or coached me for an appearance on television.
Barbara was a strong insider leader in the women’s health movement but she became well known to progressive health activists and workers outside that movement as well. In addition to widespread speaking on college campuses and on behalf of women’s and community groups, Barbara was the primary narrator and appeared in one of the best-known early films of the movement, Taking Our Bodies Back. In it she articulated the ethos and illuminated some of the first scandals that galvanized people into action. The film was seen by hundreds, possibly thousands, of women and men who came to annual APHA [American Public Health Association] meetings, where it was shown almost every year for many years, sometimes as an opener. Barbara was frequently present and active at the APHA Women’s Caucus, organizing events and participating in its meetings.
One vignette in Taking Our Bodies Back features Barbara explaining the complicity of the US government at the time in continuing funding allowing Dr. Joseph Goldzeiher to conduct unethical Pill experiments on poor Chicanas, who were never told what they were receiving, or why, and never gave their informed consent. The story of women’s deaths in the first ever Pill trial experiments in Puerto Rico was even more egregious, and when Barbara verified all the details she told the world. She named the Pill’s maker, the Searle Company, who learned early about those deaths and basically kept them in a drawer without telling anyone not the US feds who supported the trial, not the media, and especially not the women and their families. Only years later were the facts made fully clear, illuminated in the classic film La Operacin by Ana Maria Garcia. Including segments featuring the late puertorriquea, Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, a Past President of the APHA, this film covered the full range of Pill trial experiments, sterilization abuse and coercion, and family planning programs in Puerto Rico. Barbara Seaman and Helen Rodriguez were friends who worked together for years in New York.
Barbara was a generous friend, a mentor, and an activist role model, as well as a writer. She was surely the godmother, if not the mother of the American women’s health movement. There is no one else who took the kind of leadership she gave to all of us so energetically. Her fierce spirit was, I believe, what we most needed. She cannot ever be replaced, but that spirit can and must be kept alive, so oncoming generations will, I hope, draw inspiration from her work and from her marvelous example. I will miss her voice and her presence among us so much.
Learn more about Barbara Seaman’s life and work and about the history of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.