Our Doctors, Ourselves: Barbara Seaman and Popular Health Feminism in the 1970s

By OBOS — February 13, 2020

“If the plastic speculum was the tool of choice for self-help advocates, leading women to a better understanding of their own bodies, then the popular media was Barbara Seaman’s preferred weapon in the cultural battle against medical sexism.”

–Kelly O’Donnell, in her article “Our Doctors, Ourselves: Barbara Seaman and Popular Health Feminism in the 1970s”

Barbara Seaman, a popular journalist in the 1960s and 70s who wrote for magazines including Brides, Ms., Ladies Home Journal, and Family Circle, was one of the first journalists to publicly sound the alarm about the risks of early contraception pills. In her 1969 book, “The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill,” she detailed the research showing that the high doses of estrogen in the early pills made it more likely that women taking them would get blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer.  She also argued that paternalistic male gynecologists — and at that point 97 percent of gynecologists were men — were failing women by not informing them of the risks and by discouraging them from learning about their bodies and questioning their medical providers.

The book helped bring about Senate hearings on the safety of the pill, which in turn led to black box warnings on prescriptions and the development of new, safer contraceptive pills that contained far less estrogen.

Seaman went on to write and advocate for women’s health throughout her career. One of her most powerful strengths was her ability to reach a wide audience, including women who didn’t consider themselves radical or feminist but were frustrated by the care they got from their doctors. Seaman also served on the board for the National Organization for Women and was a founder of the National Women’s Health Network.

Historian Kelly O’Donnell has written a wonderful article on the role Seaman played in the burgeoning women’s health movement and how her journalism expanded the reach and impact of the women’s health movement. The article, “Our Doctors, Ourselves: Barbara Seaman and Popular Health” was published in the winter 2019 edition of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Generally behind a paywall, the publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press has generously agreed to make it freely available for the next month. Check it out here!

2 responses to “Our Doctors, Ourselves: Barbara Seaman and Popular Health Feminism in the 1970s”

  1. Great article. Indeed, birth control pills have an impressive list of contraindications and side effects. It is enough to open the instructions for any such drug and see for yourself. There are four generations of oral contraceptives. The newer the drug, the fewer hormones there are, and therefore the side effects. Unfortunately, many gynecologists like to prescribe old drugs: such pills are cheaper and “time-tested”. Therefore, just in case, find out from the doctor what generation the medicine belongs to, which he prescribes, and whether a milder remedy can be found. Do not hesitate to ask why the gynecologist believes that these pills are suitable for you, why they are better than analogs. Good luck!

  2. I have read the story of Barbara. As a female medic, I must say I still struggle with this same thought- but thankfully, times are changing.

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