In September 1974, Belita Cowan made "what later turned out to be an historic telephone call" to her friend Barbara Seaman, creating what they then called the Women's Health Lobby. Throughout the next decade, Cowan's expertise as a community organizer would shape the development of the NWHN.
Her advocacy work had begun in college, when after a series of campus rapes, Cowan campaigned for better street lighting. She organized women to write letters to the newspaper, bringing attention to an issue that had been considered insignificant. While a graduate student, she fought sex discrimination in a case which led to the country's first affirmative action program. These early battles, she says, gave her "the knowledge and experience of how to do [activist] work and what the larger impact can be."
Being "the type of person who believes in the philosophy of hands-on experience," Cowan created in 1972 the leading newspaper of feminist health; many of its 2000 subscribers later became founding members of the NWHN. "Her-Self" was often the first publication to cover issues that affected women, particularly the use of DES as a morning-after pill. Cowan exposed the inaccuracy of research that "proved" DES was 100% safe and effective as a morning-after pill. This work expanded with her testimony at Senator Kennedy's DES hearings, where she became the first women's health activist ever to testify as an expert witness.
Cowan's anger about the approval of DES led to her role in the FDA demonstration and the House hearings that followed. With three other NWHN members, she "criticized the deplorable safety record of the FDA" in a fight to inform women about the drugs they were being prescribed. Cowan carried this theme of the use of women as guinea pigs for the FDA through the first years of the NWHN.
With incorporation in 1976, the newly-named National Women's Health Network elected Cowan to its first Board of Directors. In 1978, she became its first Executive Director and with minimal funding, took a chance and obtained an office for the NWHN. With a small grant from the Ms. Foundation, the Network created the clearinghouse and its first nine information packets.
In her tenure, Cowan raised over $1.5 million and brought the fast-growing Network into the center of many health policy debates. In these years, the NWHN joined legal action against the manufacturers of the Dalkon Shield, Depo-Provera, and DES. However, Cowan insists that she is most proud of her work with Board member Byllye Avery raising funds for the establishment of the Black Women's Health Project. Cowan emphatically states that it was "one of the best things the Network ever did."
Since retiring as Executive Director in 1983, Cowan has continued her activism and was named one of Ms. magazine's "Women to Watch" of the 1980s. For a number of years, she worked as health policy advisor to the attorney general of Maryland, where she focused on consumer access to Medicare information. She has also written three highly acclaimed books: Women's Health Care: Resources, Writings, Bibliographies, emphasizing empowerment of the individual and grassroots advocacy; the award-winning Health Care Shopper's Guide; and most recently, Nursing Homes: What You Need to Know. In 1989, Cowan founded and became president of the Lymphoma Foundation of America, a national service organization for patients with cancer. Under her leadership, the Foundation has become very active in patients' rights cases. Most recently, she has fought o increase awareness of the link between pesticides and non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, now the fastest growing type of cancer. Concerning the future of the women's health movement, Cowan feels "very hopeful of the challenges we will face in the 21st century." For herself and for the NWHN she believes the future will be bright as we continue to move forth with a "solid foundation and visionary purpose."
Nov/Dec 1995 issue of the Network News.