Barbara Seaman (1935 – 2008)

An author, women’s health activist, and energizing influence on hundreds of younger writers and organizers for nearly half a century, Barbara Seaman persistently challenged the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies by exposing their drive for profit at the expense of women. The breadth of her curiosity reached from early 17th and 18th century writings on women’s health right up to the latest medical controversies. She chose a maverick’s path for herself, but was always appreciative of the achievements of her colleagues and protégé’s even when these came through more conventional channels. The steadfastness of her commitment to a field of endeavor that she herself had created was remarkable in so many ways, not least for the generousness that seemed to come easily to her towards the women, and even some men, who in ways large and small would come to join her in the struggle.

In 1960, Barbara Seaman introduced a new style of health reporting that centered more on the patient, and less on the medical fads of the day. She was the first to reveal that women lacked the resources to make informed decisions on contraception, childbirth, even breast-feeding, (in an age where infant formula companies claimed their products were nutritionally superior to mothers’ milk). Well received by a mass audience, Seaman became a columnist and contributing editor at Bride’s Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, and Ms. Magazine. She also contributed op-eds and reviews to newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Newsday, and consulted for TV medical programs such as ABC’s “FYI,” which won a special Emmy for daytime programming.

In 1967-68, Seaman, a graduate of Oberlin, won a Sloan-Rockefeller Science Writing Fellowship at the Columbia University School of Journalism. While there, she began her first book, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill, which was published in 1969, and became the basis for a U.S. Senate hearing conducted by Gaylord Nelson in January-March 1970. Young feminists led by Alice Wolfson repeatedly disrupted the hearing, demanding to know why patients were not testifying, and why there was no pill for men. These demonstrations, widely covered by the international press, are looked back upon as the “Boston Tea Party” of the women’s health movement. As a result of Seaman’s book, and the brouhaha that followed, a warning to patients was placed on oral contraceptives, the first on any prescription drug. Barbara Ehrenreich would later write that “in 1969, Barbara Seaman proved that women can talk back to doctors – calmly, rationally, and scientifically. For many of us, women’s liberation began at that moment.”

After the 1972 publication of her second book, Free and Female, Seaman was cited by the Library of Congress as the author who raised sexism in healthcare as a worldwide issue.

Her third book, Women and the Crisis In Sex Hormones, coauthored with Gideon Seaman, persuaded the Secretary of HEW to convene a government task force (on which Seaman served) on an estrogen called DES (diethylstilbestrol) which caused cancer in the daughters of women given it by their doctors to prevent miscarriages.

After her first three books, The New York Times wrote that she had “triggered a revolution, fostering a willingness among women to take issues of health into their own hands.”

In 1975, Seaman cofounded the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN) in Washington, DC, with Alice Wolfson, Belita Cowan, Dr. Mary Howell, and Dr. Phyllis Chesler.

In the 1980s, Seaman was, to an extent, blacklisted by pharmaceutical advertisers in women’s magazines. She turned her attention to biography. Her fourth book, Lovely Me, The life of Jacqueline Susann, published in 1987 was made into a TV movie starring Michele Lee. Seaman was drawn to Susann when she learned that the failed actress did not acquire the discipline to write her #1 bestselling novel, Valley of the Dolls, until she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In 1995, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill was reissued in a 25th anniversary edition. In a cover story, Science Magazine named it as the book that fueled women’s health activism, patient information, and a “blossoming of women’s health research,” while the Journal of the American Medical Association assigned it for review–27 years after original publication–to a doctor with a major financial conflict of interest, who dismissed it as “a strange book not particularly recommended. I cannot in all good conscience recommend it for either the public or the profession.”

In For Women Only: Your Guide to Health Empowerment, 2000, coedited with Gary Null, Seaman collected hundreds of consciousness raising articles, stories, and poems dating back to Elizabeth Cady-Stanton.

The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen Myth was published in July 2003, and will be reissued in the early spring of 2009. Body Politic, a history of writings on the female body throughout history, co-edited by Seaman and Laura Eldridge, will be published in June 2008. And The No-Nonsense Guide to Menopause by Barbara Seaman and Laura Eldridge will also be published in the summer of 2008.

Barbara was a National Judge of the Project Censored Awards from 1997 until her death. On March 13, 2000, Seaman was named an honoree in the dedication of the U.S. Postal Service’s 1970s Women’s Rights Movement stamp. Seaman lived in New York City near her three children and three grandchildren.

“I didn’t start out to be a muckraker,” Seaman has said. “My goal was simply to try and give women plain facts that would help them to make their own decisions, so they wouldn’t have to rely on authority figures.” In doing so, Judith Rosenbaum and Karla Goldman note in “8 Jewish Women Who Changed the World” (Reform Judaism Magazine, Winter 2005), “she focused world attention on sexism in healthcare and revolutionized women’s health research and reporting.”

Books to which Seaman has contributed chapters include Rooms With No View (1974), Women and Men (1975), Seizing Our Bodies (1978), Women’s Healthcare: A Guide to Alternatives (1984), Encyclopedia of Childbirth (1992), Lawyers’ Manual on Domestic Violence: Representing the Victim (1995), The Conversation Begins (1996), Real Majority, Media Minority (1997), Readers’ Companion to US Women’s History (1997), Jewish Women in America: A Historical Encyclopedia (1997), Women’s Health (1991), Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women (2001), Hands On! 33 More Things Every Girl Should Know (2001), and the Project Censored annual collections.

Books to which Seaman has contributed introductions include Lunaception (1975), The Bisexuals (1974), Career and Motherhood (1979), and The Menopause Industry (1994).

Seaman contributed to the play, I Am a Woman (1972), and to many documentaries, beginning with Taking Our Bodies Back (as narrator) (1974), and most recently The American Experience Presents the Pill (2003).

Barbara died on February 27, 2008 of lung cancer. Her family was joined by hundreds of friends and colleagues from around the country at a memorial service shortly after her death.

[You may freely quote from or otherwise disseminate any part of the preceding biography in reporting on Barbara’s life and the issues she championed, courtesy of Seven Stories Press and Barbara Seaman]