The National Women’s Health Network’s Founders
An author, women’s health activist, and energizing influence on hundreds of younger writers and organizers for nearly half a century, Barbara Seaman (1935-2008) persistently challenged the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies by exposing their drive for profit at women’s expense. When the birth control pill came on the market in 1960, Barbara was writing columns for women’s magazines such as Brides and Ladies’ Home Journal. She launched her career as a women’s health journalist and brought a new kind of health reporting to the field, writing articles that centered more on the patient and less on the medical fads of the day. Barbara was first to reveal that women lacked the information they needed to make informed decisions on child-bearing, breast-feeding, and using oral contraceptives. In 1969, she completed her first book, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill, which would become the basis for the Senate Pill Hearings on the safety of this form of birth control. The dramatic events surrounding the hearings brought together many soon-to-be prominent health feminists for the first time, and led to the National Women’s Health Network’s founding. Barbara’s third book, Women and the Crisis in Sex Hormones, was a national bestseller and led to a Federal ban on the use of hormones to fatten cattle.
Phyllis Chesler is the author of 16 books, including Women and Madness, originally published in 1972. A psychotherapist herself, Phyllis exposed the double standards in perceptions of mental health and illness, and persuasively argued that women are often punitively labeled because of their gender, race, class, and/or sexual preference. She challenged therapists’ power to diagnose a woman as mentally ill when she asserts herself sexually, economically, or intellectually. Phyllis’s groundbreaking work challenged sexism in the mental health system, and both complemented and enriched early health feminists’ work to confront sexism elsewhere in medicine. In addition to co-founding the NWHN, Phyllis also co-founded the Association for Women in Psychology. She is an Emerita Professor of Psychology at City University of New York. She has lectured and organized political, legal, religious, and human rights campaigns in the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, and the Far East.
In 1972, Belita Cowan created Her-Self, which became the leading newspaper of feminist health. After talking with women who had been part of a research study at the University of Michigan’s student health service, Belita discovered that their experience was being misrepresented in scientific articles, which claimed that that DES (diethylstilbestrol) was completely safe and effective to use as a morning-after pill. Horrified that women were being encouraged to use an ineffective drug that was known to cause cancer, Belita exposed this fraudulent research. In 1974, she was invited to present her findings at a Senate hearing on DES, and became the first women’s health activist ever to testify as an expert witness. In 1978, she became the NWHN’s first Executive Director. In her tenure, Belita brought the fast-growing Network into the center of many health issues, including taking legal action against the manufacturers of the Dalkon Shield, challenging the Hyde Amendment, and sponsoring the first national conference on Black Women’s Health. Belita retired as Executive Director in 1983 and, in 1989, founded and became president of the Lymphoma Foundation of America, a national service organization for patients with this form of cancer.
Alice Wolfson is a veteran political activist and a pioneer in the women’s health movement. She belonged to DC Women’s Liberation, and was a member of “The Daughters of Lilith” collective. Hers was one of the leading voices protesting the lack of female participation in the 1970 Pill Hearings, as well as the deliberate withholding of information regarding oral contraceptives’ dangerous side effects. Women’s actions during the Pill Hearings and their demands for informed consent led to the first wide-scale patient package insert informing patients of potential dangers on a prescription medication. Alice organized many other actions during the National Women’s Health Network’s early years, including a sit-in in the office of the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Welfare, and the first FDA Protest. Alice served on the NWHN board of directors for several years. She also co-founded the Committee to Defend Reproductive Rights, which fought for and won both California state regulations protecting women against sterilization abuse and court decisions guaranteeing MediCal coverage of abortion. Today, Alice is a lawyer fighting for the rights of disabled individuals who have been discriminated against by their insurance companies.
In 1972, Mary Raugust Howell (1932–1998) became the first woman to serve as Dean at Harvard Medical School. Her experience as the Associate Dean for Student Affairs led Mary to expose discrimination against female medical students in her book, Why Would a Girl Go into Medicine? Medical Education in the United States: A Guide for Women. The book, written under the pseudonym Margaret A. Campbell, documented medical schools’ then-common practice of setting quotas to limit the number of female students. Medical schools changed their practices as a result of Mary’s book and the recently passed Title IX legislation, and the number of women admitted to U.S. medical schools rose quickly, from 9 percent in 1969, to 25 percent in 1979. In 1975, Mary helped organize the first national women’s health conference, which brought thousands of women to Harvard’s campus. The National Women’s Health Network was launched shortly afterward. Mary practiced pediatric medicine in Boston and in Maine and was the author of seven books, including Healing at Home: A Guide to Health Care for Children.