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Women Who Inspire Change: Barbara Seaman
In February of 2008, the women’s health movement lost one of its mothers, and I lost one of mine. Barbara Seaman, a tireless activist on behalf of women’s rights, died of lung cancer at her home in Manhattan. After the diagnosis in April of 2007, Barbara was determined to write a memoir, to put her various experiences working to reform women’s health to paper and offer tales of victory and words of caution for the next generation of women who would fight battles for better, safer lives. Sadly, Barbara never got the chance.
During the summer of 2007 I conducted a series of interviews with Barbara, asking her to talk about her long career. She never could decide on one experience that put her on the path to a life of health advocacy. Was it the death of her Aunt Sally from Hormone Treatment (HT)-induced cancer? Or the time a doctor gave her post-partum drugs that leeched into her breast milk and poisoned her infant son? I like to think that, at least subconsciously, it was when a doctor gave 17-year-old Barbara a pack of cigarettes in response to her query about how to lose weight. As he pressed the cigarettes into her hand, the doctor instructed her to have one or two after dinner as an alternative to eating dessert.
When I asked about her greatest accomplishments, Barbara was similarly undecided. Some days she would say her best contribution was Women and the Crisis in Sex Hormones, the book she wrote that predicted the HT debacle following the resolutions of the Women’s Health Initiative in 2002. At other times, she named the hearings and protests that resulted from Doctors’ Case Against the Pill, which led to the world’s first patient packet insert for prescription drugs. In the end Barbara decided that it was a tie between her grandchildren (which includes two feminist granddaughters) and the creation of the National Women’s Health Network.
On her greatest regret, however, Barbara was clear: her inability to stop women from suffering the unnecessary harm of under-tested drugs pushed by profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies. She saw it happen over and over again, frustrated each time we heard about a woman with a tragic outcome or, ironically, an avoidable cancer. In these moments, Barbara despaired that she had failed, a sentiment I found hard to understand. Although she refused to accept credit for the movement's successes, Barbara was plagued with a sense of personal responsibility for its failures.
For people like me, Barbara’s most meaningful legacy was her commitment to mentor, educate, and encourage young women to enact great works of their own. I met her when I was a directionless young feminist, restless and desperate for opportunities to make change. Barbara taught me to be passionate about health care. She gave me the skills and opportunity to write, and introduced me to great thinkers and activists with whom I could organize, improvise, and theorize when continuing the projects of the women’s health movement. Barbara believed there is continuity between generations, and that a woman's answers to the questions of her mentors pose a new starting point for those who follow her to address.
There are so many battles facing women's health today. Our systems allow access for only a select few to receive adequate health care. The right to a safe abortion continues to suffer assault, and today we must terrifyingly add the right to access contraceptives. The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people continue to be abused and curtailed. Women in low-income communities and communities of color must fight to have their unique experiences acknowledged and needs addressed. Those of us at the forefront of today's women's health movement must continue to define and fight these new health battles. My belief is that the example, memory, and inspiration of women, like Barbara, will help us to keep on winning.
Laura Eldridge is a women’s health writer and activist. She edited Voices of the Women's Health Movement with Barbara Seaman. Her first solo book was In Our Control: The Complete Guide to Contraceptive Choices for Women.