“If the plastic speculum was the tool of choice for self-help attorneys and led women to better understand their own bodies, then the popular media was Barbara Seaman’s preferred weapon in the cultural fight against medical sexism.”
– – Kelly O’Donnell in her article “Our Doctors, Us: Barbara Seaman and Feminism in Public Health in the 1970s”
Barbara Seaman, a popular journalist in the 1960s and 70s who wrote for magazines such as Brides, Ms., Ladies Home Journal and Family Circle, was one of the first journalists to raise the alarm about the risks of early contraceptive pills. In her 1969 book, The Case of Doctors Against the Pill, she described the studies that showed that high estrogen doses in the early pills made women who took them more likely to get blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. She also argued that paternalistic male gynecologists – and at that time 97 percent of gynecologists were men – women failed by failing to inform them of the risks and preventing them from learning about their bodies and interviewing their health care providers.
The book helped spark Senate hearings on pill safety, which in turn led to black box warnings about prescriptions and the development of new, safer contraceptive pills that contained far less estrogen.
Seaman has written and worked for women’s health throughout her career. One of her strongest strengths was her ability to reach a wide audience, including women who didn’t consider themselves radical or feminist, but were frustrated with the care of their doctors. Seaman was also a board member of the National Organization for Women and founder of the National Network for Women’s Health.
Historian Kelly O’Donnell wrote a wonderful article about Seaman’s role in the burgeoning women’s health movement and how her journalism has expanded the reach and impact of the women’s health movement. The article “Our doctors, ourselves: Barbara Seaman and public health” was published in the 2019 winter edition of the Bulletin on the History of Medicine. In general, the Johns Hopkins University Press publisher, behind a paywall, has generously agreed to make it freely available for the next month. Check it out here!
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