Friday, March 7, 2008

Barbara Seaman: Warrior for Women's Health

Hundreds of people crowded Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan last night to memorialize feminist activist and crusader Barbara Seaman, who died Feb. 27 of lung cancer. Her Washington Post obituary admirably lays out the highlights of her career as the mother of the women's health movement and as a clear and urgent voice warning women of the dangers first of birth control pills and later hormone replacement therapy.

How right she was became apparent when researchers halted the Women's Health Initiative after finding that HRT actually raised the risk of heart disease and breast cancer. Widespread use of HRT, in fact, by the women of Long Island could explain the high incidence of the disease there, a theory I laid out in an op-ed for Newsday.

But the dozens of speakers last night made plain that Barbara practiced generosity on an unmatched scale, using a vast network of friends in all places as an intricate web that supported and encouraged all of us.

I saw Barbara at a party last fall celebrating the publishing of Devra Lee Davis's book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer. She did for me that night what I now understand was her way with everyone: not just introducing me to people she thought I should meet, but blowing a horn for me that I would never have had the nerve to do myself. I learned at her memorial service that this is what she did for everyone she knew, not just setting up a new connection but pumping up each person's confidence with a recitation of their achievements (how she remembered it all, I cannot say) and admonitions to follow through and make things happen.
I didn't know it was the last time I would see her. She looked well. She told few people about her illness and did not subject herself to chemotherapy or radiation, choosing instead to live out her remaining days in relatively good health until the last few weeks.

In her eulogy last night, novelist Erica Jong described Barbara as her mentor and the mentor for so many other women writers and activists. Barbara had been particularly attentive to young women in her later years, and Jong said she took that as a lesson.

"Mentoring is the next stage of feminism," said Jong.

Perhaps that's just another way of saying that what we give returns to us a hundred-fold.

I miss Barbara. But the appreciation she expresssed for me will always stay with me, a goad to live up to her image of my very best self.


Anonymous said...

Barbara Seaman was a woman of courage, who promoted women's health in the face of strong forces that promoted products eventually shown to damage women's health--vindicating what Barbara had concluded and published years earlier. She saved lives and made careers. The women she mentored, including Frances, will carry on her fight.

Frances Cerra Whittelsey said...

Barbara's legacy will be carried forward not only by individuals but fortunately by institutions she helped build, like the National Women's Health Network in D.C.

And her papers are going to Harvard University, where scholars and feminist historians can chronicle for women of the future how she achieved so much.