My friend Barbara Seaman, a writer and advocate, who is considered the mother of the women’s health movement, died the same day as William F. Buckley Jr.. Like him, she kept working right to the end. In fact, she chose not to have additional treatment for the lung cancer that was discovered last spring in order to finish two books she was working on.
Barbara was best known for her very controversial first book, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill describing the then unsuspected dangers of the birth-control pill. The book began as an article in Ladies’ Home Journal about the health problems, including blood clots, associated with the pill. Her attacks led, first, to a Senate inquiry and then to the addition of warnings as part of the drug’s packaging and finally to a dramatic reduction in the amount of estrogen in the pill.
Barbara, who distrusted pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment, also wrote books and articles criticizing hormone replacement therapy, silicone breast implants, and unnecessary hysterectomies. Taking a break, she wrote an affectionate biography of Jacqueline Susann, the author of The Valley of the Dolls called Lovely Me.
But Barbara was not always the fire-breathing crusader she has been described in some of her obituaries. If anything, she was warm, chatty, good-natured, and generous. Her greatest talent was her ability to bring women together. She was always hosting writer’s groups, holding book parties, mentoring young women, helping someone get a job.
In fact, she once got me a job a long time ago as fiction editor at Family Circle, which I used to say was as important as being food editor at Playboy. But she knew it would be a stepping stone, and she was right. She always told me she was proud of my career and her part in it. But then she could have been proud of so many women whom she helped in one way or another.
In the 1960s and 70s, Barbara believed that doctors far too often treated women as if they were stupid, neither answering their questions, nor giving them choices about their medical care. But in the last couple of years, we had talked about whether women now are given too many choices. She told me that, when the women’s health movement began, she and her colleagues never expected that in just a couple of decades a woman with breast cancer would be able to choose between a mastectomy and a lumpectomy, and chemotherapy and radiation. I remember once when we talked she wondered whether the options had become too various for a sick, confused patient, and whether enough guidance was available to navigate the many options.
I understand that Barbara, who was 72, told only her family and very few others she was sick. She did not want the concern or sympathy of her many friends to distract from her work. She did not even tell a long-time friend who lived abroad and who she knew she would be seeing for the last time about her illness. And she chose not to have chemotherapy, even though it was a possible treatment. I respect her choice and I realize she wanted to use her energy to complete her books, but I also find it sad.
I’m glad she finished the work that was important to her but, oh, I will miss her — not because she was an advocate for women’s health, but because, quite simply, she was a wonderfully kind woman.
– Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.