Reading of Barbara's death on Wednesday at Women's Voices for Change, was personally unsettling. We had not connected for a while. So many years away from our 1952 encounter in the stacks of the Oberlin College library. "Naomi? Joe Glass [a Socialist lawyer friend of my father] told me to look you up. I'm Barbara Rosner." My memory holds the image of an intense, very-Manhattan girl whose collegiate crowd was literary and sophisticated. She was a serious poet; my interests were more social--with some social justice mixed in.
And her voice. We lost touch when I left New York in the 1960s. Four years ago, back in the City, I waited for a Vivian Gornick lecture to begin, I recognized her odd, gravelly voice. I turned around and saw again the Barbara I'd known as a college student: her piercing gaze, dark circles around her eyes. As we became re-aquainted, I also recalled her sweetness and her strong opinions about right and wrong.
Her judgmental nature led to her being, in her own words, "a muckracker," a term she preferred to "medical journalist." In picture at left Barbara holds aloft a birth-control cervical cap at a 1980 news conference. Photo by Bettye Lane.
Gloria Steinem described her most accurately as "the first prophet of the women's health movement."
I was back in Oberlin as a faculty wife, when Barbara's best known book appeared in 1969, "The Doctor's Case Against the Pill." An explosive indictment of doctors and drug companies, its impact led to Senate hearings. Barbara herself describes HERE how her convictions were fueled by her own life experiences. It was the loss of an aunt who'd been taking estrogen for many years and conflict with doctors when her first child became very sick that led to her "...obsession with informed consent."
The Barbara who admonished me our first year out of college, "... you must use your god-given talent to do more work in theatre, " a reaction to my saying that earning a living was more pressing, the same woman who forty years later was impatient when I declined going to a book party to meet Steinem and talk to her about my condom amulet project ( a cold and icy evening), she was too young to die at 72--two years younger than me.
In tributes to Barbara on feminist blogs, she had pushed herself as she was dying of lung cancer to complete two more books. In the years ahead she would have given us more to consider, to question about conventional thinking on women's health care. And mentor others; she was a great connecter. Jennifer Baumgardner writes at Feministing about her generous mentoring to young women like herself. Other mentees like Leora Tanebaum at The Huffington Post have written of her true feminist spirit in taking time for others starting out in the women's health field.
But her generosity reached out to all in her sphere like the young male scholar she invited to the preview of the 2004 movie about abortion, Vera Drake. Once more Barbara, who'd arranged our invitations, made sure we were introduced to well known feminists and Imelda Staunton, the remarkable star of the film.
The photo above was featured in a respectful obit in Friday's Washington Post. How unregarded significant women like her continue to be is apparent in Saturday's New York Times obituary. First, I'd have expected that it would have been written by someone who knew her work, not someone from the obit staff. Most of the week after Barbara's death had been taken up in the Times with paens to the conservative writer, William Buckley who charmed many in the media. Barbara did not charm. Was this the reason the Times focused on details of her personal life rather than her contining role as a muckraker, still writing about the dangers of estrogen all these years later.
At Wikipedia there's an unsourced comment reflecting her sense of humor, an important aspect of Barbara that rarely came through in her public appearances.
"Condoms should be marketed in 3 sizes, jumbo, colossal, and super colossal, so that men do not have to go ask for the small."
In homage to the many sides of Barbara Seaman, I offer my latest Condom Amulet, "Rubber for a Rubber," crocheted rubber cord, Chinese beads, plastic cord, and condom. She would have laughed in her gaspy way--and instructed, "Write it up, send it to MS magazine--tell them I told you to."
UPDATE: In WomensENews, Historian Louise Berkinow's tribute describes Barbara's continued commitment to the women's health movement as she worked "in a frenzy" in her final days to complete her new book about menopause.