Barbara Seaman: A Remembrance by Jennifer Baumgardner

bseaman.jpgBarbara Seaman, born September 11, 1935; died February 27, 2008
Contributed by Jennifer Baumgardner
I came to New York City in 1993, age 22, to take an internship at Ms. magazine. Within a few months, I was asked to fact-check a profile of Barbara Seaman, a pioneer in the women’s health movement on the 25th anniversary of the publication of her classic The Doctors Case Against the Pill. I called her and three hours later got off the phone a changed person. She had answered my fact-checking queries, but then peppered me with friendly questions: Who was I? What was my background? Was I interested in health? Was I on the Pill? Did I know Mary Howell? No, I really must meet her. Was I working on a book? I was clearly smart, she could tell by our conversation. Did I want to attend a gathering with her at Erica Jong’s house? I really must meet Erica.
The questions and opportunities went on and on. I was flummoxed by her interest and offers—didn’t she know that I was just a lowly assistant (by that time) at Ms.? Did she have me confused with someone else? I had ambitions, sure, but I was far away from admitting I wanted to write a book—I just wanted the cool Ms. editors to learn my name.
Barbara continued to fax and call me at Ms., providing me with endless history, important contacts, and insightful analysis. She goaded me to get to know the feminists who she felt were being forgotten by history—women like Cindy Cisler (perhaps the most significant philosopher in the push to legalize abortion) or Dr. Mary Howell (the first woman to become a Dean at Harvard Medical School). She organized intergenerational gatherings in 1994 where I first met Leora Tanenbaum and Jennifer Gonnerman, who were my same age and who also began to think (with more than a little nudging from Barbara, I presume) that they would write books. (Leora went on to write Slut, Catfight, and Taking Back God; Jen wrote Life On the Outside.) Barbara asked me to introduce her at a party for her held in a gorgeous penthouse, saying, “I’d love it if you said a few words, Jen. Then Katie Couric will probably say a few things.� She did introduce me to Erica Jong–and Alix Kates Shulman, Margot Adler, Shere Hite, and countless others who adored Barbara.


Over the years, I gradually became to see myself the way Barbara presented me: smart, fearless, important, deserving to be in those rooms. And she became, despite our 35-year age difference, one of my best friends. She came to my birthday parties in 6th floor East Village walk-ups (the only person over 35 there), read my manuscripts at the drop of a hat, picked up the phone at midnight to talk, babysat my son, and pushed me to publicize my books using “The Jackie Susann philosophy.� Barbara wrote Lovely Me, the biography—definitive and scintillating—of Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls). Jackie’s whole thing is that no one will sell your book for you—you have to get out there, give donuts to the truck drivers that deliver your books, remember the names of the bookstore workers in Peoria, and do the interview conducted by the 12-year-old with the ham radio. Barbara admired Jackie and agreed—nobody is going to give women anything much, so go out there and build your powerful life.
Thinking about Barbara, I realize that she was a one-woman social networking site. She remembered everyone she had ever met and tried to connect them with everybody else she had ever met. She recalled where you were from, whom you dated, your health problems, and your writings or accomplishments and then she introduced to people who you should know. She was incredibly generous—if you needed something, she called everyone in her huge circle to try to help you, be it a review, a deal, a place to live, a referral for an abortion, or tickets to Kiki and Herb. I’m not even mentioning all of the incredible things she did to change the world and save thousands of lives, which are all on her wikipedia entry, because I’m overcome by all she did to change my world. Suffice it to say, she was really someone.
Barbara died of lung cancer this morning, having kept it to herself and been Barbara—funny, lovely, brilliant—for the last 8 months, finishing two books (both written with a young collaborator, Laura Eldridge) and getting her papers ready for Harvard’s archive before she became too sick.
Given the heroic effort she made to finish two books in spite of her dire diagnosis, I bought her new books the moment I learned I was losing her. Her sales spiked on Amazon (others bought them, too) right before she passed, and I know that Barbara would be thrilled about that. Very Jackie Susann.

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18 Comments

  1. CourtneyEMartin
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this beautiful “send up” Jen. I never met Barbara but you wrote about her so beautifully, I feel as if I too were one in her circle. And perhaps, in the end, I am. My love to you and all those who knew and will miss her.

  2. elizabear
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    This is such a beautifully written tribute to Barbara — reading it reminded me of all the amazing women out there who want to change things…it also reminded me why I want to know those women (and be one of them!). Thank you for sharing your memories of her and for giving me some unexpected inspiration this morning to go out and be better, however that may end up manifesting itself! My thoughts are with you.

  3. Ann
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I interviewed Barbara for a story I was working on two years ago or so. She was really amazing. Not only incredibly knowledgeable, but she sent me her own dog-eared copy of a book she referenced during our conversation. She made a point of asking me about myself and my feminism. She was really, really awesome, and it’s incredibly sad to lose her.

  4. Posted February 27, 2008 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Barbara seems like she was a wonderful woman. A true representation of women helping each other in any way possible. It’s amazing (and amazingly important) to see women in high places helping out the next generation of women – I didn’t know Barbara but reading the story makes me miss her nonetheless.

  5. suzanne
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I had the honor of attending a dinner seminar with Barbara Seaman last year hosted by the Woodhull Institute. She shared with us her views on Gardisil, the new HPV vaccine, among other health issues for women. I left the evening armed with knowledge and future questions to ask about my health.
    I am grateful to Ms. Seaman for the pioneering work she did her entire life on behalf of women.

  6. suzanne
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I had the honor of attending a dinner seminar with Barbara Seaman last year hosted by the Woodhull Institute. She shared with us her views on Gardisil, the new HPV vaccine, among other health issues for women. I left the evening armed with knowledge and future questions to ask about my health.
    I am grateful to Ms. Seaman for the pioneering work she did her entire life on behalf of women.

  7. Judith
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I first “met” Barbara through my dissertation research (I was writing on the women’s health movement) and then later in person through my work at the Jewish Women’s Archive. She was an amazing woman — so encouraging, a great listener, passionate and always working for change. I feel so lucky that I had the chance to know her. Thank you for sharing her story here. We need to keep her memory alive.

  8. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for your sensitive remembrance of Barbara Seaman. Like others who have commented, I was able to meet Barbara Seaman and came away impressed not only by her knowledge of women’s health, but by her generous humanity.
    She was on one of her tiring book tours, but even though the hour was late, she ended up in a cafe with several of us for more conversation.
    Of course while we all wanted to know about her, her main interest was finding out about all about us!
    That was Barbara…

  9. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for your sensitive remembrance of Barbara Seaman. Like others who have commented, I was able to meet Barbara Seaman and came away impressed not only by her knowledge of women’s health, but by her generous humanity.
    She was on one of her tiring book tours, but even though the hour was late, she ended up in a cafe with several of us for more conversation.
    Of course while we all wanted to know about her, her main interest was finding out about all about us!
    That was Barbara…

  10. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for your sensitive remembrance of Barbara Seaman. Like others who have commented, I was able to meet Barbara Seaman and came away impressed not only by her knowledge of women’s health, but by her generous humanity.
    She was on one of her tiring book tours, but even though the hour was late, she ended up in a cafe with several of us for more conversation.
    Of course while we all wanted to know about her, her main interest was finding out about all about us!
    That was Barbara…

  11. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for your sensitive remembrance of Barbara Seaman. Like others who have commented, I was able to meet Barbara Seaman and came away impressed not only by her knowledge of women’s health, but by her generous humanity.
    She was on one of her tiring book tours, but even though the hour was late, she ended up in a cafe with several of us for more conversation.
    Of course while we all wanted to know about her, her main interest was finding out about all about us!
    That was Barbara…

  12. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for your sensitive remembrance of Barbara Seaman. Like others who have commented, I was able to meet Barbara Seaman and came away impressed not only by her knowledge of women’s health, but by her generous humanity.
    She was on one of her tiring book tours, but even though the hour was late, she ended up in a cafe with several of us for more conversation.
    Of course while we all wanted to know about her, her main interest was finding out about all about us!
    That was Barbara…

  13. Posted February 28, 2008 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    Oh dear. I got server errors when I posted my comment and then it got repeated…repeatedly.
    My apologies,
    Estelle

  14. Posted March 2, 2008 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I met Jennifer, along with other young feminists, years ago, through Barbara Seaman. I also met Gloria Steinem through Barbara, and, indeed, anyone else that Barbara thought might be helpful to me, or whom I could help.
    I am a women’s health book author, which puts me in the same field as Barbara, but, indeed, there is no one like Barbara. She was a singular life force, inspiring, cajoling and urging all of us to be our best.
    There was no one else like Barbara, and our world is a far less interesting place, now that she is gone.
    I moved to Miami a few years ago and lost touch with, Barbara,Jennifer,and some of the other women I’d met through Barbara. This was distinctly my loss. I hope that anyone who wishes will get in touch with me through the email on my website (unless one is posted here), so that I can rectify this, because Barbara, after all, always did want all of us to stay in touch.
    Charlotte Libov
    co-author, “A Women’s Guide to Heart Attack Recovery.”

  15. Posted March 2, 2008 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I met Jennifer, along with other young feminists, years ago, through Barbara Seaman. I also met Gloria Steinem through Barbara, and, indeed, anyone else that Barbara thought might be helpful to me, or whom I could help.
    I am a women’s health book author, which puts me in the same field as Barbara, but, indeed, there is no one like Barbara. She was a singular life force, inspiring, cajoling and urging all of us to be our best.
    There was no one else like Barbara, and our world is a far less interesting place, now that she is gone.
    I moved to Miami a few years ago and lost touch with, Barbara,Jennifer,and some of the other women I’d met through Barbara. This was distinctly my loss. I hope that anyone who wishes will get in touch with me through the email on my website (unless one is posted here), so that I can rectify this, because Barbara, after all, always did want all of us to stay in touch.
    Charlotte Libov
    co-author, “A Women’s Guide to Heart Attack Recovery.”

  16. Posted March 2, 2008 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I met Jennifer, along with other young feminists, years ago, through Barbara Seaman. I also met Gloria Steinem through Barbara, and, indeed, anyone else that Barbara thought might be helpful to me, or whom I could help.
    I am a women’s health book author, which puts me in the same field as Barbara, but, indeed, there is no one like Barbara. She was a singular life force, inspiring, cajoling and urging all of us to be our best.
    There was no one else like Barbara, and our world is a far less interesting place, now that she is gone.
    I moved to Miami a few years ago and lost touch with, Barbara,Jennifer,and some of the other women I’d met through Barbara. This was distinctly my loss. I hope that anyone who wishes will get in touch with me through the email on my website (unless one is posted here), so that I can rectify this, because Barbara, after all, always did want all of us to stay in touch.
    Charlotte Libov
    co-author, “A Women’s Guide to Heart Attack Recovery.”

  17. Posted March 2, 2008 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I met Jennifer, along with other young feminists, years ago, through Barbara Seaman. I also met Gloria Steinem through Barbara, and, indeed, anyone else that Barbara thought might be helpful to me, or whom I could help.
    I am a women’s health book author, which puts me in the same field as Barbara, but, indeed, there is no one like Barbara. She was a singular life force, inspiring, cajoling and urging all of us to be our best.
    There was no one else like Barbara, and our world is a far less interesting place, now that she is gone.
    I moved to Miami a few years ago and lost touch with, Barbara,Jennifer,and some of the other women I’d met through Barbara. This was distinctly my loss. I hope that anyone who wishes will get in touch with me through the email on my website (unless one is posted here), so that I can rectify this, because Barbara, after all, always did want all of us to stay in touch.
    Charlotte Libov
    co-author, “A Women’s Guide to Heart Attack Recovery.”

  18. Posted March 2, 2008 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I tried to post a longer remembrance before, and I don’t want to have it repeated because the server also died. However, I do want to say that Jennifer got it right. I met Jennifer through Barbara, and I regret losing touch, so I wanted to touch base with her, and all the legions of Barbara Seaman fans out there, who have lost a great friend.
    Charlotte Libov
    co-author, “A Woman’s Guide To Heart Attack Recovery”

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