March 20, 2008

Barbara Seaman’s New York Times Legacy

When women’s health writer and activist Barbara Seaman died Feb. 27 of lung cancer, her death sent shockwaves through feminist and women’s health communities.

Also shocking was The New York Times story on Seaman’s death, which many OBOS readers said they found insulting and mean-spirited.

The first half or so provides a fair, if limited, overview of Seaman’s work and the impact she had on the women’s health movement, which included co-founding the National Women’s Health Network in 1975. But it s surprising that there are no comments from any of Seaman’s colleagues or those familiar with her work.

And once Seaman’s books and the surviving family members are listed, the story takes a turn for the worse. The only quote included is a book reviewer’s critique, in which Seaman is called “a conspiracy theorist by temperament and training.” Attention is then turned to this 20-year-old episode:

In the 1990s, Ms. Seaman also began to speak out publicly against domestic violence, from which she said she had suffered during her marriage to Mr. Forman. Though she did not identify Mr. Forman by name in the news media, court records show that in 1988 he was arrested and charged with assault after Ms. Seaman accused him of punching her in the face. The criminal case against Mr. Forman was later thrown out, Dudley Gaffin, his lawyer at the time, said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Reached by telephone on Thursday, Mr. Forman denied having assaulted Ms. Seaman, calling the accusation of assault “a divorce tactic” on her part.

It’s amazing that the past is dredged up like this — and, after doing so, the last word is left to Seaman’s ex.

In a letter to The New York Times, Our Bodies Ourselves Executive Director Judy Norsigian wrote:

I was taken aback by the petty and gossipy nature of parts of the obituary for Barbara Seaman and hope that the Times will consider issuing an apology at least to her family. The comments of her ex-husband and his lawyer were particularly inappropriate (as one reporter noted to me, there are all sorts of reasons that a case is dropped – and they often have nothing to do with the culpability of the accused). Readers were left with a pretty clear sense that the NY Times thought that Barbara had made false accusations about Milt Forman’s behavior.

Mostly, I am getting emails about the poor taste exhibited on the part of the Times. Rather than include some of the more substantive criticisms and disagreements that she may have had with colleagues, the piece relied on a few rather general and unopposed character assaults.

As someone who has been close to other luminaries whose obituaries in the Times could easily have included far more damning commentary than was noted in this obituary (and with far better evidence for the character assault), I was left wondering if there was some mean-spirited motivation at play here. In any case, I was sorry to see what I consider a major journalistic lapse.

Naomi at A Little Red Hen offers a similar critique. Her post is also a personal remembrance of Seaman — both women were students at Oberlin in the 1950s and their paths had crossed several times since then.

After referencing “a respectful obit” in the Washington Post, Naomi writes:

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 continuing role as a muckraker, still writing about the dangers of estrogen all these years later.

For comparison, read the more thoughtful obit in the Washington Post — or this one from the L.A. Times. Both are representative of obituaries that a woman of Barbara Seaman’s insight and intellect deserves.

Plus: For an even more intimate view, read OBOS co-founder Norma Swenson’s passionate remembrance of Seaman that focuses on their involvement in the early women’s health movement.


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