This essay examines the career of feminist journalist Barbara Seaman and her contribution to the circulation of health feminist ideas in the 1970s. Seaman, author of the influential exposé The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill (1969), became a noted critic of women’s health care and of gynecologists in particular. In her next book, Free and Female (1972), and in newspaper articles, interviews, and television appearances, she implored women to “liberate” themselves from their gynecologists and empower themselves in the arena of health care. Seaman’s media engagement contributed to the development of a “popular health feminism” that took the ideas of the women’s health movement public for mainstream audiences to consume and engage with.
Farm work is among the most dangerous and unhealthy occupations in the United States, but efforts to address farm workers’ health needs have been sporadic and inadequate. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) famously organized workers in California’s grape and lettuce fields and won national and international recognition through its boycott tactics. The UFW also opened several medical clinics, staffed by volunteer nurses and physicians, and created the Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan, a medical insurance program, for its members. Both efforts were initially successful, but foundered in the face of many obstacles, including the reluctance of the UFW leadership to organize undocumented farm workers. However, the UFW’s medical work laid the foundation for continuing efforts on behalf of farm workers’ and undocumented people’s right to health care.
By the late 1950s, New York City’s public hospital system—more extensive than any in the nation—was falling apart, with dilapidated buildings and personnel shortages. In response, Mayor Robert Wagner authorized an affiliation plan whereby the city paid private academic medical centers to oversee training programs, administrative tasks, and resource procurement. Affiliation sparked vigorous protest from critics, who saw it as both an incursion on the autonomy of community-oriented public hospitals and the steamrolling of private interests over public ones. In the wake of the New York City fiscal crisis of 1975, however, the viability of a purely public hospital system withered, given the new economic climate facing the city. In its place was a new institutional form: affiliation and the public-private provision of public health care.
The medical community and broader public have historically focused on heart disease as a concern for men, even though it has been the leading cause of death in women for decades. Through an analysis of medical publications, women’s health literature, and mainstream media, this article traces the interactions of gender and age on perceptions of heart disease during the twentieth century. I argue that attention to middle-age mortality rates accentuated men’s susceptibility to heart disease over women’s, even as these differences diminished at older ages, when the majority of deaths occurred. Age and gender biases combined to frame heart disease as a man’s disease on one hand, while the women’s health movement marginalized older women’s health on the other. It was not until the following decades that older women began to attract clinical concern and greater public attention, which ultimately expanded narrow frameworks of both heart disease and women’s health.