Rome, Esther Rachel Seidman

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Rome, Esther Rachel Seidman

(b. 8 September 1945 in Norwich, Connecticut; d. 24 June 1995 in Somerville, Massachusetts), women’s health activist and writer best known as a coauthor of Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973) and The New Our Bodies, Ourselves (1984).

Rome was the daughter of Leo Seidman and Rose Deutsch Seidman and the granddaughter of immigrant retailers. Her father and his brother Abraham carried on the retail business as owners of two five-and-dime stores in Plainfield and Moosup, Connecticut. Her mother was a homemaker who reared two sons and two daughters. After graduating from Norwich Free Academy in 1962, Rome attended Brandeis University, graduating cum laude in 1966 with a B.A. degree in art. From Brandeis she went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she earned an M.A. degree in teaching in 1968. She taught adolescents for one year following her Harvard studies. On 24 December 1967 she married Nathan Rome; the couple had two sons, Judah and Micah.

In the late 1960s, still in her mid-twenties, Esther Rome began her career as an advocate of change in the organization and delivery of women’s health care. She focused on such issues as women’s body image, the problematic nature of cosmetic surgery, nutrition and dietary needs, eating disorders, and sexually transmitted diseases. In all of her work, Rome argued that women’s health-related problems were not simply medical issues, but involved cultural attitudes and ideals of womanhood as well. Rome was a strong critic of the medical system and of the popular media’s treatment of women, especially the emphasis on weight loss, artificially achieved beauty, and reliance on “experts” for health care. She believed that women should be involved in their own health decisions and strongly advocated broad health education for women. Hence her participation with others in the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in the writing of ’Our Bodies, Ourselves, the first book of its kind, which attempted to give women the knowledge and confidence to take control of their own health-related needs.

The book, which Rome considered her greatest achievement, grew out of a workshop on women’s health that she and other women attended in 1969. Several participants continued to meet to study women’s health issues, publishing their collected notes in 1970 as Women and Their Bodies. This newsprint edition sold for 75 cents a copy and quickly became an underground hit. In 1971 the group changed the name of the book to Our Bodies, Ourselves. By 1973 the work had sold more than 250,000 copies, its success making possible a contract with Simon and Schuster, which published a new edition in that year. Because of its explicit photographs and plain language about women’s sexuality, contraception, and reproductive matters, the work was criticized in conservative quarters. However, it reached a growing generation of feminists at a critical time, rapidly becoming a widely demanded and highly influential best-seller. It went on to a number of editions, by the late 1990s having sold over 4 million copies in some fifteen languages.

Following the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves, Rome became an outspoken consumer advocate on several important women’s health issues. She believed that government health agencies neglected women’s interests, placing more emphasis on issues of relevance to men. For example, in the 1970s Rome understood that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were an important issue for women, but she recognized that the advice given about these diseases was mostly directed to men’s experiences. To counter the bias in the literature and resources, Rome wrote what is believed to be the first STD-prevention pamphlet for women. True to her activist nature, she then crafted informative STD-prevention stickers that she distributed widely in women’s public restrooms and other locations where women would see them.

In the 1980s Rome took on the issue of tampon safety, as it became apparent that tampons were associated with toxic shock syndrome. Even though it was known that lower-absorbency tampons were less dangerous, the then-current absorbency-rating system was meaningless, with products varying widely in their actual absorbency regardless of their labels. Rome’s efforts led to legislation to require standardized absorbency ratings of tampons, so that women could choose lower-absorbency tampons with confidence.

In the 1990s Esther Rome served as a consumer representative on a Food and Drug Administration committee whose purpose was to study the potential dangers of silicone breast implants. Rome’s determined work helped persuade the agency to implement a partial ban on the implants. After this effort, she led a support group for women who were experiencing health problems as a result of such implants. In addition to her activist work, Rome was an avid and creative gardener, and she also worked as a massage therapist.

In 1988, Rome was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although she followed the best medical advice of the time, her treatment was not successful. She spent the next seven years battling the disease, meanwhile never giving up on her work in behalf of women’s health.

Rome’s last major effort was the development of a book, Sacrificing Our Selves for Love: Why Women Compromise Health and Self-EsteemAnd How to Stop (1996), co-authored with Jane Wegscheider Hyman. This book continues and expands upon many of the same topics Rome had worked on in the previous decades. These include the health risks of cosmetic surgery; starvation diets; domestic violence; and the role that women’s desire to please others plays in their failure to reject risks to their health. Rome was working on this book until just shortly before her death at age forty-nine in her home. She is buried in B’nai B’rith Cemetery, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Rome and her colleagues of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective influenced millions of women through Our Bodies, Ourselves and its sequels. The central role she played in the development of this book is clear in the praise her colleagues have had for her work. Her advocacy of women’s health concerns in many venues was likewise influential, leading to changes in law and practice and in women’s own behaviors and attitudes toward their bodies. Rome was one of the first feminists of the 1970s to recognize the health risks of gender roles for women, and she worked tirelessly to educate and empower women so that they could take charge of their own health. She was one of twelve women memorialized in a mural in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1998 by the Women’s Community Cancer Project of the Women’s Center of Cambridge.

Several articles about Rome’s life were published shortly after her death, including “Boston Women’s Health Book Collective Remembers Esther,” in Sojourner: The Women’s Forum (Aug. 1995). An obituary is in the Boston Globe (25 June 1995).

Barbara Finlay