When Barbara Brenner died, on 10th May 2013 at the age of 61, her partner of a lifetime, Susie Lampert, kept her promise: she made sure that Barbara’s obituary said “she died after a long battle with the breast cancer industry”.
That battle had started twenty years earlier. In 1993, Barbara Brenner had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 41 at that time. A year later, she joined the board of Breast Cancer Action (BCAction), the feminist grassroots organization of which she would become the first full-time executive director in 1995.
Born in Baltimore on 7th October 1951 to Morton, a financial worker in the clothing industry, and Bettie, a librarian, Barbara was, in her own words, “a pretty opinionated kid”. She remembered that her mother had taken her to hear Martin Luther King at a civil rights march when she was about ten. Influential in nurturing her commitment to social justice was also Morris Lieberman, senior rabbi at the synagogue she attended with her family.
Barbara attended Smith College, thanks to a scholarship, from 1969 to 1973. While there, she became involved in the protest movement against Vietnam War that included tech-ins and demonstrations in Washington DC.
After graduating from Smith, Barbara enrolled at Georgetown University Law School. She was there only a year, however, as she became increasing convinced that law and justice do not necessarily correspond to each other. She left the study of law to enrol at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The greatest turning point in Barbara’s life was not, however, leaving law school: it was coming out as a lesbian while at Princeton. Princeton was not an LGBT-friendly place at that time. As Barbara recalled, gay male students were subject to violence by other students. The hostility she had to face “radicalized [her] in many ways”. It was there, however, that she met Susie, who she often described as the love of her life. When Susie finished her studies and Barbara had had enough of Princeton’s homophobic and sexist environment, the couple moved to Los Angeles first and then to San Francisco.
Susie pursued her career as a city planner, while Barbara went back to study law, this time at the University of California, Berkeley. She then clerked for federal district judge Thelthon Henderson and between 1983 and 1986 worked the progressive legal firm Remcho, Johansen and Purcell (RJP), of which she became a partner in the 1990s. In 1986 she formed the legal firm Hitchens & Brenner with Donna Hitchens, the founder of the Lesbian Rights Project (now the National Centre for Lesbian Rights). When Hitchens became a judge in 1991, Barbara returned to RJP. She was also involved with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), starting as a volunteer for the New Jersey affiliate in 1975 and becoming later a member of local and national boards.
In 1993, breast cancer changed Barbara’s life forever. She underwent lumpectomy with radiation and chemotherapy. When cancer recurred in the same breast, in 1996, Barbara had a mastectomy and chose not have a reconstruction or wear a prosthesis to hide its effects. In between, in 1994, while still on chemotherapy, Barbara sent a letter about funding for breast cancer research to the San Francisco Chronicle. Nancy Evans, then president of the board of the four-year-old BCAction, reached out to Barbara, asking her to get involved. A year later, Barbara took the lead of the organization.
Under her leadership, BCAction claimed the role of watchdog of the breast cancer movement. It was enabled to do so by the bold and unprecedented decision, in 1998, to refuse any corporate funding from companies that profit from or contribute to cancer, including the pharmaceutical industry. This stance put BCAction in the position of exposing the transformation – by the unfortunate alliance between corporations and the non-profit sector – of a deadly disease such as breast cancer into a business that perpetuated the social, economic and environmental determinants of the epidemic. The Think Before You Pink campaign, launched in 2002 and the first of its kind, pointed the finger at ”pinkwashers”: companies selling pink ribboned products containing known or suspected carcinogens in the name of raising money or awareness of the disease.
Fierce and compassionate at the same time, Barbara was able to tell experts attending a world-leading breast cancer conference that it is not acceptable for them to say that patients fail treatments when the opposite – that treatments fail patients – is true and, at the same time, listen to recently diagnosed women that she regretted to “welcome to the sisterhood”.
Even when, in 2010, a diagnosis of Amyothrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) forced her to retire a year earlier than planned, she continued to participate actively in the conversation on breast cancer and health justice. She found the energy to appear in and helping with the production of the acclaimed documentary Pink Ribbons Inc., whose focus is the breast cancer industry. When ALS deprived her of her voice, she communicated using text-to-speech software: NeoKate (or just Kate, as she referred to it) and later SpeakIt!. For her 60th birthday party, her partner Susie asked friends to bring their laptops and use the same software.
A few days before her death, Barbara said goodbye to the readers of her blog with these words:
“I have been blessed to lead a rich life, full of love and culture and travel and work that had meaning for me. I have no regrets except that I got ALS in the first place. I have met amazing people both in person and on-line. Everyone I have come in contact with has had something unique to offer the world. The world is a better place because these people are or were in it”.
Regardless of the relative brevity of her life, the world is a better place because Barbara Brenner was in it.
Written for Sheroes of History by Grazia De Michele. Grazia is a partner of the Breast Cancer Consortium and the founder of the collective blog Le Amazzoni Furiose (The Furious Amazons). Follow her on Twitter @AmazzoneFuriosa
Find out more:
The book So Much to Be Done: The Writings of Breast Cancer Activist Barbara Brenner covers Barbara’s work from 1996 will be published this year (May in the US, July in the UK) and is available for pre-order now. You can attend the BCAction launch celebration if you’re in the area, see here for details.
Read Barbara Brenner’s 2012 interview with Zaylia A. Pluss here.
Watch Barbara Brenner in this 2007 episode of the documentary TV series Penn and Teller: Bullshit!