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Estelle Ramey, 89; Doctor, Sharp-Tongued Feminist

Obituaries

September 17, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Estelle Ramey, a Georgetown University endocrinologist and staunch feminist whose medical expertise and rapier tongue earned her such monikers as the "Mort Sahl of the women's movement" and "George Burns with an X chromosome," died Sept. 8 at her home in Bethesda, Md. She was 89.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease, said her daughter, Drucilla Stender Ramey of New York City.

Ramey burst into the national limelight in 1970 when she sharply contradicted a Democratic leader's assertion that women could not perform key executive jobs because of their "raging" hormones.

The controversial comments were made by Dr. Edgar F. Berman, a retired surgeon and confidant of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. At a session of the Democratic Party's Committee on National Priorities, he dismissed Hawaii Rep. Patsy T. Mink's call for action on women's rights with a diatribe on what he saw as crippling differences between the sexes.

"Suppose," Berman conjectured, "that we had a menopausal woman president who had to make the decision of the Bay of the Pigs?" (He was referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, during John F. Kennedy's presidency.) "All things being equal," he continued, "I would still rather have had a male JFK make the Cuban Missile Crisis decisions than a female of similar age."

He insisted that women's "raging storms of monthly hormonal imbalances" made them unfit for high office.

Hormonal imbalances happened to be Ramey's specialty. When a friend told her about Berman's comments, the endocrinologist wrote letters to the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post criticizing the Democratic advisor. The Star published her letter, in which she wrote that she was "startled to learn that ovarian hormones are toxic to brain cells."

She pointed out that during the Cuban missile scare, Kennedy suffered from a serious hormonal disorder -- Addison's disease, which affects the adrenal gland -- and that the medications he took were capable of causing severe mood swings.

A short time after Berman made the offending remarks, he accepted an invitation from the National Women's Press Club to debate Ramey. She claimed the advantage from the outset: When Berman opened by saying, "I really love women," she clobbered him with "So did Henry VIII."

The Washington Post, in its story on the debate, reported that Ramey "mopped up the floor" with Berman. He ultimately resigned his post on the Democratic National Committee and Ramey became a popular public speaker on women's issues.

She also plunged into other controversies, including a 1972 battle with a medical publisher that had used photos of nude female strippers to illustrate an anatomy textbook. As president-elect of the Assn. for Women in Science, an advocacy group she had helped found, she led a campaign against the publisher, Williams & Wilkins, that made national headlines. The company withdrew the photos after Ramey threatened a boycott.

She also wrote widely in academic and mainstream publications. The premiere issue of Ms. magazine in 1974 featured her byline on an article headlined "Male Cycles: They Have Them, Too, You Know," which described monthly changes in men's moods, energy and overall sense of well-being.

Born Stella Rosemary Rubin in Detroit, she owed her chutzpah to her mother, a French immigrant with no formal education whose gambler-husband's early death forced her into a life of poverty with three children to raise. She inculcated in her daughter the belief that education was paramount if she hoped to control her own destiny.

Ramey "always said her mother told her from the time she was very young that there was nothing she couldn't do ... that she should never be completely dependent on a man," said Dr. Anne Briscoe, a friend for more than 50 years.

At 15, Ramey entered Brooklyn College and earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and biology in 1937. She taught chemistry at Queens College while working toward her master's degree, which she earned at Columbia University in 1940.

In 1950, after marrying lawyer James Ramey (in a ceremony conducted by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) and having two children, she earned a doctorate in physiology at the University of Chicago. She taught there until 1956, when she joined Georgetown's faculty.

In addition to her husband and daughter, she is survived by a son, Dr. James Ramey of Bethesda; a brother, Jack Rubin of Little Neck, N.Y.; and five grandchildren.

Ramey focused her research on the connections between stress and hormones. Her studies convinced her that the female of every species is hardier than the male, particularly in comparisons of longevity.

"It is not easy to be a man in this society," she once said. "They die like flies," significantly more susceptible to heart and other stress-related diseases than women.

Case in point: Berman, her antagonist in the debate on raging hormones, died of a heart attack in 1987 when he was 68.

"He died at 68 because he was a man," Ramey said in the Salt Lake Tribune several years later.

Women, on the other hand, are "biological marvels" who live longer (by about seven years, according to the latest statistics) and handle stress better.

"Men," she once quipped, "were designed for short, nasty, brutal lives. Women are designed for long, miserable ones."

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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