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Empowering Women in Medicine

The Feminist Difference

Feminist women in medicine make a profound difference in not only what medical technologies are used, but also in the way doctors view their patients as human beings.

From our founding medical mothers to today's trailblazers, women physicians have taken leading roles:

  • Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive a medical degree (1849), went on to open a hospital, a school of nursing, and later the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Blackwell did this despite the fact that the male dominated medical community refused to acknowledge women physicians. The Philadelphia County Medical Society went so far as to pass a resolution to "expel from its ranks any member who consulted with a woman doctor or taught at the all-women's medical college."

  • Dr. Rebecca Lee, a graduate of the New England Female Medical College, became the first black woman physician in the United States. What's more, she accomplished this in 1864, one year before the Civil War ended.

  • Dr. Bertha VanHoosen, in 1915, helped found the American Medical Women's Association, or AMWA, to specifically represent women physicians and women's issues.

  • Dr. Eva P. Dodge, realizing that prenatal and postnatal care and education were critical for healthy women, founded 57 prenatal clinics in Alabama. Those clinics resulted in a 50% reduction in maternal mortality in only six years.

  • Dr. Rose Bullard, in 1903, was the first woman elected as President of the Los Angeles County Medical Association, a feat that has never been repeated by a woman. A distinguished surgeon with a national reputation, she was one of the first physicians anywhere to employ spinal anesthesia during labor.

  • Dr. Helen Taussig, who received her medical degree in 1924, jointly developed and performed the first successful "blue baby" operation. Dr. Taussig was also a major force in warning physicians of the dangers of Tbalidomide, possibly preventing hundreds of thousands of birth defects from occurring.

  • Dr. Jean Jew, a professor at the University of Iowa Medical School, sued the university for ignoring repeated sexual and racial harassment. She won not only a financial settlement, but also a public apology from the University.

  • Dr. Susan Love, an outspoken advocate of women's issues and women's style of medicine, has become a prominent expert on breast cancer, a disease that affects one in every nine women. Her book, Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, is considered by many to be the foremost work on breast diseases.

  • Dr. Lila Waris, president of AMWA from 1989-1990, was so respected by her patients they created a visiting professorship at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in her name. The professorship is the first ever to focus on women's health. Dr. Wallis has spent her career advocating women's issues and promoting the teaching of women's health in medical schools.

  • Dr. Aliza Lifshitz, a Mexican American, is currently the president of the California Hispanic-American Medical Association (CHAMA). In addition to her private practice, Lifshitz brings medical knowledge to a wide audience through her reporting on the national program "TV Mujer."

These women are only a few of the many who envisioned a new brand of medicine, one that values what women have to say and takes women's issues seriously. In addition, these courageous women advocated and continue to advocate such ideals as preventive medicine, family planning, and accessible, affordable health care.

However, it is not only the "remarkable" or "extraordinary" woman who makes the difference. Women, by their very presence, bring a perspective and a value system to their environment far different from the male-dominated view that has persisted for too long.

How can the "typical" woman doctor make a difference? Consider this:

  • It was women who first called attention to the fact that the aspirin/heart attack study excluded women, and demanded women be included. Result: The first aspirin/heart benefit study on women was published in May 1991.

  • It was women researchers in a 1958 aging study who insisted women be added to the study group and their aging studied as well. Result: Today, there are 375 women included in the longitudinal study.

  • It was women who challenged the theory of the Type A personality, stating it could only be applied to male executives, and not to women. Result: Researchers found that women did not have the same stress patterns - in fact, they were completely different.

  • It was women who charged the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with ignoring and discriminating against women as researchers, subjects and in resource allocations. Result: The NIH is currently facing a major overhaul in the way they evaluate proposals and prioritize topics to include women in every facet of research.

  • It was women who got together and decided they needed an organization to speak for women physicians, and for their women patients as well. Today, that organization, the American Medical Women's Association pushes issues to the forefront of medical awareness such as breast cancer, gender inequality, domestic violence, and maternity leave policies. In addition, AMWA is preparing women for leadership positions by providing seminars, role models, and opportunities.