I was thrilled when I found out that February 3rd is officially National Women Physician Day. Then I realized that February 3rd coincided with the 195th birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in America. Dr. Blackwell had the strength and determination of a superhero. She faced extreme opposition, was rejected numerous times, and was still seen as an oddity and inferior when she was finally “accepted” to medical school. When she finally became a doctor, there were many men who refused to work with her, refused to assist her in surgery. While there were many female healers and nurses before Dr. Blackwell, the accomplishment of breaking through the gender barrier of becoming a physician was an enormous and long overdue achievement.
Reflecting on nearly 200 years of women’s contributions to medicine reminds me of how far our society has come, as well as where we are failing. I am happy to say that our nation’s medical schools have a nearly equal gender ratio. However, in the field of medicine the pay gap, sexism and the underrepresentation of women in high-ranking positions remain.
I have personally been called a nurse (a huge compliment in my opinion), every variation of sweetie/honey, told to stay quiet when I see something egregious and I have even been asked if I am a Ms. or Mrs. on more than one occasion (to which I reply “it is doctor to you”) by patients and staff. These interactions can be seen as common and meaningless to the people that say them, but it really undermines the respect that one earns with successfully completing 20 years of dedication to become a doctor of medicine. Most women, including myself, have learned to live with these comments and the general lack of respect, but we should not resign ourselves to these micro-aggressions. It’s important to realize that for every diminishing remark I receive as a white woman, my colleagues of color likely receive twice as many.
We need to keep pushing for equality, because the current political climate will have a major impact on women physicians and female patients in regards to reproductive health, with pregnancy potentially becoming a preexisting condition which could preclude a woman from being able to afford insurance, and threats to prohibit abortions — even if the mother’s life is at risk. The recent Women’s March on January 21 was spectacular. The participants were incredibly diverse in every aspect I can think of from age and ethnicity to gender and religion. As a society, we need to ensure that we do not lose the rights that women currently have and that we continue to push towards equality.
In all honesty, when I was growing up I never thought of myself as a feminist. Then I one day I pulled out a dictionary and looked up the definition. I realized that by definition, I am a feminist! I do believe there should be political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. I do want to vote, to hold public office, to work, to earn equal pay, to own property, to receive education, to have equal rights within marriage. To me, as a feminist, I am asking that women be treated with the same respect, earned opportunities and humanity that men have had for many hundreds of years.
I hope everyone will join me on February 3 in honoring such a strong, innovative woman who laid the first brick of the path that 50 percent of medical students are on and remembering women’s rights are human rights. And not just on February 3, but all year long, we should commit ourselves to creating an equitable health care system and rooting out sexism in our profession.
Eve Kellner is a psychiatry resident and president, Committee of Interns and Residents (CIR/SEIU Healthcare).
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