Examining medicine through the lens of women’s rights

I’ve always had a hard time identifying myself as a feminist.

I work for healthcare equality and human rights. Women’s rights seemed to me a part of human rights work (and as Hilary Clinton and others have said, woman’s rights are human rights). Tying myself to the feminist movement then seemed to be looking backwards – clinging to a term that was anachronistic, divisive and too narrowly defined in what activism or womanhood should be. Furthermore, I’m uncomfortable defining myself by a cause. I prefer making plans and strategies for achieving concrete goals rather than the idealistic fervor of “health care for all” campaigns.

And yet.

I’ve found myself questioning my stance towards feminism in the past few weeks. As a medical student and future physician, feminism is rarely discussed in school. However, the more I learn about woman’s health and inequities that women face in the workplace, I’ve realized that there are issues that I cannot address without the lens of feminism and a focused push specifically for woman’s rights.

For example, women are increasingly becoming the face of medical care. Yet, major disparities exist in how much they are paid – $24,000 less in the UK and $17,000 less in the US.

When I brought up these issues on KevinMD.com, everyone from family practitioners to policy wonks were unconcerned by the trend and did everything they could to explain it away. Clearly, my commentators claimed, women were just working less based on some unmeasurable trend, seeking nonmonetary benefits, or spending more time with patients.

No one examined the lens through which they were making these statements – the implied societal pressure for women to be in charge of the household (even when the household includes two working adults) and our tendency as both patients and professionals to see women as nurturers. Of course, some of that is based on the choices that individual women are making, but much of it is also the way that we as women are viewed in society, a way that feminism strives to change by women for women.

At the same time, I found myself unable to ignore that women’s health issues are being treated differently than those that affect men and not always to the benefit of women. For example, many will still claim that the disease that kills the most women is breast cancer, when women pass away far more frequently of lung disease and heart disease – areas that are poorly researched when it comes to the treatment of women! For years, women’s health focused on the woman’s reproductive system. Clinical trials for drugs that were not directly related to reproduction enrolled mostly men, and many drug’s differential effects on women went unstudied and unobserved until too late. Though that thankfully is changing through the work of Susan Blumenthal, Teresa Woodruff and others, there is still so much work to be done.

My basic anatomy course barely included a consideration of the woman’s reproductive system and focused on the male reproductive system as the “default” system of study. Petitions had to be made to make sure that contraceptives that could also be used in abortion would be included in the pharmacology curriculum. My female colleagues still consider ruling out surgery because they are thinking about having a family.

All of this is to say that I’ve realized that it is simply inadequate for me to consider women’s health to be somehow addressed within the greater effort towards better health equity and quality. I’ve realized that as a social activist, a medical student, and a feminist, I cannot ignore the issues surrounding women’s health and gender equality in the hospital.

I still don’t know what to do with this realization, how it will figure into my future work as a physician and a community activist, but I do know that I will find a way.

Emily Lu is a medical student who blogs at Medicine for Change.

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