Women’s right to vote and the e-patient movement


Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.
– Marie Shear

Recent speaking clients know that I often note the parallels between the patient movement and other cultural revolutions: the women’s movements, civil rights, gay rights, disability rights. (I mention disability issues less often, but it was disability advocate Ed Roberts who said in the 1990s, after years of struggle: “When someone else speaks for you, you lose.”)

As anyone who’s heard me speak knows, I don’t get overtly “radically” about it. But I’ve been at this long enough now that I do see patterns. And the patterns teach me that the way people see things now may not be how we’ll see them in the future … and it’s up to us all to speak the truth as we see it.

So when I returned from the week’s travels, my eye was caught today by a recent “this day in history” in the Boston Globe:

In 1873, suffragist Susan B. Anthony was found guilty by a judge in Canandaigua, N.Y., of breaking the law by casting a vote in the 1872 presidential election.

The Feminist.org blog has a great post about it: Here’s how they say they would have covered it, if they’d been around back then:

Susan B. Anthony has been found guilty of having “illegally” voted in last November’s General Election

She was not convicted by a true jury of her peers, because women cannot serve on juries.

Nor was she able to eloquently make her own case to the all-male jury, because the judge ruled in favor of the prosecution when the District Attorney said that as a woman “she is not competent as a witness in her own behalf.”

Her conviction did not come after secret deliberations by an unbiased jury because Judge Ward Hunt, after hearing the evidence, directed the jurors to find her guilty.

Even a defense motion to poll the jurors individually after they delivered their verdict was denied.

All of this may sound familiar to patients whose opinions are considered not worth hearing because, after all, they’re only patients, so what could they know?

These things take time. Unless they don’t.

After that bold and illegal vote, it took another 38 years before the 19th Amendment gave women the vote. It was 1920: 100 years after her birth. (And we still don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S.)

On election day in 2012 in the AtlanticEleanor Barkhorn wrote about a fabulous flyer from that era that I’ve used in many talks.




Sample arguments:

“Vote NO” because:

  • 90% of women aren’t asking for it. (This is exactly like well-meaning people who say, “My patients aren’t like that.”)
  • It means competition instead of cooperation. (This is directly relevant to cases where a physician feels that their authority is challenged by a patient who thinks.) (Note, too, that in the flyer’s case, “cooperation” meant, “Women do what men want them to.”)
  • It can be of no benefit commensurate with the expense involved.


  • You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout.
  • Why vote for pure food laws, when your husband does that? (That is paternalism, clear as a bell: “Oh, don’t you worry about that — we’re taking care of it for you.”)
  • Sulpho naphthol and elbow grease drive out bugs quicker than political hot air.

Spot removers:

  • There is no method known by which mud-stained reputations may be cleaned after bitter political campaigns.

For more laughs, I dare you to read the whole flyer.

And that was years after Anthony’s death in 1906. Is it any wonder that in her later years she looked a bit bitter, after decades of making her case and getting responses like that?

The work is not done when things are better for you.


Thanks to friend Marge Benham-Hutchins for pointing out the photo above, of one episode in the women’s movement where push truly came to shove. As far as I can tell from Google, it’s a  photo of an English suffragette being beaten on Black Friday, Nov. 18, 1910 — right around the time when the flyer above was printed. More than 30 additional years after Anthony’s conviction.

Ten years later, according to Wikipedia, some UK women got the vote: “From 1918-1928, women could vote at 30 with property qualifications or as graduates of UK universities, while men could vote at 21 with no qualification.” In 1928 the age restriction was removed.

In Switzerland the last region gave women the vote in 1991, and during my 2013 visit a TV news item in Lucern said “a woman driver” caused an accident on the motorway. That’s such an ignorant thing to say; in my testimony in Washington in 2011 I pointed out that insurance statistics show women have 1/3 fewer accidents than the men who used to make fun of them.

What’s right is right.

If it takes a lifetime of saying it, keep doing it. So far, the patient movement seems to be moving faster, due to at least two big factors:

  • the precedent of other movements after suffrage
  • the velocity of idea spread, enabled culturally by better acceptance of social movements and technologically by the Internet

But power politics still apply in medicine: Enormous amounts of money are in play. So those who believe in the rightness of patient power will have to speak up — and perhaps fight — for a long time before the last “patient suppressor” is gone.

And please, don’t let anyone say, paternalistically,“Don’t worry, we’re taking care of that for you.” Speak up; speak out. Remember disability activist Ed Roberts: “When someone else speaks for you, you lose.”

Speak up.

P.S. I hope this post will be of value to young women who don’t consider themselves feminists. Consider what life was like just one century ago. You still don’t legally have equal rights, but many people fought for the liberties you’ve gained so far.

Dave deBronkart, also known as e-Patient Dave, blogs at e-Patients.net and his self-titled site, e-Patient Dave.  He is the author of Laugh, Sing, and Eat Like a Pig: How an Empowered Patient Beat Stage IV Cancer and Let Patients Help!


View 7 Comments >

Most Popular

✓ Join 150,000+ subscribers
✓ Get KevinMD's most popular stories