Women in medicine: Getting to this point came at a cost

Sometimes life just walks right up and slaps you in the face. It happened to me while attending the dynamic FIX17 conference in NYC, and it led to an epiphany: At the ripe old age of 59, I am officially a dinosaur.

I was giving a talk on the history of women in medicine. Passionate about the topic, I spent months planning and organizing the lecture, weaving what I hoped was an intriguing tale of the long road and confluence of events that led to today, where over half of medical students in the country are women.

The first inkling of trouble came when, at the beginning of the talk, I asked all the women physicians in the room to stand up. I then had them sit as I progressed from those practicing the shortest to the longest length of time. I realized that when I hit thirty years of practice, there remained only two women standing … and I was one of them.

My second moment of concern came about halfway through the talk. As I discussed the women’s liberation movement, the laws passed that banned discrimination against medical school applicants based on gender and mandated equal funding for education for both genders, and the revolutionary change allowing open access to birth control, I suddenly became acutely aware of the audience. The expressions on the faces of the young women in the crowd ranged from amusement to incredulity. I realized that for these women it was routine to have the person sitting next to them in medical school be a woman. My lesson of recent history (only the past 40 years!) was completely foreign to them. This impression was confirmed when I overheard a young woman afterward comment to a friend, “The women’s liberation movement? Oh, yeah, my mom did the feminism thing when she was in college.”

When I was in college and medical school in the 1970s and early 1980s, the word feminist was a treacherous term. Easily latched onto by all parties, it morphed to connote bra-burning, man-hating, norm-attacking, “ball-busting” woman. For many of us at the time, it was easier to avoid the label and to hunker down, work extra hard, try to perform better than everyone around us and forge ahead. We were vaguely aware of the sacrifices of the scant few women who came before us who nudged the door open so we could be among the women who comprised ten percent of our medical school classes.

Our generation pushed the door open a little further; for instance, two of my female medical school classmates graduating in 1984 were the first women ever to be accepted as residents in their respective programs (neurosurgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and orthopedic surgery at Columbia). And as the decades continued, that door has eventually been thrown wide open, and women marched right through it in droves.

So, here we are in the late 20-teens, anticipating that over half of physicians will be women by the end of this decade. Which explains the puzzled looks on the faces of the young women in that audience. I noticed that many of them were wearing dove-gray t-shirts emblazoned with the word “feminist” in gold letters. It is encouraging to see that word resurface, now less contentious, and perhaps truly representative of its denotation: “A person who supports the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.”

Getting to this point came at a cost, and this progress is not guaranteed into the future. It is the nature of things to change. In particular, the political pendulum swings with sometimes erratic and regressive force. The young women proudly wearing those “feminist” T-shirts owe it to themselves and to the women in the future to learn how we got here to learn how to maintain our progress and assure it continues into the future.

Just a few thoughts. From a dinosaur.

Watch the full FIX17 talk below:

Diane Birnbaumer is an emergency physician.  This article originally appeared in FeminEm.  Listen to the FeminEm podcast.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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