Over the next ten years, various women’s medical organizations from around the world will be celebrating their centenaries. I was contemplating this while attending the Centenary of Britain’s Medical Women’s Federation last week. The American Medical Women’s Association celebrated its Centennial in 2015. The Federation of Medical Women of Canada was founded in 1924 and the Australian Medical Women’s Federation formed in 1927 even though Australia’s first medical women’s society was founded in 1896. In 2019, the international body to which all these associations belong, Medical Women’s International Association, will celebrate 100 years of operation, the oldest international medical association. Many of these organizations took as their inspiration the women’s suffrage movement – the theme colours of Britain’s Medical Women’s Federation are exactly those of Britain’s suffragette movement.
This means that there have been one hundred years of women physicians’ influence on medicine and health care. What has this meant for health and for the status of women physicians?
From the beginning of medical women’s organizing activity, women doctors have concerned themselves with the health of women and children and with advocating for opportunities for women doctors. All told, most of these women doctors’ organizations would likely believe that they have been more successful on behalf of their patients than on their own behalf.
Despite growing numbers of women in medicine, women continue to be underrepresented in the highest paid specialties, in university professorships, in clinical leadership positions and in most other medical leadership roles. This is true even in those countries in which women have formed the majority of the medical workforce for many years, such as China and Russia. The underrepresentation of women in powerful medical roles is of such concern in most first world medical women’s organizations that advancing the position of women doctors has become a primary concern for most of these organizations. “Equal pay for work of equal value” has its own meaning for women doctors!
As for health and healthcare, medical women and medical women’s organizations have championed women’s and children’s health, and especially women’s reproductive health. A look at the websites of any of the national organizations listed above will demonstrate this important work. The work of the members of Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA) has been so noteworthy that its projects have ensured that it has official working relations with the World Health Organization (W.H.O.). MWIA also maintains Category II Status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and is involved in the Immunization Programmes of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). MWIA is represented in all three of the United Nation Centers, New York and Geneva by Permanent Representatives. MWIA is a Founding Member of the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) and continues to be actively involved in that organization. MWIA also sends representatives to the European Women’s Lobby.
The projects of the various national organizations and of MWIA itself are as varied as its members. In recent years, MWIA has worked with ZONTA to distribute birthing kits to those women in poor countries who have their babies at home, often without any birth attendant – not even a neighbour. As well, one Past President, Dr. Gabrielle Caspar of Australia has collected ultrasound machines in that country to deliver to African countries. MWIA members from around the world are compiling a series of typical cases of intimate partner violence into a training manual for use around the world. The cases will cover an unprecedented example of cultural and social impact on intimate partner violence.
One hundred years ago, at the time that women around the world began to insist on a role in government by means of the vote, women doctors began to insist on a role in medicine that would allow them to have the impact on health, and especially women’s and children’s health, that was needed to improve health standards in general. These pioneering women physicians realized that healthcare must be equal for all. They fought for it then and continue to champion the same goals today.
(Note: The above photo is of the original members of MWIA in Geneva, Switzerland at the time of their founding meeting.)