One Hundred Years of Women Doctors

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.)

Persons Day 2016

Famous five monument statues on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Famous five monument statues on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

On October 18, 1929, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain handed down the decision that women were “persons” under the law. Today it is easy to forget that this was not always considered to be the case and that women have had to fight for rights that men took for granted over many centuries.

Certainly, I never learned this piece of history in school and it is not clear that this is even taught in a routine fashion today despite the ongoing need to involve women in politics. To me, this means that we have to get young women interested in public life early. I doubt that few in Canada even remember the names of the Famous Five, the five women from Alberta responsible for challenging women’s legal standing in Canada. The women were Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards. The women took their case to the Supreme Court of Canada who concluded that women were “persons” under Section 24 of the British North America Act. At the time the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was a higher court than Canada’s Supreme Court, hence the women took their question forward.

I have always been puzzled by women’s equality. I spent Grade 1 in a Catholic School and could not understand why the nuns who were my teachers were so shocked that I aspired to be a priest at the time. No one ever gave me a good reason that women could not be priests, and certainly women in the Catholic Church still wonder about the theology, I am sure.

After my father died, despite having paid the mortgage for a year, my mother lost our family home since women were not allowed to have mortgages in Quebec in 1968.

In the 1970’s when I was in medical school, few people ever immediately took the female clinical clerks to be the medical students they were. I still have the green skirt that was the bottom portion of the green Operating Room uniform I was required to wear as a female medical student. Many of my male professors still addressed classes using “Gentlemen”, even in the late 70’s.  

In 2004, as the Chair of the Ontario Medical Association’s Women’s Issues Committee, I negotiated with a government representative the first maternity leave benefit for women physicians. It was inadequate then and it continues to be inadequate now and I remember feeling disappointed that it was such a footnote on such a large contract. Women physicians and their supporters, however, felt it was an opening that would become more significant over the years.

Women, however, still have to fight for their due in medicine. Politics in medical associations, university faculties, and even practice groups are still not engaging women to the same degree as they engage men. The research uncovers some reasons, but even as society seeks to address these, equality continues to elude us all.

I believe that one reason lies in the fact that the quest has been one-sided. Society paid particular attention at the turn of the century when the lack of women in medicine began to be addressed with the result that at least half of most medical classes are now women. The low numbers of women in Engineering and on Corporate Boards continues to be addressed in one way or another. But does anyone worry about the number of men in Teaching, or in Nursing, or in Library Science? It happens that my husband is a Librarian. He was one of few men in his M.L.S. Program forty years ago. My son is now studying for his Masters in Information Studies. He will be a Librarian – he is one of very few men in his class.

Maybe we need not just to focus on where there are few women. Maybe we also need to also change certain workplaces for men in order to change an entire culture.

Photo credit

Women’s Rights and Medical Women

Most of us know that the world’s leaders met this past weekend at the United Nations to discuss and commit to sustainable development goals. They formally agreed to a set of goals that they hope to bring to completion by 2030: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51968#.VgkpN3ldGUk

This was the second agreement of its kind, the first agreement, the United Nations’ Millenium Development Project, was launched in 2000 and, since that time, women’s groups have been measuring the extent to which these lofty goals have been addressed. These goals are outlined here and even a brief review will show that many are related to women’s empowerment and women’s health. The changes with this first set of goal have been so slow that one might wonder whether just building another set of goals will truly help. http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/2015_MDG_Report/pdf/MDG%202015%20Summary%20web_english.pdf

When one considers the Sustainable Development Goals developed for 2030, wondering if they can possibly be achieved, it is worth looking through the photographs on the link. Once you have, you will realize that most of the leaders discussing these are men. There are a few notable women, like Angela Merkel, but mostly men. Truthfully, on the ground, most of those actually working on the goals, getting their hands dirty and their egos bruised, are women and I want to be sure that their voices were heard and their suggestions included.

Each year at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, we gather into our groups and negotiate to improve and strengthen the statement and listen to talks about interventions that are succeeding in one goal. We cobble together an acceptable document only to have some state that does not value women remove certain key proposals or statements. Which states will hold women back? These include some of the Middle Eastern States and, of course, the Holy See.

Both sets of sustainable development goals are embraced by women’s groups for they represented the kind of world we wanted to leave for our children and grandchildren. Whatever the politics, it seemed as if women were more likely to get past it and get on with the work.

Women physicians, through Medical Women’s International Association, have always been involved in the consideration and development of the sustainable development goals. Each year a delegation attends the Commission on the Status of Women and lobbies for the inclusion of the most effective measures. While the progress is slow year to year, it is building. It is building to a point in the same way that women’s suffrage did. While medical women from every corner of the globe come together to provide evidence based care so that more girls and women are able to lead healthy, happy lives in careers of their choice, the world will be a better place.

This past weekend, the Federation of Medical Women of Canada met in Toronto. Like all women physicians groups, they are working toward those goals, focused on those very real Canadian concerns: poverty, domestic violence and, now, the arrival of Syrian refugees. Their numbers wax and wane as women do not always see the value of defending women’s rights until something happens to them personally to remind them that there are still barriers to woman’s advancement and equality.

At this Federation meeting, Canada’s women doctors were joined by doctors from around the world, the Executive Committee of Medical Women’s International Association. This group includes not only North American women but also women from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. This group knows the hardship women face in getter better healthcare for themselves and their families on a daily basis and they work to improve health conditions for all.

These women are today’s suffragettes, although they are fighting for women’s status not just votes. They are also no longer going on hunger strikes. Rather, they are travelling to the United Nations and the World Health Organization and to the corners of the globe to ensure that there is a strong healthcare cornerstone in the building of women’s empowerment. Take a look at their website www.mwia.net Be inspired!

Rachel’s Daughters

I first appreciated that a part of my heritage was Jewish is Grade 5. My teacher, Mrs. Regent, was Jewish and she taught our class about the traditions of Hanukkah, making latkes for us and telling us the story of the light that burned for 8 days. I had not heard this story so memorably before and when I spoke with my father about it, he went and found a small top, in his desk drawer – clearly a dreidel.  My father had grown up in the Ottawa Valley and, with no Jewish community, his family had converted to Catholicism like the other Poles in the region. I don’t even think that his family thought a great deal about their original heritage, focused as they were on a hard life in a new country. Considering that one of his sisters became a Catholic nun, I’m not even sure they remembered or knew. Like other descendants of immigrants, however, I was hungry for the stories of that other community. The main thing that appealed to me were the stories of the great women of Judaism – other than Mary and holier-than-me martyrs, Catholics didn’t have many women heroes in those days.

Because of these stories, I am puzzled by reports in the National Post over the last week or so of the Lev Tahor, the Jewish fundamentalists who fled to Ontario, perhaps to avoid dealing with child welfare authorities in Quebec concerned about child neglect and possibly abuse. There are concerns about forced marriage, health problems and not educating girls. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/11/22/secretive-sect-referred-to-as-the-jewish-taliban-flees-quebec-for-ontario-amid-child-neglect-investigation/

Considering that the women of Israel were my heroes growing up, I am wondering how this group avoids the obvious lessons in the tales of these women. What do they tell their children of Deborah, the prophet who served as a judge? Have they forgotten the Matriarchs, Sarai and Rebekah? All of these women saw their greatest role in motherhood, but had gifts beyond their power to reproduce and have been celebrated for those gifts as much as for their children. Sarah’s husband and son were the making of Israel. Rebekah received communications directly from G-d and Deborah was learned and wise. What of Shlomzion, whose devotion to her community and to the great teachings is believed to have supported a return to tradition after the Babylonian exile? Even if the only role for women is that of a mother, do the Lev Tahor give their little girls the tools to be a great Matriarch in the tradition of Sarai and Rebekah?

If you do not educate girls and encourage them to use their minds, where will the new Esther’s come from? Most Jewish families teach all their children about Esther’s heroism at the holiday of Purim, as you can see from this Maccabeats video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgJInVvJSZg

But perhaps the Matriarch who comes to mind most strongly, as I consider these girls and the future being denied them is Rachel. Is she weeping for her children, for her daughters?

Jeremiah 31:15: A voice was heard in Ramah: weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and refusing to be comforted, because they were no more.

Preventing violence against Girls: developed for the UN Commission on the Status of Women

I am preparing for the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women which I will attend from March 3-8 in New York City. This year’s priority theme is elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.

Canada’s Dr. Shelley Ross, BCMA President and MWIA Secretary-General, is a member of the Canadian delegation and so MWIA will make a presentation at the United Nations about the role medical women can play in eliminating and preventing violence against women and girls. My contribution to this will be to consider how violence against girls can be addressed.

The first question this raises for me is: Who is a girl? The definition is straightforward theoretically – from the Oxford dictionary: a female child or youth. In practice, however, the answer to the question becomes more complex.

One important aspect of violence against girls is that they are forced to be women or sexualized at too young an age. While we can say that this is less likely in our culture(After all, we don’t have a problem with child brides, do we?), exposure to adult themes and sexuality from a young age in western culture inculcates even the youngest girls into the mindset that they are only valued for their beauty. Thinness is part of that cult and, over the years, we have seen younger and younger girls restricting their diets in pursuit of beauty. (Hunger Pains: The Modern Woman’s Tragic Quest for Thinness by Mary Pipher) Our mixed messages around sexualization, beauty and thinness cause girls everywhere to grow up too quickly.

It does seem to me that we have forgotten that our task is to prepare a girl for the world so that she can approach it on her own terms and that a great part of that task is exposure to the realities of the world in such a way that she can incorporate her own response, which will change as her mind grows and develops. The growth and development of a mind include education and we are all aware that many girls around the world are denied an education. We must remind these countries of our responsibility to educate girls. In our own country, we are more successful with this, since many girls are now doing better than their brothers in school. They are still not doing nearly as well as their brothers in their careers or in gaining power since men still achieve tops job ranks and elected office much more readily.

Education for power and in careers is not learning acquired in a book and our culture continues to struggle with the concept of a woman as powerful, notwithstanding 5 women premiers. While so many women premiers is a good benchmark, the numbers of women on boards and in CEO positions continues to lag behind what one might expect.  We must find a way to supplement education with an education about power and gender so that girls can more easily take their roles running our corporations and governments and boys can more easily accept their roles as fathers and members of families. (If you think men are taking on more roles in households, have a look at any research about how much housework men do, compared to women.)

Jean Baker Miller described in her work on girls’ development the fact that young women often lose their self-confidence at a point when their need for relationships surpasses their need for autonomy. Miller describes a point at which a girl will shift her thinking in order to be more aligned with those with whom she has relationships. This point, to me, marks the ends of girlhood and, like all passages, it comes at different ages for different girls. When it comes too early, we see the consequences that can promote situations in which others are more important than the girl and she loses herself in her quest to maintain her relationships.  She also often abandons that most valuable of relationships, the relationship with her mother. This may happen more easily in poorer or single parent, female-led households where her mother is busy with all the tasks of parenting.

I only have 10 minutes in the Commission of the Status of Women Panel about what medical women can do to prevent violence against women and I know what my message will be, after I’ve talked about the basic public health information of violence against girls: Promote a girl’s relationship with her mother whenever you can. You’re always a girl to your mother and the longer you can be a girl, the better.