Looking Back Over the History of Women in Medicine (2)

By the latter part of the 20th century, overt discrimination had become less apparent, yet subtle inequities continued to persist at all levels within the profession – gender discrimination, sexual harassment, the “glass ceiling” phenomenon, and the lack of maternity support were just some of the barriers still faced by women physicians. Recent data suggest, however, that women are increasing their foothold within American medicine. According to the AMA (2000), women now compose 22.8% of U.S. physicians. Within academic institutions, 28% of full-time faculty are women, although their ranks are skewed toward the instructor or assistant professor levels. But the future does look promising. Women now make up 45.6% of new entrants to U.S. medical schools and are an entering majority in 36 schools.

Looking back over the past 150 years, women have made tremendous advances within the medical profession, overcoming traditional barriers to establish their rightful place within the profession. No longer considered strange or peripheral, they have become a strong, vital force, achieving a level of prominence that was unimaginable in the mid-19th century. And as the rising numbers suggest, there is every reason to believe that they will continue to succeed. As Marie Mergler wrote back in 1896, “No woman studying medicine today will ever know how much it has cost the individuals personally concerned in bringing about these changes; how eagerly they have watched new developments and mourned each defeat and rejoiced with each success. For with them it meant much more than success or failure for the individual, it meant the failure or success of a grand cause.”

Eliza Lo Chin, MD Adapted from “Historical Perspective” in This Side of Doctoring: Reflections from Women in Medicine, ed. Eliza Lo Chin. (2002) Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. Pages 1-9.


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