Throughout American history, the tenacity that women advocates have shown in combating systematic inequities has proved to be an invaluable source of inspiration for each successive generation of health care activists. The significance of this legacy is well-captured in a quote from the late Dr. Gerta Lerner, an esteemed scholar of Women’s History, and a lifelong advocate for women’s rights: “Women’s history is women’s right — an essential, indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and a long-range vision.”
This sentiment rests at the heart of what makes reflecting on women’s history in America so important, and accordingly, it was directly quoted by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 when he dedicated a week in March to the study of this history — which was soon expanded to a month.
As we, in turn, seek to find inspiration in the legacy of health care activism and accomplishment during Women’s History Month, it is important to embrace Dr. Lerner’s words by striving to properly recognize the many systematic challenges women have faced, and have overcome, in confronting health inequality in our country.
These systemic challenges were present when Mabel Keaton Staupers, an African-American nurse, began her career at a time when nursing opportunities were highly segregated; and she overcame those challenges with her activism and steadfast refusal to accept the evils of segregation as a permanent fact. In large part through her courage and leadership, nurses from all ethnicities are now able to join the U.S. Army and the American Nurses Association — an important step in expanding representation among providers and thus curbing implicit biases in health care.
They were overcome once again when Dr. Antonia Novello shattered the glass ceiling and became the first woman, and Hispanic, U.S. Surgeon General in 1990. Throughout her tenure, Dr. Novello committed herself to breaking down many of the barriers that prevent women, children, and minorities from accessing equitable care.
Looking to the present day, it is abundantly clear that iterations of these systemic challenges persist. Disgracefully, for example, the medical profession continues to overlook and underdiagnose illnesses that primarily affect women, such as endometriosis. Women are still severely under-represented in drug testing trials as well, with one 2011 study of several federal clinical trials in 2009 finding that the median enrollment of women was roughly 37 percent.
Yet, if we are committed to following the example set by generations of health leadership from women activists, challenges like these will end up as relics of history as well. Our country is blessed with many organizations that share this commitment to health equity; organizations such as the Black Women’s Health Imperative, which has done invaluable work in making sure that black women receive the HIV awareness resources they need – among other achievements. With allies such as these, the future of health equity for women in the United States looks brighter than ever.