In many ways women have made substantial gains in the United States since its founding 242 years ago. We are citizens, can vote and own property, and compose 47% of the workforce. Yet, we still face inequalities on a daily basis. The wage gap continues with women earning 80.5 cents to every dollar grossed by men. According the National Women's Law Center, women are 38% more likely to live in poverty than men. We all know about these challenges, but sometimes the most exhausting part about being a woman today is suffering the constant microaggressions.
Microaggressions are verbal and nonverbal behaviors that communicate negative, hostile, or derogatory messages towards others. Sometimes these assaults are old fashioned and purposeful, but more often than not they present themselves in the form of subtle snubs that communicate a hidden message.
Take the field of healthcare as an example. When modern medicine was established in United States, women were excluded. The first female physician, a white British woman named Elizabeth Blackwell, graduated from medical school only 170 years ago. Progress in integrating the field of medicine has been slow, but steady. In the 1980’s, 21% of doctors entering the field were women. We are now at a little under 50%, but female physicians are consistently paid less than their male counterparts, and are more likely to leave the profession than are men. But it seems as if we have forgotten that women have been providing healthcare for each other long before the invention of western medicine.
The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, represents one of the most extensive and best-preserved written records of ancient medicine known to humankind. In addition to containing over 700 herbal formulas and traditional medicines, it documents the important role of midwifery in Egyptian society. Five columns of this papyrus deal with obstetrics and gynecology, especially concerning parturition (the action or process of giving birth) and the health of the newborn. The oral histories of ancient cultures without written records from Africa to India also document the important and highly valued role of midwives.
As Western medicine was institutionalized in the 18th century a conflict between surgeons and midwives emerged. Men trained in medicine asserted that their scientific education was superior to the traditional knowledge practiced by midwives. Insert the politicians, attorneys, medical associations, and money (let’s not forget about the money) pushing for a legal monopoly on obstetrical care, and midwifery becomes a profession that is either outlawed or heavily regulated in the United States and Canada.
Consider the recent microaggression committed by MDH, McDonough District Hospital. Instead of directly addressing a rumor that the contracts of three experienced women’s health professionals will be terminated, the the hospital administration and board of directors retreated to a closed session meeting.
If there was no truth at all to the rumor, MDH, whose board contains only one woman, could have publically and forcefully squashed this rumor. Instead they issued a weak statement that reads “We are aware of conversations concerning the nurse midwives and women’s health nurse practitioner staff. These are false rumors.”
I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it. MDH could have very easily said, “These three experienced healthcare professionals - Mary Thompson (Certified Nurse Midwife), Brenda Powell Allen (Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner), and Sharie Harden (Certified Nurse Midwife) - are an integral part of our professional staff and will be at the core of our new Dolores Kator Switzer Women’s Center.” The fact that MDH reacted as they did speaks volumes. It appears that MDH is, like much of the rest of the country, engaged in a political battle over women's health. This is a battle which is based on a patriarchal assumption that western, male centered medical care is superior to women’s knowledge about their own bodies.
In hindsight it is easy to recognize the microaggressions that have been playing out for a long time in relation to the construction of the new women’s health center. In a promotional video those same three highly experienced women are featured in stereotypical pink hard hats and shovels for the groundbreaking of the new women’s health center. Yet the only voice of a healthcare professional that is featured is that of a white male physician.
Fortunately, as Soraya Cermaly writes in her 2018 book Rage Becomes Her, “We are at an uncomfortable strategic inflection point for the rights of girls and women just as we face grave threats to democratic values and the health of the planet...This is an era of angry women and women willing to make noise.”
The women of this region are not silent. Listen to our voices. If MDH chooses falsely those of us who are able will follow our female health care providers wherever they choose to set up practice.
Woman up MDH and do the right thing.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.