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The medical landscape has drastically changed since the 18th century. We’ve gone from using leeches and unsanitized medical tools to offering telehealth services that allow patients to get blood glucose levels monitored from home, among other services. But perhaps one of the starkest differences between the past and present of healthcare is the presence of women in the field. 


While women have always touched the medical world in some way, our society has just gotten closer to equity in the field than we have been for hundreds of years. This article will examine how women progressed as medical professionals in recent centuries — particularly in the United States — and how far they still have to go.

Women in Medicine: a Long Look Back

Before diving into the inequities in medicine that grew incredibly apparent in the 18th century, we must recognize that women did have a place in medicine before their exclusion. Women were far from unskilled. For centuries, they played integral roles in healthcare.


As far back as the year 150, women contributed groundbreaking work in surgery, healing, gynecology, and more.


But in part due to the rise of universities and male-dominated churches in the Middle Ages, women were steadily barred from practicing medicine. Those that continued to do so were harshly punished — sometimes, even deemed witches and burned at the stake, especially between the 15th and 17th centuries.

The 18th Century Exclusion of Women in Medicine

By the Pre-Revolution era, women were largely excluded from the professional field of medicine. Since healthcare was becoming established as a professional and academic field, women who did practice medicine largely did so independently as nurses or midwives who didn’t need certification.


But by the mid-1700s, even male medical practitioners were taking over midwifery, and the first major study of the childbirth process was completed by a male physician.


In part, the continuous move toward an even more male-dominated field was due to sexist beliefs in society and even in healthcare itself. For example, it was thought that women were afflicted with hysteria whenever they were emotional or had sexual urges.


While women were allowed as nurses in the Revolutionary War due to need, they were only paid $2 per month (later $8 due to demand), compared to $40 for doctors. Most had no authority, faced hostility, and were still required to perform domestic tasks like laundry and cooking.


After the war, women were still considered unfit for the medical profession.

How Women Entered Medical School

It would be long after the 1700s before the first breakthrough for women in medicine occurred. In 1849, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman with a medical degree from a U.S. university, despite resistance from administrators. Dr. Blackwell paved the way for significantly more women physicians to rise throughout the 19th century.


While initially ridiculed, the late 19th century would become something of a golden age for women in medicine. There were more women in legitimate medical schools and physician roles than ever. Their newfound visibility led to greater respect.


By the 1900s, women began making strides in the medical field. The Yale School of Medicine cites accomplishments like:


●        Mary Engle Pennington becoming the Food and Drug Administration’s first female lab chief

●        Florence Seibert providing the research that led to the first tuberculosis test

●        Gerty Cori becoming the first U.S. woman to receive the Nobel Prize — specifically, for her work in medicine


Still, even as late as 1975, women only made up 9.1% of physicians in the United States.

The State of Women in Medicine Today

In 2019, women’s enrollment in U.S. medical colleges exceeded that of men for the first time. Plus, women now make up the majority of physicians under 44. It’s clear that the future of medicine will bring significantly more women into the field — even in the leadership positions that men have traditionally dominated, as acceptance grows.


However, women do have a ways to go before achieving total equity. In clinical science professions, women still earn just 77 cents per dollar that men make. This pay gap is further exacerbated by the fact that men dominate higher-paying medical specialties, making up over 80% of orthopedic and neurological surgeons.


Women also need to fight implicit biases in the workplace, which can lead to higher rates of burnout and imposter syndrome.


And yet, women are essential for the future and improvement of medical care. Medicare, surgical, and heart attack patients have lower fatality rates when treated by female practitioners. Female patients, who often get poorer treatment in healthcare, benefit even more from female medical professionals.


In addition to offering more diversity and inclusion training, offering more telehealth services, as well as insurance coverage of telehealth, can help women thrive in medicine. Even women in late pregnancy and caretaker roles can continue to work (or receive quality care) from home.

Toward a More Equitable Future

Women haven’t had the easiest path in the field of medicine. From the Middle Ages to the 18th century, they were largely excluded from practicing in public and faced massive pay gaps when they did. And even after gaining acceptance to medical schools and national achievements, women still made up the vast minority of physicians.


But thanks to the rise of respect for women in medicine, opportunities are rising. Nurturing the growth of women in healthcare through inclusion initiatives and telehealth can help society move toward a more equitable future.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho, and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.