We do not, by any stretch of the imagination, purport to be "experts" in the field of health. We
did, however, consult "expert" resource material to prepare the following: How do you feel?
Where we have been, where we are now, and where we hope to go!
In all fields of human endeavor, exciting progress has occurred during the 20th
century. Few advances have been more dramatic than those reflected in the area of
women's health issues. Specifically, in the last four decades, the momentum has
accelerated at a faster and faster pace with each passing year. To realize how far
we have come, we need only to consider the fact that in the beginning of this era,
women's bodies were viewed as mysterious and beyond comprehension. It was
quite common for doctors, all of whom were men, to treat their female patients with little more
than a so-called "tonic" which was essentially different types of syrups, heavily laced with
alcohol. If a "lady" claimed (and women's concerns tended to be viewed in that context) to be
"ailing," good, old "Dr. Magic" would simply prescribe whatever "elixir" happened to be the
popular potion at the time.
As amazing as it may seem, in light of a vast array of current breakthroughs, it wasn't until
1960 that the FDA approved the birth control pill. And, it took another ten years before that
particular form of contraception became commonly accepted. It wasn't until 1973 that abortion
became legal in the United States with the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade.
The controversy around that issue has only intensified since then.
The first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in 1973 by the Boston Women's Health
Collective, set off another firestorm of debate. It also heralded the movement of women's health
matters into the mainstream of public dialogue. For the first time, women began discussing
their physical health and well being in the glare of society's spotlight. We also began talking to
one another in private about subjects previously viewed as "unlady like" or impolite to speak of
with anyone. Until the late 60's and early 70's, it was quite common for a young woman to
simply "tough it out" on her own. Often, even our mother's, who had grown up in that period of
the "don't ask, don't tell" approach to women's bodily functions were uncomfortable with the
The medical establishment, long dominated by male researchers and practitioners was behind
the curve in addressing the most pressing and personal needs women had to deal with in the
area of health. It wasn't until the 1980's that outdated phrases such as "the curse" and "the
change" gave way to candid and significant discussions on the topics of menstruation and
menopause. Of course, by the end of that decade, we also found ourselves watching television
commercials about over the counter treatments for vaginal yeast infections and other such
female hygiene products.
To what do we owe this amazing development? There is no one simple answer. Women
actively involved in the "feminist movement," which began in the early 60's, undeniably raised
the level of awareness and the volume of the debate. Perhaps, more than anything else, it was
the fact that women were becoming involved in politics, careers, every facet of society in
general. We had finally begun to assert our intention to be a viable, visible, and outspoken part
of American life and that undeniably contributed to the long overdue advances in medical
research and practice. One startling statistic gives evidence to that fact. By 1978 23.7 percent
of U.S. medical students were women, an increase of 87 percent over 1973, and those
numbers have continued to climb.
Another irrefutable influence on the subject of women's health has been the
sheer numbers of women who no longer accept the idea that they should seek
medical advice from "experts" and never doubt the prudence of prescribed
treatments. By the middle of the 1960's there were over 70 million baby
boomers out of a total U.S. population of 197,000,000 and some 40 million of
them were females. Unlike their mothers, who were often discouraged from
even thinking about college, women of the baby boomer's generation, are for the most part,
much better educated. They tend to be better informed (after all, we live in the information age)
and frequently, are less hesitant to question authority and are inclined to exercise more control
over their lives than women were previously able to do.
There are prominent female physicians today who are routinely leading the way in the
pursuit of better and more knowledge in the field of women's health. In the 1990's, Dr. Susan
Love has published books on hormones and breast care, including treatment alternatives for
breast cancer. Dr. Christine Northrup published Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom and it is
currently one of the Oprah Winfrey's Book Club "must reads."
As a commercial has proclaimed, "you've come a long way baby." And, we definitely have,
considering where we were in 1960. But, there remain questions and issues too important to
ignore. Only in the last five years has the scientific and medical research community
acknowledged that previously all major studies on such important topics as heart disease and
stroke have been conducted on men. There was a recent revelation that studies now show
alcohol consumption affects women's bodies in a very different way than men's. Women
metabolize certain medications differently. Women have heart attacks in a different way than
men do. For example, treadmill tests that have worked so well for men do not work as well for
women. These tests, as so many others, were designed for men. The fact that women have
breasts was just never factored in. When the test was developed, it was conducted on
breastless people. People tend to forget that mental health is also a significant element in a
person's overall well being. Treatments for such conditions as chronic depression have not
always factored in the affect of women's hormones and certain medications.
Unfortunately, we still have much further to go when we look at the fact that only 16 percent
of the National Institute for Health's funding goes to medical research on women. There are
illnesses, which have only gained attention of late, such as chronic fatigue syndrome,
fibromyalgia and lupus, that affect a far greater percentage of women than men. Very little
current research is in the area of finding the cause of and treatment for those potentially very
We must look to one another for the future strides in this all-important subject of our
health. Dianne Hales, has authored such worthwhile books as New Hope for Problem
Pregnancies, Caring for the Mind: The Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health, and
the most recent, Just Like a Woman. Ms. Hales has set her sites now on
collaboration with Marianne Legato, the doctor who pioneered gender medicine. Dr.
Legato believes that someday there will be gender-specific medical centers, where
they'll have different screening methods and different treatments for men and for
women. Now that is something to look forward to!
In the meantime, however, we all have a responsibility to ourselves. We must be our own
case managers in dealing with physical/medical matters. The best way to achieve that is by
looking upon all practitioners as partners in our health plan. We need to ask questions, pay
attention to what our own bodies tell us, and never be satisfied with less than first rate care. It
is becoming more common for women to request copies of all their records, seek second
opinions, and do research on their own. It is far more complex within the context of "managed
care," but the responsibility ultimately rests with us. Women before us have worked hard,
struggled against all odds, and always persevered in pursing our rights to assert the
importance of our health.
Let this be our mantra—we owe it to ourselves to take good care of ourselves.
"Health is not simply the absence of sickness." Hannah Green
"Health is not a condition of matter, but of Mind." Mary Baker Eddy
"As I see it, every day you do one of two things; build health or produce disease in yourself."