In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to earn a medical degree, inspired by a dying friend who said her health ordeal would have been better if she’d had a female physician. For Blackwell, becoming a doctor meant boldly defying the norms of the time. Forced to sit separately at lectures and excluded from her labs, she was even shunned in her local community.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
Through tenacity, commitment and skill, Blackwell earned the respect of professors and classmates, and graduated first in her class. She went on to establish the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and eventually moved to London, where she helped organize the National Health Society before being appointed professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine.
Blackwell’s story is one of courage, grit, and determination that created a path for generations of women to pursue medical degrees. In fact, 2019 marked the first time that the majority of U.S. medical school students (50.5%) were women.
The progress towards more equitable gender representation among physicians is an important part of Blackwell’s legacy. Yet, in other areas of healthcare, progress for women has been alarmingly idle for many decades. Consider, for instance, that only approximately 1% of healthcare research and innovation is invested in female-specific conditions beyond oncology, according to a 2020 study. And we still lack adequate solutions for hot flashes, painful periods and many other common yet challenging symptoms that women are often consigned to just deal with as a normal part of womanhood.
But we don’t have to continue on this path. Because, like Blackwell, we have the power to challenge long-held norms and create change, in service of women everywhere. My belief is that being a pioneer takes persistence, every step of the way:
Persistence to shine a light on long-standing and overlooked health needs – like the 15 million women and babies impacted annually by preterm labor; the one in 10 women of reproductive age living with endometriosis; or the 218 million women and girls in low-and-middle income countries that have an unmet need for modern contraception, according to a 2019 study.
Persistence to reverse decades of underinvestment in women’s health that has contributed to critical gaps impacting nearly all stages of women’s lives, through innovative partnerships, collaborations and investments in emerging science.
And persistence to connect and cultivate a global ecosystem – one where researchers and healthcare professionals, pharmaceutical companies and investors, legislators, nonprofit organizations and community leaders – can join together to contribute diverse solutions and perspectives.
It’s encouraging to take note of how the public and private sectors have quickly mobilized in the wake of U.S. policy changes last year to spark needed attention, dialogue, investment and innovation. But the work to change the course of women’s health is not nearly complete.
And that is why, taking inspiration from one of the most influential women in modern medicine, we must persist – with optimism, courage and a fearless commitment to create a more equitable future for all women. And we won’t stop until every woman, everywhere, has the opportunity to be as healthy as possible, to live her best life every day and to reach her full potential.
Photo: FotografiaBasica, Getty Images