Navigating feminism in medicine

“Become the doctor your parents always wanted you to marry,” said the T-shirt I purchased from the women in medicine interest group during my first year of medical school. I remember feeling like I should buy that T-shirt (and I did), yet it was also something I was never quite comfortable wearing. It was a “women’s cut” (how appropriate), which meant it fit snugly across the chest and sat high on the waist – not something I could exercise in, and also not exactly something I would want to put on for a night on the town. Frankly, I couldn’t totally connect with what was being sold. Maybe I wanted to be a feminist without being identified as a feminist? I had already made it into med school. Got what I wanted, right? Surely this was feminism. Done. Nothing more to talk about.

Fast forward to my third year of medical school. My first clinical rotation was on the inpatient psychiatry ward. I put on my new starched white coat, filled my pockets with clinical guides, and donned my stethoscope.

During my first week, I was sent to interview a sixty-year-old male who was in the throes of a manic bipolar episode. The interview occurred in his room on the unit. His thoughts were disorganized, and his speech was fast. About halfway through the admission, he leaned in, grabbed my breasts, and said, “These are breasts just like my wife used to have.” He then pushed me down on the hospital bed—at which point the resident doctor came into the room and pulled him off of me.

The resident and I finished the interview. After we left the room, he asked if I was OK. I said I was fine. I was embarrassed. This was not the kind of attention I wanted as a medical student. I’d never heard of patients assaulting doctors or health care workers, so for the longest time, I didn’t think that was what had actually happened.

I used to say my problem in life was that feminism worked; I got what I wanted, and it just turned out that it was too much for me. I left home and traveled by myself to remote places in Africa, Asia, and Central America. I challenged myself to camp alone, change a car tire, and use a chainsaw. I biked across the country. I ran a marathon. I was always proud of my independence.

More recently, I am starting to appreciate that feminism might not be about saying yes to more things but learning how to say no to the right things. Feminism didn’t work because I got to have a full-time professional job while rearing small children—no, instead, I would say our current system leaves highly motivated women open to new forms of abuse. Women are put into impossible situations and then berated for not providing excellence.

I want a T-shirt that says, “I won’t do this anymore.” I want to say no. No, if you are a professional colleague or a patient – no, you can’t touch my back or my leg. No, I can’t be in two places at one time. No, I can’t work and sleep and clean my house at the same time. No, I can’t accept the gender-based pay and workload disparities that the EHR is meticulously documenting. No, I can’t take care of all of you without taking time to take care of myself.

I don’t know what happened to that T-shirt I got in med school, but the truth of it is after three babies and all of the scones, donuts, and packages of hospital-grade graham crackers I have eaten in the middle of the night to stay awake – it wouldn’t fit me anyway.

Jacqueline Redmer is a family physician.

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