The legitimation of women in the history of medicine

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Suzana Pereira, a medical student in Brasilia, Brazil. She is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

Despite the increasing inclusion of women in the medical workforce, many of them are still fighting for equal pay and respect in the workplace, due to a preponderant male presence throughout the history of the profession. Observing old paintings and documents it is possible to see that the role of the doctor, until a few decades, was represented exclusively by the male figure. By making a quick chronological analysis of the relationship of women to medical practices, it is possible to understand why the profession was traditionally aimed at men and with some specialties having a greater revulsion against females.

During the Middle Ages, women involved in medical activity were pejoratively called healers and even witches, often condemned to death. During the 17th century, they were banned from attending university and had restricted roles in childbirth, the so-called midwives. In the 18th century, marked by hysteria (a derogatory word meaning “uterus”, in Greek), it was claimed that studying was dangerous to the female mind.

However, by the end of the 19th century, the course of history changed. Due to strong feminist movements and the beginning of the first world war, women received validation in the job market. An unfair social fact is observed here: after decades of struggle and labour movement, it was the need to replace the men summoned to war that legitimized women to assume positions and responsibilities so far restricted to men. Another problem from these early times of equality that continues until today is the unequal salary: women earn a salary up to 30% lower than men in the same position (but it is worth pointing out that this difference is continually decreasing through time).

Nonetheless, women quickly proved themselves as capable as men and today form the majority of medical scholars and newly graduated doctors in several countries such as Italy, Brazil, Russia, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Germany. The feminization of medicine is a worldwide movement with a special presence in certain areas, such as pediatrics, gynecology and dermatology, which are already marked by the feminine image.  What still separates them from specialties with longer training programs is the period of motherhood and family formation. The lack of consideration of these issues by the education system and training institutions needs to be re-analyzed. Just like men, a woman should not abdicate her career to enable family formation. Furthermore, another fact that goes against traditionalism is that women are an important and growing portion in general surgery, anesthesiology and emergency medicine, breaking with the old erroneous idea of frail women.

All things considered, currently we avail the benefits provided by those revolutions and outcomes. Even though many women still face inequalities, they have become one of the pillars of humanized medicine and will certainly have even greater importance in the future of medicine. The class must maintain its perseverance, as throughout history, and whatever it pleases will be achieved.


  • ÁVILA, Rebeca Contrera. Formação das mulheres nas escolas de medicina. Revista Brasileira de Educação Médica, v. 38, n. 1, p. 142-149, 2014.
  • SCHEFFER, Mário César; CASSENOTE, Alex Jones Flores. A feminização da medicina no Brasil. Revista Bioética, v. 21, n. 2, p. 268-277, 2013.

Suzana Pereira lives in Brasilia, Brazil. The third year medical student currently contributes to the health development as a volunteer in the collection of data for research and scientific production. She is a director in academic leagues and intends to work with children, although she still has not chosen her future medical specialty. She joined IFMSA to extend her humanitarian knowledge and to make a difference in the community.

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