Guest lecturer discusses history of sexism in medicine

Guest lecturer discusses history of sexism in medicine

March 31
00:05 2015

Julian Gill / Staff Writer

The UNT Women’s History Month committee hosted author and historian Carolyn Herbst Lewis on Thursday in the BLB as she lectured about the relationship between a woman and her doctor.

Lewis used passages from her book, “Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era,” and her current research to illustrate the power imbalance between women and physicians in the 1950’s and 1970’s.

“She’s a very eminent scholar of American medical history and women’s history of the 20th century, and her book is extremely acclaimed,” women’s history committee member Nancy Stockdale said. “So we thought she kind of fit perfectly with Women’s History Month.”

Lewis discussed how the value of the family unit in the Cold War era deemed female sexual passivity normal and necessary for national growth.

“If you feel the urge to squirm during what I’m reading you, that’s a perfectly normal response” she said.

She said women would go through intrusive premarital pelvic exams, where physicians tested their sexual readiness by inserting plastic tubes in the vagina.

Lewis read from her book: “The physicians acknowledged that, in their view, the clear objective of the premarital consultation was to foster and preserve a sound family unit, a happy marriage, and healthy children.”

Lewis said physicians in the 50s believed proper instruction before the marriage would heal any sexual difficulties, and the pain of childbirth was completely psychosomatic.

“For me, when I think about how doctors represent authority, I start to realize it’s not always about what’s best for the patient,” political science senior John Parsons said. “I really hope that if men can learn and understand women’s health issues for what they are, we can understand what women go through on a daily basis.”

Lewis’ current research involves the closure of the Chicago Maternity Center in 1973, which provided low-cost home deliveries and became a landmark of the city’s impoverished Westside.

She said the absence of such an accessible service caused the rise of mainstream maternity wards, thus reducing women’s control over their own childbirth.

“These cases reveal how often what gets defined as the best medical practice, is not always about what’s truly just from a perspective of patient health or experience,” Lewis said. “Politics, economics, and professional prestige have been motivators as well.”

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