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Trailblazers in Women's Health: The Continuing Journey

three post it notes are on a chalkboard in blue, yellow and pink that say "past, present, future".  Under the notes in chalk is an arrow with progress written under it.

The exciting story of women's health care was shaped by incredible women who overcame obstacles, led groundbreaking research, and fought for fair treatment. There were many women who contributed greatly throughout the years; the following overview highlights a few that serve as examples of the efforts these women made to improve the health of women.


The 1800s: The Early Trailblazers

In the 19th century, a few outstanding women set the stage for future generations in medicine. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell didn't stop at being the first woman to get a medical degree in the U.S.; she also worked hard to make it easier for other women to enter the medical profession and stressed the need for regular care and disease prevention. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler broke through racial and gender barriers as the first African American woman to get a medical degree, dedicating her career to helping those who were previously enslaved and lacked medical services. Mary Edwards Walker, a fierce advocate for women's rights, was a surgeon during the Civil War and is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.


The 1900s: Growth and Activism

The 20th century saw women's roles in healthcare and science grow significantly. Dr. Virginia Apgar left a lasting mark by creating the Apgar Score, a crucial initial checkup for newborns, highlighting the need for immediate care. Gerty Cori, a biochemist, made history in medical research as the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on how our bodies process carbohydrates.


The fight for women's health rights also increased, with leaders like Margaret Sanger and Simone Veil at the forefront. Sanger, motivated by the struggles she saw caused by unplanned pregnancies, opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. and founded Planned Parenthood. Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and influential figure in French politics, played a crucial role in making abortion legal in France, fighting for women's control over their bodies.


Organizations Supporting Women

The American Medical Women's Association, started by Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen in 1915, was a big step forward in creating a  network for women physicians. It continues to support female doctors and the patients they care for.


Leaders in Women's Health Issues

The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw women like Dr. Susan Love and Dr. Nanette Wenger address diseases that disproportionately affect women. Dr. Love's work on breast cancer, including her push for patient-centered care and preventive research, was pivotal in raising awareness and advancing treatment and research. Dr. Wenger's contributions to understanding cardiovascular disease in women have challenged and changed previously held assumptions, leading to better, more inclusive research and treatment protocols.

Dr. Karen J. Carlson has also been instrumental in broadening the definition of women's health through her co-authored textbook Primary Care of Women with Dr. Stephanie Eisenstadt, emphasizing a whole-woman approach that goes beyond reproductive health.


Empowering Women Through Education

Byllye Avery and Judy Norsigian have significantly educated and empowered women about their health. Avery's advocacy, especially for Black women's health challenges, led to the founding of the National Black Women's Health Project, which continues today as the Black Women’s Health Imperative. Norsigian's book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, has been a critical resource in women's health, promoting informed health decisions and reproductive rights.


Influence of Women in Government

Women in government positions have played a crucial role in pushing for and putting policies focused on women's health in place. Dr. Vivian Pinn's leadership at the NIH's Office of Research on Women's Health ensured women's health research got the needed attention and funding. As the first female director of the NIH, Dr. Bernadine Healy made significant strides, including including women in clinical studies and starting the landmark $625M Women's Health Initiative focused on the study of postmenopausal women. Dr. Susan Blumenthal's work in setting up the National Centers of Excellence in Women's Health has shaped how women's healthcare is provided.


Dr. Antonia Novello, the first woman and Hispanic Surgeon General, focused on important health issues affecting minorities, women, and young people to improve healthcare access. Dr. Regina Benjamin, the first African American woman in the role, concentrated on preventive care and addressing the root causes of health inequalities, promoting wellness and fairness in communities.


Looking Ahead

The achievements of these pioneers, and many others not mentioned here, emphasize the vital need to keep advancing women's health care that is comprehensive and inclusive. Their legacies inspire future generations to carry on this crucial work. With their groundbreaking efforts as a foundation, the next century promises an era where innovation and research in women's health are not only burgeoning but expected to expand exponentially. This ongoing evolution in women's health care is poised to deliver more personalized, effective treatments and preventative strategies, marking the next century as a period of unprecedented progress and well-being for women worldwide.

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