The women’s rights movement in the 1970s was accompanied by a women’s health movement, which encouraged females to be more aware of their bodies and take charge of their health. Since then, contraception, abortion, breast cancer and other women’s health issues have been a focus of debate in politics and medicine.
Despite this, Dr. Marjorie Jenkins, executive director at the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health at Texas Tech University, wonders if women have again lost control of their health.
Jenkins gave the keynote address, “Women’s Health Vs. Women’s Rights: Where Does Sex and Gender Fit In?” at the 2012 celebration of “Women in Medicine and Science.”
Menopause, premenstrual syndrome and other universal women’s conditions are now classified as diseases, and women are encouraged to manipulate their hormones instead of learning to understand them.
“Have we gone the path of least resistance?” Jenkins asked. “Have we moved women into diseased states so we can then medicate them?”
The grassroots movements of the 1970s regarding women’s health are mostly gone, but Jenkins encourages women to continue fighting for more recognition in the medical field.
“When a group is empowered by a knowledge of need, that is when access can really open up,” she said.
Scientists and doctors have just begun to study women’s health outside of the typical reproduction studies. There are decades of “bikini medicine,” the practice of studying only the reproductive health of women, that need to be redirected.
“We were excluded on the basis that we were being protected,” Jenkins said. “We were excluded because we were complex.”
Women have a history of being left out of medical testing, mainly because of protection laws, hormonal variability and lack of interest in sex differences, she said.
However, not every study directly translates to the other sex.
“If you have something that is a shared issue, you should want to study both sexes,” Jenkins said.
In 1990, 50 percent of studies included only men and another 20 percent didn’t even mention sex or gender in their results, Jenkins said. Since then, there has been an increase in studies that include both sexes, but arguments still linger about whether women should be included in them.
The Institute for Women’s Health is working to increase awareness of the importance of sex and gender in medicine. Instead of rewriting the entire health curriculum, Jenkins and her co-workers are trying to thread sex and gender through the existing curriculum and acknowledge when there is a lack of sex and gender research in a specific area.
She said both sex and gender affect health and medicine, so both need to be researched and included in the education process.
“This is a cultural education that we need to raise for both men and women,” she said.
The key to the success of a sex and gender movement in the medical field is teaching students about the importance of these issues in health care, Jenkins said.
One student who attended said her outlook on these issues has changed and impacted her direction of future study.
“I have discovered that I will be involved in women’s health,” said Jane Leavy, a pre-med post-baccelaureate student. “I always thought women’s health was just about reproduction.”