The first time I applied to medical school, I found the rejection letters in my mailbox so quickly that I initially thought perhaps I hadn’t put on enough postage. It was 1972.
I would have applied to medical school even earlier, but my pre-med advisor in college told me to forget about medical school because women just didn’t get in. He said I should become a medical technologist instead. I didn’t want to. So, I applied to graduate school instead. No one had bothered to tell me that getting into a PhD program at UC Berkeley was just as competitive, at that time, as getting into medical school.
I was lucky. Irv Zucker, PhD, the professor I was training under in grad school, knew that my heart was set on becoming a clinical doctor (MD), rather than a professor doctor (PhD). He didn’t hold it against me. Rather, he took me under his wing and guided me through the application process. He was my first mentor.
Applying to med school
As I said, the first time I applied, I was totally rejected. With Irv’s enouragement, I redoubled my efforts to become a viable medical student candidate, doing all the usual pre-med stuff like seeking out advice from other doctors, volunteering at the Berkeley Free Clinic, taking classes with the med students at the newly minted two year clinical program at UC Berkeley, and applying to every medical school in the country that did not explicitly state in their brochures that they preferred students younger than 26 (it was ok to age discriminate at that time). I was 28 and had a 4-year-old son.
I ended up applying to 26 schools, I got 4 interviews, and one acceptance. Luckily, it was to my first choice school, University of California San Francisco. I was shocked. I had had two interviews at UCSF. One was with an older female surgeon who told me point blank that I would either screw up medical school or I would screw up my child. t was simply impossible, she told me, to be a doctor and a mother. My other interview was with a third year student, a woman who was fully supportive of the burgeoning women’s movement, but I thought as a student she wouldn’t have much clout in the admissions process.
I am forever in debt to the Women’s Liberation Movement (that also included some incredible men, such as Irv Zucker). They made it possible for me to fulfill my dream of becoming a doctor. In fact, there are women all over the country who are doctors today because of the obnoxiously spirited actions of some wild and crazy, pushy, bra-burning, and quite tenacious women. They simply were not going to stop agitating until they knocked down the sexist barriers to entry into previously almost all male institutions, such as medical school. They are, and will forever be, my heroes.
A wonderful commentary, titled “What Would Patsy Mink Think?” published in the February 8, 2012 issue of JAMA reviews the impact of Title IX on women and medicine. This essay resonated with me as the author, Molly Carnes, MD, MS, an academic physician from University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells a story that is almost identical to mine. She too was asked during her medical school interview how she was going to be a doctor if she had children. She describes her surgery clerkship director telling her on her first day, “It won’t affect your grade, but I want you to know that I don’t think women should be doctors.” My class suffered through sexist comments and sexual harassment as we, although we didn’t label it as such at the time.
Patsy Mink and Title IX
Title IX, the Education Amendments of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed in 1972. Women applied and got accepted to medical school in droves. Women now account for almost 50% of medical students nationwide and are increasingly in top leadership positions in academia, organized medicine, as well as in the healthcare businesses, such as health insurance, device companies, and medical groups. We have come a long way, baby!
Title IX was authored by a remarkable woman from Hawaii, Patsy Mink, who also had the experience of getting rejected by the 20 medical schools she applied to. She went to law school instead and eventually became the first woman of color to be elected to the US House of Representatives.
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this landmark legislation, let’s remember that many other women in the Women’s Lib movement were knocking down barriers to women in many other fields. I am often dismayed when I hear younger women snicker about the aggressive women of my day. Hey, thanks to them you can choose your future, go to school, become a professional, be a stay-at-home mom, start a business or go to college on a basketball scholarship.
I am having a wonderful career in medicine-I became an internist and emergency physician. I started a non-profit to address violence as a healthcare issue (Physicians for a Violence-free Society), studied health policy with two-time former Asst. Secretary of Health-Phil Lee, MD, and have had challenging positions as a physician executive. Now I am pursuing health technology entrepreneurialism (more on this later).
By the way, I did not screw up my 4-year old-although he often had to eat in the hospital cafeteria and sleep in the call rooms with me. He grew up to become a superbly trained and very talented body imaging radiologist, a husband of a wonderful woman and father of a little girl that they are raising to know that she can be whatever she wants to be if she only puts her mind to it.
Happy Anniversary Title IX, women and girls all over the country celebrate the day you were signed into law.