When I was in college, I was one of those I'm-all-for-equality-but-don't-call-me-a-feminist women. And, like Mary, I figured equality had been taken care of already. After all, there I was attending a fancy university that had been all-male until about 10 years before I entered, and was now 25% female. Never mind that my science classes became steadily more male-dominated as I progressed, or that my two roommates who studied engineering were often the only women in their classes, or that many of the men on campus were still reluctant to date the women they went to school with, preferring the more docile girls from all-female colleges nearby. I must have known all of that, but I didn't think about it much. For one thing, I didn't enjoy the company of women. I was far more comfortable around men. Women were catty, backbiting, superficial and obsessed with their appearance. Why would I choose to hang around the women's center when I could be the only woman on a crew building sets, or painting flats, or running lights in the theater?
That lovely oblivion lasted until I started my third year of medical school. In a traditional program, the first two years are spent in the classroom and the last two are spent in the hospital. My first rotation, July of my third year, was obstetrics and gynecology. And I did something really stupid. I chose to go to a Catholic hospital. I wasn't thinking about abortion and birth control; I was thinking about the location of the hospital, in a funky artsy part of the city where a bunch of my friends lived. Wow, summer in the city. Sounded like fun to me. It never occurred to me that I would end up working with pregnant 13-year-olds and be forbidden to talk to them about taking the pill, or that a few years into the AIDS epidemic, in a place known for its gay population, I wouldn't be able to to counsel my patients about condoms.
But that wasn't even the worst part. A week or so into the rotation, we had a lecture from the chair of the department about taking a history, and he made it clear that our job was to assume the patient was lying. I know now that this attitude is pervasive in medicine, and not limited to women patients, but at the time I assumed people told the truth and was taken aback to hear him suggest otherwise - and of course his patients were all women. So what he said, almost verbatim, was "never believe what a woman tells you". And we all wrote it down, good little med students that we were.
From then on I noticed how the women were treated: scolded for their dietary transgressions, assumed to be either stupid or immoral or both, occasionally lied to, routinely ignored when they asked for pain medication. I saw the scars of abuse, physical and emotional, for the first time. I watched the staff defer to the male partners rather than the patient when decisions needed to be made. And I started to feel angry. One day I picked up a book from the department library. It included a review of state regulations governing OB practice. I read through part of it and realized that at the time it was published - about 8 years before I was reading it in the mid-1980s - in that state, it was illegal to perform a tubal ligation unless two physicians signed a statement that further pregnancy would render the patient insane or terminally ill. This law was repealed after I entered college, when I thought equality was a done deal. There was never any such legislation governing vasectomies.
By the end of the two month rotation, I had stopped accepting what the attendings said about patients. I was carrying condoms in my pocket to give out surreptitiously. And I'd started calling myself a feminist. I realize now that I also saw racism and classism along with the misogyny. That was my radicalizing experience. Someone once told me that women become feminists to fight on behalf of their daughters. I claimed my feminism to fight on behalf of my patients.