Canadian Women Physicians and the FMWC
The history of women’s move into medicine is one of slow and incremental change. It begins with access to education, and not just higher education, but changing attitudes about women and their aptitude for learning. Mary Wollstonecraft, writing in the late 1700’s, advocated for female education, vindicating women’s right to learning. External social forces, such as women’s suffrage and international conflict, further influenced women who wanted to be doctors and the institutions that controlled access to practice.
Despite decades of steady advancement in numbers, it took over a century of social activism and change before women achieved gender parity in Canadian medical school enrollment in 1995. It didn’t help that Queen’s University in Kingston, one of the pioneers in medical education for women, closed its doors to women students in 1883, shunting them to the Women's Medical College, which then closed in 1891. It wasn't until 1943 when women were again admitted.
In the time since, with a slight bump for a few years where enrollment bulged at near 60%, the number of men and women has balanced out. Attention to biases in recruitment and assessment, driven by social pressures from the women’s movement for equal access to learning and workplace opportunities, has been successful in addressing many enrollment and practice disparities. Overall, women have reaped the reward of that work.
In 1883, Augusta Stowe-Gullen was the sole female graduate at the Toronto School of Medicine, Victoria College and the first woman to graduate in Canada. By 1924, just over 300 women had graduated from medical school in Canada. That’s an average of 6 per year. To put that number in perspective, ten years earlier, in 1914, 321 physicians graduated in all of Canada, male and female. In 2017 alone, 1,597 women graduated from Canadian medical schools, 56.8% of the total graduates. The real bump occurred in the 1960s, a time of massive social change and loosening of restrictive quotas, and driven by a vocal and persistent demand from women’s rights advocates.
“The war not only gave women a chance to act. It gave their actions the chance to be noticed”.
Health care has long been an international profession, with doctors moving around the world to pursue training and career opportunities. Training in Europe, missionary work in China, and service during WW1 enlarged the scope of women’s participation in medicine. Canadian medical women such as Irma LeVasseur and Ella Scarlett Synge were at the front of the action during WW1, and, indeed, retreated on foot as the enemy advanced, while Captain Evelyn Windsor challenged regulations that began with enlistment and ended with her military discharge on the eve of her becoming a mother.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a flurry of international organizing in both the professional and labour workspace. For physicians, the Canadian Medical Association, founded in 1867, was formed to consolidate the interests of physicians in advancing the profession and protecting patients. It was overwhelmingly dominated by men. It wasn’t until 1974 when a woman, Dr. Bette Stephenson was elected President.
It was at a Canadian Medical Association meeting in 1924 where the decision to establish the Federation of Medical Women of Canada was made. Women in medicine determined they needed a space to be medical women, where they could find common ground in support of women in medicine and where they could advance their interests among competing voices.
The first national women's medical association was the American Medical Association, established in 1915. In the United Kingdom, the Medical Women’s Federation was formed in 1917. They recently marked their centennial with a year-long celebration of women in medicine. The Medical Women’s International Association was established in 1920, for the most part to continue the connections forged during the war and provide female-collegiality in a male-dominated profession, but also to advance the interests of women in medicine and women’s health in the international arena. It was in this milieu of organizing medical women that the Federation of Medical Women of Canada came into existence. In order to participate in MWIA meetings, a Canadian national organization was needed.
Dr. Maude Abbott was a key figure in bringing together the nucleus of the FMWC. She was at the 1924 Canadian Medical Association meeting and while there, gathered together a small group of women to plan for the future. Their first meeting, days after the CMA event, consisted of, in addition to Dr. Abbott: Drs. Helen MacMurchy, Elizabeth Bagshaw, Jennie Smillie, Janet Hall and Elizabeth Embury. Over the course of a year, membership quickly grew to 65 members in provinces across the country.
Through their annual general meeting, conferences and branch activities, the FMWC has provided Canadian women physicians with a forum to gather and share their experiences as women in medicine, to advance their knowledge of women’s health and the issues that affect women in society. The FMWC provides scholarships and loans to students and advocates for women physicians so they are not disadvantaged in the practice of medicine. The FMWC shares in international collaborations with the MWIA, advancing women in medicine and women’s health interests.
Women’s health remains controversial and women in medicine continue to attract comment. Bias continues to pose a challenge. Women of colour, lesbian, trans, and disabled women experience bias and discrimination in medical education and practice. Medicine itself has changed with the times, with greater professional inclusivity a good thing, but attitudes, and policies, are difficult to change.
Canadian governments have been relatively supportive of women’s demands for equality, although child and elder care, traditional roles for women, remain under-served and continue to pose barriers to women’s full economic participation. The impact of motherhood is particularly poignant for Canadian women in medicine. Many young women physicians struggle with the “best time” to have children, with maternity leaves and family time competing for career opportunities and advancement.
The gender pay gap has proved to be a persistent challenge. This is true across all sectors, and research has uncovered statistical evidence that supports the anecdotal, and intuitive, stories women have shared for years. Women know they don’t get the recognition they deserve. The gender pay gap puts a dollar figure on that loss.
FMWC members have taken the strength they’ve found in the organization back to their roles in academia, community practices and government agencies. They are leaders in their communities, they serve as role models and mentors for junior colleagues and learners. They are affecting change across Canada.
The FMWC recognizes the commitment to excellence of Canadian women physicians with a number of awards. The women these awards represent were active in advancing women in medicine and women’s health and committed to supporting the future contributions of young physicians. We are honoured to nurture their legacy and encourage you to explore their histories. Recipients are recognized for their dedication to women’s health and promoting women in medicine. You can read about our 2017 award winners here.
Attitudes and behaviours are hard to change, but the emphasis on human rights and equity has driven the discussion and the move has been progressive, toward greater participation in the profession for all women. Along the way, the FMWC has been at the forefront of this change, advocating for Canadian women physicians.
Hacker, Carlotta, The Indomitable Lady Doctors, 1974, Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd. Toronto/Vancouver
When Women Went to Queen's, Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 161, #5, 1999.
Medical Education and Medical Practice, Making Medicine, History of Health Care in Canada, 1914-2007
MDs Awarded by Canadian Universities, 1940-2001, By Sex of Graduates, Table 29, 2017 Canadian Medical Education Statistics - https://afmc.ca/sites/default/files/CMES2017-Section3-MDGraduates.pdf
Duffin, Jacklyn, The Quota: "An Equally Serious Problem" for Us All, Presidential Address, 2001, Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Vol 19, #2, pp. 327-350.