Women Physicians Change the World – Political Activism – Dr. Jill Stein

Dr. Emily Stowe, who is being honoured this year with investiture in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, was more than the first women to practice medicine in Canada, in itself a marker of her determined character. Stowe was forced to attend medical school in New York as no Canadian school would accept a woman, leaving her family, her husband and children, behind while she pursued her studies. Upon graduation and her return to Canada, she refused to submit to the licensure process, to the “medical men” who would presume to judge her achievement based on their bias. So although Emily Stowe was the first woman to practice in Canada, it was without a license.

Stowe wasn’t alone in that regard either. Dr. Elizabeth Scott Matheson (Trinity, 1898) refused to sit the examination for registration in the Northwest Territories, which of course, resulted in her refusal of registration. This didn’t matter to the settler and aboriginal communities that Dr. Matheson worked in. Nor did it matter to the Department of Indian Affairs, who appointed Dr. Matheson government physician to the aboriginal population. It wasn’t until further western expansion increased the need for physician services, which prompted her to return to medical school for a repeat of the final year, before she attempted to register again in the Northwest Territories without the exam. It took her husband’s interference, a man of some reknown, before the registrar finally acquiesced.

Although their situations were different, the reason behind their reluctance to submit their knowledge to a test, an oral test, was their distrust of the process. They had confidence in their knowledge, they had passed their education exams, but felt a registration exam was yet another opportunity to limit their move into medicine by the men who ruled medicine. For Dr. Matheson, the outcome hardly mattered. She continued to practice in the Onion Lake community where she lived, even working in service of the government. For Dr. Stowe, the outcome was different, she was subject to constant scrutiny by the medical men and fined for her recalcitrance in following the rules.

Not surprising, Emily Stowe was also an early activist for female suffrage in Canada. It seemed a natural progression, fighting for educational rights for women would lead to fighting for greater access for women to all sectors of society, including the political realm. In 1877 she organized the Toronto Women’s Literary Club which grew into the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Club (1883), and then, later, the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association (1889), and finally the Canadian Suffrage Association (1907). Emily Stowe, who died in 1903, didn’t live to see the outcome of her most important fight; non-aboriginal women in Canada won the vote in 1918, aboriginal women were locked out of federal enfranchisement until 1960. But Canadian women are grateful for her perseverance.

Elizabeth Bagshaw
(1881-1982)
Medical director of the first birth control clinic in Canada.

In the years since, Canadian women physicians have advocated for social change in many ways. Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw, in addition to being one of the founders of the FMWC, campaigned tirelessly for birth control for Canadian women and was the medical director of the first birth control clinic – illegal - in Canada in Hamilton, Ontario. She provided birth control information to women outside of the law from 1932, the time of the clinic’s opening, to 1969, the year it became legal. In 1976, at the time of her retirement at 95 she was Canada’s oldest practicing physician.

The Honorable Heddy Fry, is the longest-serving female member of Parliament, having won 8 successive elections since 1983 when she defeated Prime Minister Kim Campbell. Dr. Fry entered politics after a 23-year medical career. Currently, there are 4 women physicians in the federal government. For two decades The Honorable Carolyn Bennett was a family physician before entering politics. Since her first win in 1997, she has held a number of cabinet positions over her 20-year political career, before becoming the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs in 2015. More recently, the Honorable Jane Philpott, a family physician, was elected to the federal government in 2015 where she served as Minister of Health before becoming the Minister of Indigenous Services. The Honorable Kellie Leitch is a Conservative member of parliament who ran, unsuccessfully, for leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative party in 2017.

The theme for the 2018 AGM and National Conference is Physicians Change the World.

We invited Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party nominee for president in the 2016 US election, as a keynote speaker, to share with us her experiences in activism. Dr. Stein is a Harvard-trained internal medicine specialist, who turned to political activism in 1998, becoming a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility before eventually winning the Green Party presidential nomination. The recipient of numerous environmental awards, Dr. Stein has been fearless in facing controversy in the fight against the effects of corporatism on the environment and for a fair democratic process. She has been arrested for protesting in favour of affordable housing, and again for criminal trespass in 2016 protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Dr. Stein pushed, unsuccessfully, for a recount in several key states. Dr. Stein will talk about activism and the role for women physicians in effecting social change.

The FMWC is honoured to have Dr. Jill Stein as the Sunday keynote speaker at the 2018 FMWC AGM and National Conference. The title of Dr. Stein's presentation will be "Activism".

We invite you to join us in Toronto, September 21-23 2018 at the Intercontinental Yorkville Hotel, Toronto. Preconference workshops on media training and #MeToo in the medical workplace, conference sessions on the latest in women’s health and women in medicine and an evening at the Bata Show Museum for socializing and forging friendships.

Registration is open. Register early to avoid disappointment. You can find more details at: https://fmwc.ca/2018-agm/

References:

Jill Stein for President - https://www.jill2016.com/