Women's Work and Women's Studies 1971 Questionnaire, Deirdre English and Barbara Ehrenreich, 1972, page 3

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          INSTITUTIONAL SEXISM IN HEALTH: A REPORT AND DISCUSSION 

We have been doing research --in connection with teaching a course-- into the historical roots of sexism in the health system. We'd like to share some of the things we've learned and discuss their implication for the movement today. 

We came to the overall conclusion that the sexism of the health system is not just a reflection of the sexism of society in general. Sexism in the health system is INSTITUTIONAL sexism, and serves to maintain the existing caste relationship in our society. One of the most important ways it does this is by providing medical, "scientific" justifications for the oppression of women by all institutions. 

Historically, women have been the prime providers of health care in western countries (and probably some others). Women were the central life-givers and healers-- as midwives, "wise women," folk doctors, etc. The history of the rise of the modern male medical profession is the history of the active suppression of women as healers. As women have been displaced from healing roles they have been forced into sick roles-- a shift that has been "scientifically" justified by the idea that the natural functions of women, both physical and psychological, are defective and sick. 

We have studied two periods in particular: The suppression of "witches" (really women healers) in the middle ages, and the period of the rise of the modern male medical establishment in America at the turn of the century. Contrary to the conventional medical history, we found that in both cases the political attack on women as healers PRECEDED the technological advances which are usually said to account for the male takeover of health care. In both cases, women healers were associated with lower class movements and culture; male professionals with ruling class interests. 

The sexism of the health system finds its internal expression in a rigid male dominated hierarchy. The functions of "curing" and "caring," once united in a single healing practitioner, are now split into the sharply sex-typed roles of doctor and nurse. The nurse, left only with caring functions, is little more than a professional woman-- a comforting, but unscientific, mother. 

Deirdre English and Barbara Ehrenreich