HER STORY- Women’s Health Throughout the Ages




By Roberta Davis


From the earliest days of medical history, women have always played a major role in discovering treatments and caring for the sick. However, women’s accomplishments in the field were not always recognized or welcomed.

It wasn’t until 1849 that the United States awarded the first medical degree to a woman, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Women’s health issues also fail to garner the same attention and research as men’s health.

Despite the obstacles, dedicated practitioners and researchers have made strides in advancing women’s health over the centuries.

Ancient Civilizations

Modern day obstetrics and gynecology can trace its roots all the way back to ancient Egypt. The oldest medical text from the Egyptians focuses on women’s health. The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, written nearly 4,000 years ago, goes into great detail about common treatments for conditions ranging from infertility to body aches.

Egyptian physicians often linked pain, swelling, and other problems with the womb. Most treatments advised a combination of oils, incense, and special foods to heal the uterus and stop the symptoms.

Ancient civilizations also introduced different methods for controlling contraception. The first ingestible form of birth control, a now extinct plant called silphion, originated in modern day Libya and was widely used around the ancient world.

Ancient Greece also produced some very impressive female physicians. Second century obstetrician, Metrodora, wrote On the Diseases and Cures of Women, a medical text that still serves as the foundation of many examination techniques still in use today.


Middle Ages

Women continued to make an impact on reproductive health up until the Middle Ages.  The 11th-century medical text, The Trotula, provides deep insight into how women in these times were diagnosed and treated. 

As in earlier times, medical treatments involved natural substances, like herbs or now questionable procedures like bloodletting. Though the medical profession was still staunchly male, women were responsible for performing the vast majority of health procedures, from caring for hospitalized patients to supporting women in childbirth.

While women healers were prevalent throughout the High Middle Ages, by the end of the period, they were looked at with suspicion. Midwifery was viewed as sorcery and women practitioners as witches. This danger pushed women out of the medical field for the better part of the century.

18th and 19th Centuries

While the witch hunt kept women practitioners out of the public eye, millions continued to provide healthcare to loved ones and neighbors. The care these women received was far from optimal. As most medical research completely ignored the female body, professional understanding was limited.

Many doctors still attributed a range of illnesses to the uterus, an idea that had not evolved in a millennia. 18th-century medical knowledge also blamed women’s behavior and thoughts for birth and delivery complications. At the same time, men dominated midwifery as the invention of forceps made the delivery process more palatable.

Women themselves were also relegated to second class citizens in their own medical care. Medical decisions were decided through, or even by their husband or other male relatives. However, after the American Civil War, women’s skills were needed to tend to soldiers injured on the battlefield. This reintroduced women to a pathway to the medical profession through nursing.

In the late 19th century, medical doctors began identifying hysteria, a disorder that primarily affected women. The condition became a catch-all for any psychological and psychosomatic ailments that women likely developed in reaction to restricted societal roles.

As the cure for hysteria was often touted as entering an acceptable role, such as motherhood or marriage, modern research suggests that the hysteria craze was less a medical issue and more of a sociological one. The term and its treatments fell out of favor by the end of the 19th century, as psychological conditions were understood to originate in the mind rather than the body.

The 20th Century Women’s Health Movement

The 20th century brought a wave of innovations and improvement in women’s health.  The reproductive health clinic, today known as Planned Parenthood, opened its doors in 1916 as the American Birth Control League. The organization was founded by nurse and activist Margaret Sanger who advocated for family planning and contraception.

Another turning point in the mid-20th century was the first publication on the menstrual cycle. Dr. Robert Frank, a gynecologist, uncovered the link between symptoms such as cramping, menstruation, and hormone levels.

This discovery led to later insights, such as Dr. Katharina Dalton’s treatment protocol for what she labeled premenstrual disorder that included hormone therapy. Today, women experiencing extreme premenstrual disorder or menopause can undergo an estrogen, progesterone, or testosterone test to anaylze hormone levels and identify proper treatment.

In 1960, women could finally access over-the-counter oral contraceptives, an important step towards women’s liberation and bodily autonomy. Nearly 50 years later, the emergency contraceptive Plan B was added to the options of nonprescription birth control.


Modern Day Advances

As women have not been represented equally in medical trials, many life saving treatments are not designed for women’s bodies. In 1993, the National Institutes of Health mandated that any federally funded research study must include women and individuals from minority backgrounds. This requirement made it easier for researchers to disaggregate results based on gender and identify if a treatment poses additional risks for women.

Modern research methods have also led to breakthroughs in breast and reproductive cancer screenings and treatments. In 1994, researchers learned that the BRCA gene was a strong predictor of several gendered types of cancers. Women with this gene can now take preemptive measures to significantly reduce their chances of ovarian and breast cancers.

Despite all of these advances, women’s health still has a long way to go. Women from minority backgrounds, particularly Black women, have higher rates of pregnancy complication and maternal deaths than other groups of women. Women with conceptually male conditions, such as attention deficit disorder or autism, are still under and misdiagnosed. However, the percentage of women in the medical profession continues to rise. Between 2007 and 2009, the percentage of women physicians rose from 28% to 36%.