National Women Physicians Day is observed on February 3 and honors the path that women doctors have pioneered for almost 175 years. The day officially marks the birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. It’s a day that celebrates not only her but every woman who has had the passion to join the medical profession.
February is also Black History Month, so it’s also important to spotlight the tremendous hurdles overcome and advances made by Black women physicians. It is equally necessary to acknowledge racial disparities — both in representation and medical outcomes. For example, Black women are three times more likely to die while pregnant or within a year of pregnancy compared to white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In terms of history, we have to acknowledge the first Black woman physician, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, born February 8, 1831. After attending West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts in 1852, she worked as a nurse.
In 1860, she took the courageous step of applying to medical school and was accepted into the New England Female Medical College. In 1864, before the Civil War ended, Crumpler became the school’s first and only Black graduate. This was a major accomplishment as just four years prior to her graduation, there were only 300 women physicians in the United States and none of them were Black.
As a “first,” Crumpler paved the way for Black women physicians today. Although the percentage of U.S. doctors who are Black has grown since 1864, Black women account for less than 1 percent of U.S. doctors. The analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from 1900 to 2018 included about 150,000 physicians, with only 1,600 Black women physicians.
Nearly two years ago, I was listening to a Yes Girl! podcast episode and they featured twin doctors Uché and Oni Blackstock from New York City. I was so impressed by their work in making resources and information about COVID-19 more accessible to the Black community. Both are also moms, and they discussed their experiences with being on the front lines with COVID-19 and also structural racism in medicine.
Dr. Uché Blackstock is a physician and thought-leader on bias and racism in healthcare. She is the founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, which partners with healthcare and related organizations to address racism in healthcare and to eradicate racial health inequities. In 2019, Dr. Blackstock was recognized by Forbes magazine as one of “10 Diversity and Inclusion Trailblazers You Need to Get Familiar With.”
Dr. Oni Blackstock is a primary care and HIV physician who is the founder and executive director of Health Justice, a consultancy that supports health-related organizations to center anti-racism and equity in the workplace and to reduce health inequities in the communities they serve.
Since COVID-19 hit, they have been educating Black people and people of color about the coronavirus, debunking myths about the vaccine, and making sure those disproportionately affected by COVID receive the care they deserve.
I came across Dr. Cindy M. Duke MD on Instagram about a year ago and learned about her directory of Black women physicians. It serves as a resource for patients looking specifically for Black women doctors and experts. Yes, please, and thank you!
Dr. Duke is America’s only dual fertility expert and virologist. A Johns Hopkins and Yale-trained physician, she is also an entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and philanthropist. She speaks about issues as they relate to life, health, fertility, female empowerment, and international telemedicine. The Physician Founder, Medical and Laboratory Director of the Nevada Fertility Institute in Las Vegas, Dr. Duke has a highly engaged social media following.
Dr. Duke is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine. Her research focuses on the intersection of healthcare delivery with technology and how that can be used to close gaps in accessing medical care. She is an internationally recognized telemedicine expert who started a virtual women’s health clinic in the Caribbean, in 2016.
The voice of Black women physicians has been neglected, despite progress towards equality in medicine. The relationship of Black women to medicine has included dismissal, invalidation, inequity in pay, and structural racism. There is this unique combination of demanding expectations and hyper-scrutiny that only limits Black women in the medical field.
Despite the challenges, these women have been called to a purpose. They don’t just take care of their families, but ours too. They are educating their communities, fighting racism, and in turn making it more accessible for us to get the care we need. Decades after Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, more Black women are continuing her legacy, taking up space in various areas of medicine and healthcare.
How can you honor this day? Thank a woman doctor for her work and let her know how much you appreciate her. You can also post on social media thanking women doctors for their work using the hashtag #NationalWomenPhysiciansDay
You can also donate to organizations that deal with gender equality. Truth is, even though women can now be doctors, there is still so much work to be done. Women doctors, particularly Black women doctors, don’t make as much as their male counterparts, so there’s more change that needs to happen before it’s truly equal.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.