Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout the history of medicine, the health of women and children hasn’t always been prioritized. Safeguards might not have been in place to ensure drugs were safe during pregnancy, the right to abortion care has been under attack by both terrorists and lawmakers, and people haven’t had the tools they needed to prevent pregnancy. But throughout that same history, women have confronted these issues head on, creating a better world for everyone and keeping important conversations alive.
Let’s meet some of these incredible historical figures now!
Frances Oldham Kelsey
In 1960, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey was evaluating drug applications for the FDA. When she received an application for a sleeping pill called Kevadon, she was unsettled by scant information on the drug’s safety and demanded additional data, triggering a game of tug-of-war between the pharmaceutical company and the FDA that persisted for more than a year.
In November 1961, Dr. Kelsey was vindicated. Kevadon — aka thalidomide — was discovered to cause severe birth defects. According to the New York Times, children “were born without arms or legs, some with no limbs or with withered appendages protruding directly from the trunk. Some had no external ears or deformities of the eyes, the esophagus or intestinal tracts.” One estimate holds that 20,000 babies were born with deformities, while 80,000 died during pregnancy or shortly after birth. But, thanks to Dr. Kelsey, thalidomide was never approved in the United States.
Frances Kelsey’s career might have been made possible by a misunderstanding. Her graduate advisor at the University of Chicago wasn’t a big booster of women in science, but he hired her after reading her name as Francis and assuming she was a man. Dr. Kelsey always wondered, “if my name had been Elizabeth or Mary Jane, whether I would have gotten that first big step up.” At the time, though, she wondered if she should even accept the offer to join the University of Chicago as a grad student.
“When a woman took a job in those days, she was made to feel as if she was depriving a man of the ability to support his wife and child,” Dr. Kelsey told the New York Times in 2010. Fortunately for an untold number of wives and children — and everyone else — she decided to claim her rightful place at the university, leaving behind an incredible legacy.
Sherri Finkbine was known to thousands of children as Miss Sherri on the local edition of the children’s show Romper Room. But Finkbine entered the spotlight for another reason in 1962, when she learned during her fifth pregnancy that she was at risk of having a child with severe birth defects. Finkbine was using sleeping pills that her husband had brought back from Europe, and the pills, she found out, contained thalidomide. Wishing to warn others about the drug, Finkbine shared her story with a reporter from the Arizona Republic.
Though she had been promised anonymity, her identity was exposed and her story created a media firestorm. Limited by abortion laws and fearing the publicity, hospitals in the United States denied Finkbine abortion care. Finkbine was finally able to obtain an abortion in Sweden, where it was confirmed that her child would have been severely deformed.
Finkbine’s story reminds us of the devastating impact of abortion restrictions we have since overturned. Although she was able to obtain an abortion overseas, for many women with unwanted pregnancies, that kind of travel was unaffordable or otherwise impossible, and the obstacles they faced drove them to seek dangerous — and even deadly — illegal abortions.
“Sometimes I feel like Miss Sherri was someone I knew a long time ago,” Finkbine told Phoenix Magazine in 2015, reflecting on the controversy more than five decades later. “Then I start to think, ‘She did what she had to do. She took a lot of crap from people and I am proud of her … and myself.’”
As surgeon general of the United States under President Bill Clinton, Dr. Joycelyn Elders championed sexual and reproductive health and rights. As she famously said, “I want every child born in America to be a planned and wanted child.”
In 1987, Dr. Elders became the director of the Arkansas Department of Health, championing an initiative that required sex education in the K-12 curriculum. She also aggressively campaigned to make birth control more readily available, particularly for teens; widened the state’s HIV testing and counseling programs; and advocated for greater access to abortion.
Then, in 1993, Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first African-American and only the second female surgeon general in the country’s history. In an interview, Dr. Elders stated that her No. 1 priority for her tenure as surgeon general was to “to do something about unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.” Throughout her term, Dr. Elders advocated for progressive, controversial, and life-saving public health programs. She supported researching the impact of distributing contraceptives in schools, giving free birth control to sex workers, and advertising condoms on television.
At a United Nations conference on HIV/AIDS in 1994, an audience member asked Dr. Elders about the viability of teaching masturbation to reduce HIV infection rates. Dr. Elders replied, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not taught our children the very basics.”
Her statement enraged several political pundits, who called for her dismissal. Eight days later, the Clinton administration forced Dr. Elders to resign, just 15 months into her term. More than a decade later, however, Dr. Elders told CNN, “If I had to do it all over again today, I would do it the same way.”
Emily Lyons Lyons was the director of nursing at the New Woman All Women Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. On the morning of January 29, 1998, just as Lyons was opening the clinic for the day, the building was bombed by an anti-abortion zealot named Eric Robert Rudolph. The homemade bomb was full of nails and shrapnel. Lyons lost one of her eyes and had multiple injuries all over her body. She had to have several surgeries, and was forced into early retirement.
The clinic had previously been a target of anti-abortion protesters, and other women’s health clinics in the U.S. had been bombed, but this bombing was the first time someone had died as a result when Robert D. Sanderson, an off-duty police officer who was a part-time security guard at the clinic, sustained fatal injuries.
In 1998, Lyons was interviewed by the Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center. When she was asked what her message was to other folks after her experience, Lyons said, “violence is not the way to do it. If you want to change something, go through the system. You don’t take it upon yourself to decide what is right and wrong.”
Lyons has taken every opportunity she has been given to share her story. Before the bombing, she considered herself to be a quiet person. However, the incident motivated her to become an outspoken advocate because “it flipped a switch in my mind and things just had to be told.” Lyons said:
To hide in fear, to be silent, to be consumed by anger and hate, or to not enjoy my life, would be a victory for my attacker. It is a victory I chose not to give him. Every time I smile is a reminder that he failed, and I enjoy constant reminders.