I remember the first time a person questioned my dream of becoming a doctor. It was during one of my first times volunteering in a hospital while in high school, and it came from a stranger nonetheless.
As I was escorting a patient and his family out of the hospital, he turned to his family and said “this girl wants to be a nurse,” while pointing at me. I didn’t understand why he had such a sardonic smile, and the comment seemed a bit out of the blue. I looked him directly in the eyes and said, “No. I actually will be a doctor.” He looked at me with a shocked expression, put his hands up defensively, and said, “Oh, excuse me. She wants to be a doctor.” It was as if I had done something wrong, but I didn’t know what.
I didn’t realize at first how hurtful this stranger’s comment was to me. Because why would it make a difference if I want to become a nurse or a doctor? Nurses and doctors alike have equal responsibility when it comes to providing the best care possible to patients; both professions require skill, immense knowledge, and arduous work. The two work side by side in daily tasks; without one another, they could not fulfill their roles as caregivers.
But after I said goodbye to the family and wished them well, I realized that this man’s remark is a reflection, perhaps, of the opinion that doctors should be men and women should stick to nursing. Or perhaps it is just a generational view that people have learned in their upbringing. There are still those who believe that a woman’s place is not in the workplace, who say that women cannot handle “tough” jobs, or who think that women are inferior to men. This stereotype is perpetuated by men and women alike; so I ask myself, how does my generation combat this type of gender inequality?
I regret not standing up for myself more in that moment. But it was one of the first times that I had faced this type of blunt disparagement. I think about that moment and wish I would have said something along the lines of “thanks for the compliment, but I do not plan on becoming a nurse.” Yet, I am proud that I stood firm in my ambitions, unshaken by the doubt and disbelief of a stranger. There have been other times when I have experienced similar types of gender discrimination from hospital-goers: once during a 6 hour volunteering shift a man walked up to me and said, “your skirt is a little too hiked up,” even though it was knee length and abided by volunteer dress code. And there was another time when a man complimented me on my outfit when I discharged him from the hospital, rather than noting the meaningful work I was doing as a volunteer. It angers me that still, in our modern society, total gender equality isn’t achieved due to female objectification and stereotypical gender roles.
Around the age of 5, I started to become aware of the stereotypes of my gender; I recognized women and femininity were portrayed as feeble, incapable entities requiring protection, frequent help, and dominance. Most girls my age played with Barbies; my parents surrounded me with Nancy Drew books and biographies about Joan of Arc and Annie Oakley. But what I held on to the most, and what I took the most pride in, was that I shared the same birthday as Marie Curie, who pioneered research on radioactivity and was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. I drew immediate inspiration from her courage in a society that didn’t embrace intelligent women.
Yet there are so many other high-achieving, hard-working women who have been lost to history behind the heavy shadows of men. Take Rosalind Franklin, the woman who first captured the double-helix structure of DNA through X-ray crystallography, but James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins accepted the Nobel Prize for its discovery. Franklin was never extolled in her lifetime for her amazing contributions. I first discovered Rosalind Franklin on a poster outside of my school’s Biology classroom (which I saw every day on the way to class) with her famous quote, “science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” As I started to recognize more women’s faces in the history of science, I decided to do more research looking for role-models.
Research on Franklin lead me to the story of another woman who has made prolific contributions to science, Henrietta Lacks, who has only recently been publicized thanks to Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Not only was Henrietta discriminated against as a woman, but she was also degraded as an African-American. Her case gives rise to the many ethical questions surrounding medicine since scientists used her cancer cells without her consent, reproducing them in vast quantities. Her cells have been the basis for countless groundbreaking efforts in cancer research, but until recently she was unknown. The manner in which society concealed her story appalled me. How could a woman so influential to the world never be taught in my Biology classes?
There are countless women I could name who have transformed science and medicine as we know it today, such as Barbara McClintock, Alice Hamilton, and Dorothy Hodgkin. They still remain marginalized in my textbooks and unmentioned in my academic lectures. When will the names of these remarkable women become part of the basic science curriculum in schools across the world? Their names deserve to sit equally alongside the Mendels, Darwins, and Boyles. I’m making the extra effort to learn about these impactful women and encourage other aspiring doctors (male or female) to do the same because I think we can all benefit from female role models.
Aligning myself with the courageous women who have come before me gives me strength as I work towards my goals, and the doubters and disbelievers have only reinforced my aspirations to change the world through medicine. After all, as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
About Belle Pace
Belle Pace is a first-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia, planning to double major in Biology and Global Studies. She comes from Richmond, Virginia. You can reach out to her on Twitter at @bellepace1.