Women’s Health as a Symbol of Autonomy

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Content Warning: This article contains information that some readers may find upsetting, including discussions of misogyny, racism, and non-consensual medical procedures related to women’s health.

Disclaimer: For the purposes of this blog post, the term “women” refers to persons assigned as an anatomical female at birth. The Museum of Health Care acknowledges the use of gendered dichotomy to define medical specialties as resulting in inadequate research on transgender and nonbinary individuals’ health. 

The venerable Hippocratic Oath, recited by physicians for centuries, has recently been proposed to be rewritten. As more of medicine’s discriminatory past in North America has been uncovered, medical students are vowing to be committed to social justice, in addition to doing no harm. 

Although theories of diseases and treatment methodologies have long evolved since antiquity (bloodletting anyone?), the role of physicians remained consistent. Like what the Ancient Greek philosophers theorized, physicians are still morally expected to act for the good of the patient. 

Informed medical consent is central to healthcare today. The core idea behind the practice is having respect for the patient’s autonomy and dignity and for the provider and patient to be of equal power. However, with colonialist views and gender bias embedded in modern medical institutions, a patient’s intuitive trust in clinicians was often taken advantage of. 

Take the unfortunate story of Henrietta Lacks as an example, a young Black woman violated while seeking cervical cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951.  

Her cells were a medical marvel – where they persisted to multiple when typical cells would die – later coined as HeLa cells. The HeLa cell line continues to exist and is even involved in the development of medical innovations today, including research on COVID-19 vaccines.  However, the cell sample was collected without Henrietta’s consent. Her name, medical records, and cells’ genomes were initially shared without the Lacks family’s consent.

Figure 1. A collage image of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks. Utter (2020).

Henrietta Lacks’ story is now becoming a component of the compulsory curriculum, but there are countless voices and incidents still silenced.  Particularly, women’s reproductive health in the 21st-century Western world can be seen as a symbol of reclaiming autonomy against a past of colonial violence and gender-based oppression.   

Here are some of those stories that are often untold:  

Forced Sterilization: 

Just a few decades ago in Canada, countless Indigenous women underwent forced sterilization. Although incomprehensible, this practice is ongoing to this day.  

Historically, the procedures happened in racially segregated federal institutions, formerly known as “Indian Hospitals”.  Originating from the government’s 1930s fear-driven message of tuberculosis being “leaked” from Reserves into cities, these hospitals offered treatment from tuberculosis to childbirth for Indigenous Peoples. However, these institutions offered a lower quality of healthcare but continued to operate until the 1980s as a method of cultural assimilation of Indigenous Peoples. 

One way of solving the “Indian problem” and to “take the Indian out of the child” – problems constructed around the basis of eugenics ideology.  The peak of the practice of forced sterilization was in the 1930s. At that time Indigenous women represented about 2.5% population but made up 25% of those who were sterilized.  In these “Indian hospitals”, many women were forced to sign while in labour or otherwise medically vulnerable or health illiterate.  

One survivor recalled: “One lady got an operation for her bladder, but she had a hysterectomy,”.

Others received tubal ligation, a permanent procedure involving the tying, cauterizing, or cutting of the tissue of the fallopian tubes to prevent conceiving.  

Figure 2. Blier clips used for tubal sterilization in the 1970s. Museum of Health Care, 003003026 a-b.

Access to Contraception:  

Women have used various forms of contraception dating back to antiquity. Methods like herbal remedies, barrier methods, and abstinence were utilized to varying degrees of efficacy.  

Most interestingly, silphium, an herb commonly used in Ancient Greece, was harvested until extinction once its contraceptive properties were discovered. With, there was always demand for contraception, but it was just seen as “un-womanly”! 

However, access to reliable and effective birth control was limited for most women and the use of contraception was associated with witchcraft. Women were expected to fulfill their traditional roles as wives and mothers, and contraception was generally frowned upon. Those who attempted to use contraceptives or limit their pregnancies could face social ostracization and punishment. 

In the early 20th century, birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger played a pivotal role in the birth control movement in the United States.

Figure 3. The Sanger Clinic in Brooklyn, New York City. Underwood Archives (1916).

She opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916 and faced legal challenges for promoting contraception.  

Margaret Sanger believed that providing women with access to birth control was essential for their economic and social liberation. Her activism laid the groundwork for the contraceptive rights we have today.

The Profession of Gynecology: 

Gynecology is an ancient practice, with historical texts mentioning various treatments and procedures related to women’s health.  

For instance, the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus is often acknowledged as the oldest available medical record of the ancient Egyptian civilization. It may just be the earliest record of the practice of gynecology, detailing fertility, pregnancy, contraception, and gynecological diseases at just three pages long.

Figure 4. An excerpt from the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus. Public Domain

However, throughout much of history, medical knowledge related to gynecology was limited, and women’s health was often poorly understood. Shockingly, it is still underrepresented in modern-day health research! 

Medical knowledge and practices were predominantly dominated by male physicians. Women’s health issues were often disregarded or misunderstood because of the lack of female physicians who could provide insights and advocate for better care. 

Patent medicine paved the way for dialogue surrounding women’s health – which were (and still are) taboo. Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound [1], a herbal-tonic aimed to treat womanly problems, is now evidenced to be ineffective. Yet, was the best-selling drug of the 19th century, and women likely trusted a medicine more that was created by women for women. 

Figure 5. Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Museum of Health Care, 1991.17.42. 

Gynecology became inherently tied to feminist struggles throughout history. Feminists advocated for increased research and funding for women’s health issues, leading to the development of improved treatments, diagnostic tools, and medical technologies (Check out the Museum of Health Care’s online catalogue [2] and explore how gynecological instruments progressed throughout history!). 

The feminist movement continues to strive for improved healthcare outcomes and the recognition of women’s diverse experiences in medical research and practice. 

In recent years, there has been a push for more inclusive and patient-centred gynecological practices. Examples include the recognition of the diverse experiences and needs of women, the act of advocating for informed consent and promoting shared decision-making between patients and healthcare providers. 

In terms of women’s health, we are working towards reconciliation but also celebrating how far Western society has come. Just like Barbie says in the 2023 film; “Let’s go to the gynecologist!”. 


Anderson, D. J., & Johnston, D. S. (2023). A brief history and future prospects of contraception. Science (New York, N.Y.), 380(6641), 154–158. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.adf9341 

Aryal, S., & Atreya, A. (2022). History taking in gynecology revisited. Acta bio-medica : Atenei Parmensis, 92(6), e2021554. https://doi.org/10.23750/abm.v92i6.11940 

Black, K. A., Rich, R., & Felske-Durksen, C. (2021). Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Indigenous Peoples: Considerations for Health Care Providers. Journal of obstetrics and gynaecology Canada : JOGC = Journal d’obstetrique et gynecologie du Canada : JOGC, 43(9), 1090–1093. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jogc.2021.04.006 

Brubaker, L., Marsh, E., Cedars, M. I., Fenner, D., Murtha, A., Goff, B., & Khabele, D. (2022). Promotion of gender equity in obstetrics and gynecology: principles and practices for academic leaders. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 226(2), 163–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2021.09.035 

Hajar R. (2017). The Physician’s Oath: Historical Perspectives. Heart views: the official journal of the Gulf Heart Association, 18(4), 154–159. https://doi.org/10.4103/HEARTVIEWS.HEARTVIEWS_131_17 

Jackson, N., & Utter, D. (2020, September 4). Vessels for collective progress: The use of Hela cells in COVID-19 research. Harvard University. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/vessels-for-collective-progress-the-use-of-hela-cells-in-covid-19-research/ 

Leason J. (2021). Forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women: Strengths to build upon. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 67(7), 525–527. https://doi.org/10.46747/cfp.6707525 

Redefining women’s health for transgender and nonbinary inclusivity. University of Colorado Denver. (2020, January 2). https://coloradosph.cuanschutz.edu/news-and-events/newsroom/research-news/public-health-main-site-news/redefining-women-s-health-for-transgender-and-nonbinary-inclusivity 

Roeckner, J. T., & Peebles, A. B. (2018). A Look Through Time: Historical Analysis of Obstetrics and Gynecology Texts Highlights Changes in Medicine. Southern medical journal, 111(6), 313–316. https://doi.org/10.14423/SMJ.0000000000000812 

Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights (43rd parliament, 2nd session). Senate of Canada. (n.d.). https://sencanada.ca/en/Content/Sen/Committee/432/RIDR/03ev-55189-e 

Underwood. (1916, October). Women and men sitting with Baby Carriages in front of the Sanger. Getty Images. https://www.gettyimages.ca/detail/news-photo/women-and-men-sitting-with-baby-carriages-in-front-of-the-news-photo/597921305?utm_medium=organic&utm_source=google&utm_campaign=iptcurl 

Wardell D. (1980). Margaret Sanger: birth control’s successful revolutionary. American journal of public health, 70(7), 736–742. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.70.7.736 

HanShu Pu (Summer Staff 2023)

HanShu, a third-year Bachelor of Health Sciences student pursuing the Global and Population Health Learning Track at Queen’s University. She finds it fascinating seeing the stories told by the museum and how healthcare practices and innovations evolved (and are continuing to evolve) to be more accessible and safe. Medicine and health equity have always been a passion. Outside of academics she is an avid concert go-er and foodie. A perfect weekend for HanShu would include exploring new places, a spin class or hike, and lots of sunshine.

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