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  • Writer's pictureSas Miller

Women’s Health: A Personal and Collective History

A Symptomatic Impetus


In February 2023, I began experiencing bouts of vertigo for which I sought treatment through Quebec's healthcare system. I already knew the phone tag that must be played to book a clinic visit and long hospital wait times would be frustrating on their own. Not being someone to rely solely on the province’s overburdened system, I sought out the services of a private Naturopathic doctor, so I could compare the treatment recommendations and overall care in tandem. The experiences were night and day:


  • Each visit with my Naturopath was a full hour, compared to the 15 minutes or less with a system doctor.

  • With most of the system doctors, it felt like I was being asked questions out of obligation and sometimes humour, rather than a genuine interest in assisting me. 

  • A white, male Neurologist actually told me I was making my symptoms up. My female, Latinx Naturopath believed me the first time, and inquired about everything from my diet, sleep patterns, to my astrological sign. 

  • When the system doctors couldn’t pin my symptoms down to a specific disease for which they could prescribe medication, they simply said they didn’t know, and sent me home with no relief. My Naturopath plotted a course of treatment including supplements, dietary recommendations, and affirmations, which were updated every 1 - 3 months during follow-ups, based on the progression of my symptoms. 


Sadly, my experience as a Black woman navigating the provincial medical system is not unique. Implicit bias within Canadian healthcare has been documented in the poor maternal health experiences of Black women, and the coerced sterilisation of indigenous women in Saskatoon. Upon reflecting on my lifetime medical history, I came to the realisation that the professionals who have given me correct answers and actionable treatment plans were 2 female Naturopathic doctors. I began to wonder about the history behind this fact.


Two hands intertwined in the background, reaching upwards. On top the text reads: For those who did not fit neatly with the bounds of social norms (i.e. single, elderly or widowed women), having the knowledge of holistic healing could be viewed as malevolent witchcraft, which led to the persecution and killing of thousands of women for this perceived crime.
History of Women in Medicine

History of Women in Medicine


There’s a long documented history in 16th and 17th century Europe of women being benevolent healers, midwives, and wise women, using some sort of inherent “supernatural power” to tend to the infirmed and pregnant women. These powers were usually plants, herbs and rituals based on centuries of anecdotes and tradition, but they were a constant cause of anxiety among the clergy, who saw these practices as direct competition to church doctrine. For those who did not fit neatly with the bounds of social norms (i.e. single, elderly or widowed women), having this knowledge could be viewed as malevolent witchcraft, which led to the persecution and killing of thousands of women for this perceived crime.


...Given the intense anxieties among demonologists, bishops and even secular officials concerning the possible anti-social and Satanic activities of midwives, it is not surprising that they are found among the victims of the witch trials.

(On the Trail of the "Witches:" Wise Women, Midwives and the European Witch Hunts, JSTOR)


With the emergence of capitalism in the late 17th century, the gatekeeping of women’s traditional medical knowledge and skills was furthered to prevent direct competition to the new scientific model of medicine, which laid the foundations of the profit driven health and pharmaceutical industries we see today:


The Reformation and Counter-Reformation placed an increased emphasis on individual morality and piety, and the development of capitalism further fostered an ethos of industriousness, self-control and repression of the senses and sexuality in favour of reason and the mind. Domination of nature thus took the additional form of control of internal human nature. Women, already identified with nature, the body and the passions in popular and learned mythology, could seem more threatening in this context and all the more deserving of harsh repression…

(On the Trail of the "Witches:" Wise Women, Midwives and the European Witch Hunts, JSTOR)



The Future of Medicine


There’s hope for better representation and overall care as the number of women in medical professions continues to rise. However, it will take time to dismantle the systemic racism and sexism ingrained within the system. The death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who died in Quebec hospital in September 2020, after being subjected to racist remarks by hospital staff and having lifesaving treatment delayed due to the staff’s prejudiced assumptions about Echaquan’s sobriety, highlights the urgent need for DEI training throughout Canada’s medical institutions. The University of Windsor has an Unconscious Bias Training exercise, which also provides links to Harvard University’s Project Implicit. Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) is being utilised throughout North America as a first step for many individuals, organisations and institutions to measure the unconscious attitudes and beliefs about themselves and other groups, and tailor DEI training to address specific cultural competencies.

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