After then presidential candidate Donald Trump was found to have bragged about sexually assaulting women, our first lady, Michelle Obama, coined the notable phrase “shaken to my core” to describe her feelings. On November 9th, when I awoke to find that Donald Trump actually won the presidential election, I felt blindsided. A crass, inappropriate and misogynistic TV celebrity was victorious over the more polished, professional and experienced candidate who “played by all the rules” and happened to be a woman. How could it be that the candidate who took the high road did not prevail in the end?
When I first started my career as a female physician, I was reluctant to join “women physician groups” because I believed that our collaboration would foster segregation and resentment toward our male colleagues. Once I realized, however, the many challenges women continue to face in the house of medicine, I sought refuge with my female colleagues. I realized that these “womens’ societies” were a tremendous catharsis for my frustrations – long hours, frequent “hangry” moments and no breaks. In these groups, I found a common voice. Others were outraged over the lack of paid maternity leave. Others could empathize with being called “abrasive” for behavior that would be described as “taking initiative” when seen in a male resident. For many of the challenges I faced, only other female physicians understood and they provided me the comfort I needed to show grit in the face of adversity.
This empathy makes many female doctors successful at supporting and consoling female patients. As I am finishing my last year of residency, I reflect on my training. The most impactful patient interactions I have had were providing support for patients who were victims of rape and sexual abuse. I have been fortunate to train at a busy, urban, safety-net hospital in downtown Atlanta. Unfortunately, we frequently are called on to provide forensic exams to patients who have been sexually assaulted. While both female and male patients suffer from rape and intimate partner violence, the overwhelming majority of patients seeking these forensic exams are women. The stories of these victims haunt me and are a stark reminder of how easily objectified and vulnerable women still are in our society. During the presidential debates I was horrifically reminded of this yet again, when I saw Donald Trump bullying Secretary Clinton with threatening posturing and words, constant interruptions and jabs like “such a nasty woman.”
Since the election, I’ve seen outrage fatigue among my colleagues and friends. You now see fewer political postings on Facebook as Americans are eager to get back to “a normal life.” We want to move past the horrible attacks and meanness displayed by candidates and political parties in the 2016 election. I, however, continue to be deeply disturbed by the results of this election and believe we are letting down our patients and our humanity by just “accepting” and moving on with our lives.
Donald Trump’s behavior in the third debate gave me flashbacks to Anita Hill’s testimony before a panel of all white male Senators, and the bullying she endured, back in the early 1990s. The bullying behavior Trump displayed is nothing new. As our first lady astutely pointed out, all women can cringe in horror and relate to the vulnerability of being the recipient of unwanted advances. What the recent election showed, however, is that we as a society are willing to tolerate this abuse continuing.
A female co-resident and I once discussed the lack of sleep or meal breaks we experience during residency. She felt that this was part of “training” and we needed to learn to be more “tough” if we want to be respected. She was a hard-working resident and wanted to fit into the well-established institution we have in our training hospitals. Consciously or not, she was “playing by the rules” and propagating an unhealthy culture to avoid ruffling a few feathers.
As Susan B. Anthony famously stated, “cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform.” Female physicians owe it to each other to not accept unfair duty hours, unsafe working conditions, lack of breaks or suitable bathroom or lactation facilities, and unpaid medical leave. Furthermore, we owe it to our patients to continue to be advocates for their rights and take a strong voice against any policy or political candidate who threatens the health care rights of women. History shows, women will never vote in a “block” and we certainly do not have to agree all the time in politics. But this is about more than politics; it is about our human rights. If we continue to just “play by the rules” the demeaning treatment of women will continue to be an assault on us all.