05/05/2011 12:58 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Women Beat Down the Sexist Doors of Medicine

I loved suturing. Maybe all those home economics courses I was forced to take in junior high built up my skills with the needle and thread. Sewing up a wound was actually easier than making those frilly gingham aprons, though.

But when I was in medical school in the Jurassic era of the mid '70s, my option to train as a surgeon was limited by my lack of critical equipment, equipment that I could not purchase or pack in my little black bag. Only 5 percent of my class was female; we were advised that pediatrics and psychiatry would be good choices if we didn't abandon pursuing an M.D. for an "M.R.S. degree." Some women chose to pursue obstetrics and gynecology, which, besides its clinical care of mothers and babies, allowed women to wield a scalpel for Caesarians. The most assertive among us battered down the doors leading to internal medicine, but surgery's castle was a male fortress surrounded by a sexist moat. Women in surgery were so rare that renowned breast surgeon Dr. Susan Love made the cover of People magazine for being one of the first women in the field. My own efforts to consider a career in surgery were subtly (cough) discouraged by patronizing comments, sexist jokes and exclusion from the male doctors' locker room representing the frat-like atmosphere of the social networks of surgeons and their residents. I became a pediatrician with few regrets.

As the numbers of women in medical school grew to over 50 percent in the next couple of decades, women spread their wings to study a breadth of medical specialties. However, early women pioneers in the surgical suites often found themselves directed out of general surgery residencies and into subspecialties such as plastic surgery, breast surgery, or ear-nose-and-throat. "No one will go to a female general surgeon or urologist," more than one woman resident was told. "Even if you finish the program, you won't be able to make a living." Somehow, hundreds -- and eventually thousands of women -- successfully survived the hazing. They entered the surgical practice, and became leading practitioners in general and cardiovascular surgery, urology, neurosurgery and more. Yes, glass ceilings are still a reality, but the progress has been exponential: the incoming president of the American College of Surgeons is a woman: Patricia Numann, M.D.

Dr. Numann was promoted from her role as vice president-elect this week after the resignation of Dr. Lazar Greenfield, the former president-elect. Dr. Greenfield made the unfortunate choice of penning an editorial in February that cited research on the possible antidepressant effects of semen on women and suggested that it be considered in lieu of chocolate on Valentine's Day. There is no doubt that heterosexual bonding is a part of Valentine's Day celebrations for many couples, but Dr. Greenfield's editorial, which he insists was intended to be humorous, was seen as out of bounds by many readers, including representatives from two organizations of women surgeons. Dr. Greenfield made the correct decision to resign his presidency, even as he protested that the furor over his essay was overblown. A renowned surgeon from Michigan, Dr. Greenfield defended his use of research to support the essay's theme. But he is neither an expert in gynecology nor psychiatry, and his comments on a controversial subject outside his specialty have rightly been criticized and indentified as implying a layer of mannered sexism that resonates with the patronizing "little woman" stereotype of the mid-20th century.

That stereotype also filters through in Dr. Greenfield's email to The Detroit Free Press. His plaintive appeal echoes the sound of mourning for the perceived loss of stature of men in the hierarchy because of the recent advancement of women.

Those of us who have lived through the evolution of women's roles over the last 50 years are grateful that our daughters and granddaughters are living in a world where they can be surgeons, military pilots, firefighters and/or household managers, whatever is their wont. Enhanced rights and opportunities for women do not automatically mean losses for men. On the contrary, both women and men have gained freedom with the changes -- freedom to travel the paths they choose and to be who they are. A great thing to celebrate next Valentine's Day, yes?