AMWA’s History of Success
For nearly a century, the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) has been committed to the advancement of women in medicine. Although the number of women choosing careers in medicine has grown substantially, there has not been a commensurate increase in the percentage of women in senior leadership positions. To redress this situation, AMWA has carried out ambitious advocacy efforts including research, constituency building, mentoring, leadership development, and policy reform to enable environmental and institutional transformation.
Download an AMWA history found in the 95th Anniversary Commemorative Booklet.
View a list of AMWA Presidents from 1915 to the present day.
In 1915, at a time when women physicians were an under-represented minority and in need of cooperative action by women in medicine, AMWA became the first national organization of women physicians. AMWA organized committees to document for the first time unequal opportunities for women in postgraduate training, hospital internships, academic appointments, scholarships and papers presented at professional meetings. AMWA demonstrated by acting collectively through a national organization, women could increase their effectiveness as lobbyists.
AMWA expanded their advocacy efforts internationally forming the first international organization of medical women, the Medical Women’s International Association (MIWA). Overseas war work provided opportunities for professional advancement but women physicians were not allowed to participate in the military medical corps. AMWA linked issues of broad social policy to the specific circumstances of women in medicine so AMWA leveraged public opinion through charity work and social involvement to gain confidence in the competence of women physicians.
AMWA formed the War Service Committee, later renamed the American Women’s Hospital Service (AWHS), to lobby the War Department for military commissions for women physicians and care for civilian war victims. AMWA raised over $2 million and launched a mission to deliver voluntary medical relief throughout the world. With the support of the Red Cross, AMWA sponsored medical, health care, and social welfare services in 11 countries. The Medical Woman’s Journal claimed AWHS’s success alone could justify the existence of an organized group of women physicians. An editorial in the New York Times praised AMWA’s work alongside that of the International Red Cross and the Rockefeller Foundation. By delivering successful charitable care around the world, women doctors were breaking down barriers, exhibiting leadership and building trusts between women physicians and the public.
AMWA entered the political arena on behalf of women physicians fighting for policy reform that resulted in career advancement and leadership roles for women doctors including military commissions, state health directors and public health officers. AMWA joined the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee to lobby for pioneering legislation that resulted in 16 women physicians as state health directors and over 100 professional appointments of women physicians in the program’s administration. As a result of AMWA’s policy reform efforts, women obtained senior leadership roles making it easier for the next generation of women to follow behind.
AMWA’s campaign for policy reform clearly defined the goal of women physicians for the public. Physicians should be judged based on qualifications not sex, however the advancement of women in the profession was delayed by criticism that women were less competent than their male counterparts. AMWA responded to the criticism of women by sponsoring research and panel discussions on medical women in the workforce attempting to discern the cultural factors inhibiting women physicians’ professional advancement.
To counter the implications that women physicians functioned below optimal levels, AMWA forged a cooperative agreement with AAMC, AMA and U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare to conduct a study of women physicians’ practice patterns. Additionally, AMWA studied factors influencing the entry of women into medicine, the attitudes of medical faculties toward the admission of women in medical schools, the career choices and influence of medical schools on a woman’s attitude toward medicine. AMWA leaders understood the problem both as a conflict between profession and family and as a structural phenomenon through which women were marginalized in the profession.
AMWA was being called on to advocate for the positive advantages to society of making an equitable place for women in medicine. AMWA achieved this by co-sponsoring a conference called “Meeting the Manpower Needs: The Fuller Utilization of the Woman Physician” with the Women’s Bureau, the President’s Study Group on Careers for Women and the US Department of Labor. AMWA overturned prevailing assumptions about the lesser intellectual abilities of women and the traditional responsibilities of wives and mothers.
AMWA focused on eliminating the cultural factors discouraging women from entering the profession and created a pamphlet for high school guidance counselors entitled, So You Want To Be a Doctor? Acknowledging a need to attract young women into medical school, AMWA established scholarship programs, junior branches and awards for women medical students. Additionally, they extended leadership training to young women physicians by creating board positions for medical students and an extensive mentoring network for students, residents and physicians.
AMWA realized training the next generation of women physician leaders required communication of “unwritten rules” of successful career advancement at the beginning of a woman’s medical career, a practice still in place in AMWA today. AMWA focused on effective mentor-mentee interactions balancing three key elements: support, challenge, and a vision of the mentee’s future career. From the outset of their education, mentees were encouraged to look for opportunities to expand their network of colleagues and to acquire a multitude of individuals whom they admire and respect. AMWA mentors encouraged mentees to think strategically about their careers and the resources necessary for different purposes at different stages of their career development. As AMWA grew to include students and residents, women faculty and students were brought together in an effort to reform their local medical communities. Young AMWA leaders were making their voices known both within AMWA and in 125 academic medical centers across the U.S.
Although female enrollment in medical schools substantially increased, there had been an inadequate increase in the percentage of women in senior leadership positions. AMWA member Marlys Witte and the staff of the AMWA Professional Resources and Research Center at the University of Arizona pioneered a research project on medical women in academia. As she and her colleagues discovered, women were still on the ground floor of the medical faculty hierarchy ten years after their number had begun to rise in the profession. AMWA organized workshops outlining the goals and delineating the constraints that limit the expansion of the role of women in medicine as well as plans and strategies to overcome the restraints. In cooperation with Cornell University Medical College, the Women’s Medical Associations of New York City and State, New Jersey, and Connecticut, AMWA organized the Women in Medical Academia Leadership program. Dr. Patricia Numann says the program encouraged her to begin the Association of Women Surgeons and the Women’s Caucus at Upstate New York. The program also inspired attendee, Florence Hazeltine, to start the Women’s Health Research Foundation. The program was a seminal event for women’s leadership advancement because several women physicians who attended the program advanced to leadership roles including Deans, University Presidents and Department Chairs.
To expose the disheartening statistics that women were still limited in their representation within the ranks of academic medicine and earned a percentage of what their male colleagues earned, AMWA co-sponsored the report, “Empowering Women in Medicine.” As a result of this report, AMWA organized and began development of the Institute for Advancement of Women in Medicine and Healthcare with George Washington, Howard, John Hopkins and Maryland Universities. In partnership with Simmons College, AMWA hosted the Institute of Career Development, discussing business strategies, negotiating skills and gender equity. For female medical students, AMWA co-sponsored the Women’s Empowerment Institute, a leadership building experience consisting of skill building workshops and seminars to promote the development of leadership skills.
AMWA maintains its commitment to mentoring the next generation of women leaders through webinars on career development, a networking alliance of women physician leaders, media training and a gender equity task force that advocates for equal pay, transparency of pay scale, more women in positions of leadership and elimination of gender stereotyping and harassment. AMWA inspires and rewards individual women’s achievements through an annual awards gala, a permanent Women in Medicine exhibit at Drexel University, the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame, and co-sponsoring the National Library of Medicine’s exhibition, Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America’s Women Physicians, an online exhibit that profiles hundreds of women physicians, past and present.
Today, AMWA members are forging into senior positions in academic medicine and these pioneers are making it easier for other women to follow behind. AMWA’s 96 years of ambitious research, data gathering, constituency building, policy reform, advocacy and education are gradually enabling environmental and institutional change. For nearly a century, AMWA has organized collective efforts into one unified voice for the advancement of women in medicine.