Reexamining the Pelvic: Medical Education and the Doctor-Patient Relationship

Lecture Description

This talk examines the late 20th-century controversy regarding pelvic examination instruction in American medical schools. In the 1970s, medical educators expressed concern over how best to prepare medical students for routine gynecological care. In response, schools experimented with a variety of approaches, including the use of plastic models, anesthetized patients, volunteers, and “simulated” patients (including prostitutes, graduate students, and nurses). By the late 1970s, new outsiders entered the debate, as female medical students, consumer rights advocates, and health feminists criticized some of these tactics as demeaning and destructive to women. Approached by female students at Harvard Medical School disappointed by their gynecological training, the Women’s Community Health Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts initiated an innovative “pelvic teaching program.” Laywomen acted as instructors and patient models for Harvard Medical students during a required introductory clinical medicine course. But after two years, the partnership disintegrated, with feminists feeling like no more than “talking pelvises” and medical educators disturbed by feminist politics, personal crusades, and “inappropriate patient model choices.” Drawing on the unpublished papers of the Women’s Community Health Center, medical journals, memoirs, and oral histories, I argue that this initial attempt to overhaul the traditional power relations between doctor and female patient, although unsuccessful, marks a crucial development in the negotiations between feminist health clinics, medical students, and organized medicine. Ultimately, this controversy helped to transform routine gynecological care by challenging many of the assumptions about how to understand and examine the female body.


Science Women

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