Dr. Marilyn Heins

“I Didn’t Realize I Was a Pioneer.”

The VFA would like to thank Sheila Tobias, Convenor of the Tucson-Based group of activists; Dean J.P. Jones, University of Arizona, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; Jennifer Croissant, Chair, Gender and Women’s Studies; David Sanchez, Videographer and Editor; and Graduate Student Ruben Ernesto Zecena. Interview conducted March 2019.

I’d like to talk about my adventures as a pioneer woman in medicine. I didn’t realize I was a pioneer. I didn’t know until many years after I entered medical school in 1951, only 394 women in the whole country were admitted to medical school. Today the latest figure in 2017 more than 50% of medical students are women and that amounts to over 21,000 matriculants. We’ve come a long way as they used to say.  I didn’t used to think of myself as a pioneer, but I realize that I was.

I was the first woman to do several things. I was the first woman to run a department at Detroit Receiving Hospital. I was the first woman associate and then vice dean at two medical schools. I was the first woman on several important boards like the National Board of Medical Examiners and the Editorial Board of JAMA. In those days, we just did what we were asked and were grateful for being asked or allowed, I should say. We were also very hard working because one of the things I realized that sort of hovered over my life was that I can’t make a mistake. I’ve got to do the right thing because others are coming after me. I am not sure whether other women feminists feel that way, but I certainly did.

Some of the things that I was interested in were women in medicine. Both women in medicine in terms of the numbers and women in medicine in terms of what their lives were like. I actually did research on this when we did The Detroit Physician Study. It was kind of interesting because we did structured interviews of a group of men physicians, a group of women physicians and a group of women who lived three doors to the right of the women physicians. We studied the profession of medicine and the socioeconomic status. And that’s how we managed to get that done.

Actually, the women physicians that we interviewed were different from the neighbors in one respect. Almost all of them mentioned someone who was interested in the fact they wanted to be a doctor. It could be the corner druggist, or a parent or an uncle. It could be a neighbor, just someone[who] took an interest in this. I actually gave a talk once saying – Our data shows that women who want to achieve in this world should rent a mentor. I got a big laugh. But it’s still not a bad idea for those that are struggling to get into new places.

One of the things that I also have been terribly interested in is what I call the double burden of women in medicine. This is the double burden of any woman with a profession or career. It’s having a full-time, difficult, time consuming, thought consuming job and raising children at the same time. I went through that. Fortunately, my husband was very supportive and did lots of things that other men were not doing in those days. 

But the point is that because of his support I managed to get through these double burdens, and it must have been okay for my children. My daughter became a physician and my granddaughter just entered medical school and if I live long enough for her to graduate medical school there will be three generations of women doctors in our family. So, we did our part.

The other thing about this double burden of who’s taking care of the children, is that it takes a lot of energy to do two full time jobs. Whether you’re a woman or a male. And suggesting that women go to the gym like Ruth Bader Ginsburg so that they have all the energy they can muster is not a bad idea.

Another thing that I got interested in was trying to get as many women into medical school as possible. I became the head of the group on student affairs of the Association of American Medical Colleges. This group was to get together and look at all the things that we could improve about how we counseled students and wrote their deans letters and so forth. Several of the women – this was now probably 1975 – several of the women that were on this group and I went to visit the president of the Association of American Medical Colleges with a suggestion. We suggested that they open an Office of Women in Medicine in this organization.

We did not think we were going to get a positive response, but we did. And in 1976 a woman named Judy Braslow was appointed to head the Office of Women in Medicine. I just talked to her the other day about what are the greatest accomplishments. Was it worth it? Those kinds of questions. And she said the statistics showed the great accomplishments – the number of women in medical school. Also, the number of women that are deans in medical school. That’s not quite as good. 6% currently of the women in American medical schools are deans, which compares to about 30% of women university presidents. So, there’s still some work to do, but I feel that it was a worthwhile endeavor and I’m glad I was a part of that.

The idea of being the first and accomplishing something is heartwarming and by the way you don’t have time to look back on these things until you’re elderly like I am. Because you keep doing what you love doing, what you hope is going to work and you don’t sit and ponder on – Am I making a difference? But I’m glad that I was making a difference.

What are my big issues? The biggest one was women in medicine, which I told you about – both the numbers and the double burden of women taking care of children. I was also interested in the ERA. I was interested in women’s health, especially obstetrical health. I was on the Tucson board of Planned Parenthood. Another thing that sounds amusing, but I think was helpful.  Before I moved to Tucson I belonged to a women’s group in Detroit called the First Monday Club because we met the first Monday of the month to talk about our trials and tribulations of trying to have a career and profession in a man’s world.

When I moved to Tucson I was telling one of the women movers and shakers about it and she said, Let’s do it here, and we did. And the only day that the two of us could meet was Tuesday. So, it became the Second Tuesday Club, which lasted about eight or nine years. We usually had only one or two women of each profession or career so there was cross-fertilization of the problems. The problems were the same, the details might have been different as to whether you taught in medical school or law school.

Salary equity is still a problem. It’s improving, but it is still a problem and has to be addressed. Other things that have to be addressed are the girls of today are pretty cavalier that they can do whatever they want, and I applaud that, and I think it’s wonderful. But because I firmly believe that feminism cannot die, I think it’s important for the young women to realize that there are still tasks ahead. One more thing on that issue is that it might not be a bad idea for some of us elder people in the world of feminism to see if we can devote a little time to doing mentoring again, because it is probably still needed, especially in those people that are in poverty or don’t have some of the advantages that we had.

I was once asked what got me started in feminism.  The 60s was a transformative decade.  If anybody had said to me at January 1 of 1960 the things that were going to happen in the next 10 years I wouldn’t have believed it. But they did happen, and they did improve the lives of many in our country. I think that what got me aware of the feminist issues were the remarks that I heard. One was the remark I heard on the first day of college in 1947, when at the welcoming tea or whatever it was, the dean said to us – that we were there, the young women in the class, to become educated mothers for our children.

I found this a little off-putting because I was there to be a pre medical student and become a doctor. I have to say that no one deterred me from this, but in those days you were fighting the battle pretty much alone. There weren’t many role models. There weren’t many other women in the class who were doing this. That was the first remark that made me think – What’s going on here? The second remark happened in medical school.

The second remark happened in medical school in 1954. It was the first day of the obstetrics and gynecology clinical rotation and I was a pretty eager student and I sat in the front row. I kept my notes handy and the Professor and Head of the department walked in and said, “ With apologies to the young women in this room who are studying to be doctors the function of a young woman is to have babies.” So, I write down the function of young women is to have babies. It was approximately ten or twelve years later after my consciousness had been raised by the 60s and 70s, that for some reason that remark floated up into my consciousness. I was walking to the hospital and I thought if I saw that man on the street right now I would kick him.

So those were the two things that made me aware of the road ahead. Another thing is the business of the dual career and the double burden on all women with professions or careers not just doctors, is that nobody has really successfully answered the question – Who takes care of the children? Our country is way behind in answering that question because most of the time the woman is either doing it herself or hiring someone to do it. Although men have really jumped up to the plate. My son is a stay at home dad. He’s a musician who works at night so that he takes care of their son in the daytime.

We live in a nation that doesn’t have a good parental care/leave program. It doesn’t have a universal preschool. It doesn’t have universal child care centers, places that children can be safely taken while the mother is at work or both parents are at work, which in today’s economy is so common. We have a lot of work left to do in that area of the double burden of women, though the political climate at this moment is a little dismal, I hope that that will be one of the important things that we do in the future.

When I entered medical school, even though there were other women in my class it was a man’s world no question about it. And the best example I have of that is what happened to me in my obstetrics rotation. Because we were learning how to deliver babies and babies have a habit of coming at night as well as during the day, we had to stay at the hospital round the clock. We could not leave.

The men had a lovely room with bunk beds and a shower and a bathroom. I was put in a closet with a window that opened on an air shaft that went down to the animal quarters. The animals that were being used in research quarters and some of them were roosters. I might have just gotten to sleep after delivering a baby or helping deliver a baby and the roosters would wake me. But the worst part of this distinction between a closet and a real bedroom with a bath was showers. I can’t leave the hospital. I can’t not shower for three weeks. So I just told the men they had to get out of the room so I could take a shower.

The world has really changed now. The world has really changed for the better. I developed a second career when I was just about to leave University of Arizona Medical School.  I started writing a column (and actually I had a radio show too) on parenting advice to help women in today’s world. I’ve been writing that column for The Arizona Daily Star since 1989 and I’ve written well over a million words.

Another thing is what your children are doing and thinking during that time that you’re doing two jobs. I was with two women doctors and my daughter who at that time had just entered medical school. We were having dinner in Chicago and one of the subjects that came up was how difficult it is to be in two places at once and my daughter piped up, “You know what the worst thing was about having a mother who worked?” And I thought – I’m going to get it. I don’t think I’m going to survive this. She said, “The worst thing was having to go to the orthodontist alone because I had to take a bus and then I had to sit in the waiting room with no mother or father.” She said that was the worst thing. I really empathized with that. I was so glad it wasn’t worse. I felt relieved. But it is difficult for families and could be made a lot easier if we acknowledged that women were in the workforce and had resources for them.

The White Coat Ceremony was started about 20 years ago. My daughter was already a physician and the reason they started it is they realized that we accepted students into medical school, and we didn’t let them see patients for two years while they were learning the basic sciences. Medical education has changed and now students are seeing patients from the beginning.  They also are indoctrinated into the profession of medicine in a White Coat Ceremony where they put on their white coats. I was invited to this ceremony and I took my white coat out of the back of the closet and my daughter brought her white coat. She’s also a physician. I have a picture of the three of us the first day of my granddaughter in medical school.  And if I live long enough there will be three generations of women doctors in our family which I think is a fun statistic!