This year, the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF) is celebrating its centenary. It started in 1917 with 190 members, emerging from the Association of Registered Medical Women in the wake of the First World War.
Two of the first members were Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Britain’s first female surgeon, and Ethel Williams, the first female doctor in the North East. They were joined by founder member and first president, Dr Jane Walker who was concerned about the working conditions for medical women serving in the Forces. In 1918, Dr Walker wrote to The Times: “When they (women doctors) travel, they travel not as officers, but as soldiers’ wives”.
Declining numbers of men entering medical training forced medical schools to encourage women to enrol during the war. However, at the end of the conflict, some medical schools effectively shut their doors to female students – a campaign that MWF was quick to take on.
Dr Walker studied at the London School of Medicine for Women but in 1880, women were unable to take medical exams in England. Dr Walker qualified in Dublin before returning to London to set up her practice treating the poor and disadvantaged. She later founded a sanatorium in Colchester and dedicated her life to treating tuberculosis patients.
Over the last 100 years, the Federation has campaigned on the rights of married woman to work, have access to contraception, abortion, FGM and, more recently, flexible working for women doctors. The role of MWF today is still as important. Over 55 per cent of medical students are now female and 53 per cent of consultant trainees are women, as well as 69 per cent of GP trainees.
Despite this success, there still exists a gender gap at senior levels within medicine. A 2015 study revealed that female medical students would earn 35 per cent less than male graduates by the age of 55. Currently, only 34 per cent of consultants are women and within surgery this drops to just 12 per cent. Women also only make up 24 per cent of Trust medical directors and 24 per cent of professors.
The MWF writes: “We provide a voice and platform for women doctors, and have been involved in medical politics at the highest level for 100 years. The MWF is currently making the opinions of women doctors known at the General Medical Council, the Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association and we are frequently consulted by the Department of Health on issues affecting women doctors. As a charity, the MWF is one of the largest and most influential bodies of women doctors in the UK.
“Over the last century, the MWF has tackled a plethora of major issues ranging from the position of medical women engaged in war work, to the availability of birth control information. Its work is just as relevant nowadays as women still encounter problems in their careers. There is a lack of medical women in senior positions and the MWF provides an established network to encourage women to excel in their career and deliver excellent care to their patients. It supports women through their more varied personal and professional issues associated with their gender.”
To mark the centenary the MWF is hosting a four-day series of events from Wednesday 10 May to Saturday 13 May. Cavendish is delighted to be a sponsor.