What was it like to be a young woman entering college in 1947 and medical school four years later?

I recently did some reminiscing to prepare for a panel discussion on “Women in the Workforce, Then and Now” convened by Paula Fan, professor emerita and senior fellow of the University of Arizona’s Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry. I was asked to talk about my field along with a woman lawyer and a journalist. Browsing through some old diaries and files reminded me how different the world was for women back then.

My good fortune was to be born into a family that valued education and achievement. My mother worked part-time as a commercial artist so I grew up knowing that a woman could work outside the home. My father had a way of expressing encouragement while gently nudging at the same time. The day after my fifth birthday, for example, he would say, “A grown-up girl like you, almost 6 years old, I know you can do it!” By age 15 I knew I wanted to be a doctor and my parents were supportive.

I was privileged to attend Radcliffe College but was not exactly a typical student. In those days the highest goal for many women was motherhood, preceded of course by wifehood. When the dean told our entering class we were there for one purpose, to become educated mothers of our children, I remember thinking I was there to prepare for medical school. But I was given the room to focus on my nontraditional goal although I plowed ahead pretty much on my own because there were almost no women faculty role models.

In 1951, the year I entered medical school, only 394 women in the entire country did so (about 5 percent) compared to more than 20,000 today. If I had known I was such a pioneer I might have been frightened away. Medicine was definitely a man’s world in those days. And I was a very different woman then. Sometimes I look back at myself with amazement because in those years of pre-feminist innocence, I accepted without question attitudes and treatments that today would lead to a lawsuit.

Although the specialty of obstetrics-gynecology deals with women, enlightenment came but slowly to this discipline. On the first day of our rotation the head of the department began his introductory lecture thusly: “With apologies to the women attending this lecture in order to become physicians, the function of young women is to have babies.” I was a conscientious front-row student so I dutifully wrote down that the function of young women is to have babies. Many years later when the feminist movement was well underway, that remark somehow surfaced into my conscious thoughts and enraged me.

For many years after I became a physician I experienced being the “first and only” woman at professional committee and board meetings where my words could be ignored only to be heard again from a man.

However, welcome federal civil rights legislation in the transformative decade of the 1960s began to change how women were perceived and treated in the workplace.

Today women have achieved access in most fields and they have also achieved acceptance and accolades. But advancement of women in professions and the corporate world needs more work. For example, in medical schools women comprise 48 percent of the entering class, 35 percent of the faculty, 42 percent of assistant professors, 31 percent of associates and 19 percent of full professors. Only 13 percent of deans are women. I watched the glass ceiling crack when the first woman dean was appointed in the ’70s but the rate of change is not as fast as it should be.

And there has not yet been enough progress in the abatement of the double burden carried by women who choose to have both children and a career. My husband was the real pioneer in our family. When we married, Donna Reed was the sitcom model of wife/mother. My husband not only allowed me to do my thing but gave me unconditional encouragement and support.

We’ve come a long way on the road to equality for women but there are still some bumps. Disadvantaged women struggle just to survive and many do not even think of college let alone medical school. We need quality, affordable child care so that all women who need or want to work outside the home can do so. We need a student-aid system that ensures all qualified students can get a college education and graduate without a crushing debt.

Parents today must encourage and empower their daughters as well as their sons to dream high, get a good education, go far in their chosen field, and be both willing and able to give something of themselves back to the world. Our nation and our planet need them. Follow my father’s lead and tell your children, “I know you can do it!”

Dr. Marilyn Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent, and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com for a professional, personal, private, and free answer to your questions.