It took women almost a century to secure the right to vote in our nation, from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. An Equal Rights Amendment, asserting equity in employment and other opportunities, was first introduced in Congress in 1923. Despite being denied this legal protection in 1923 and subsequently, women in the twentieth century entered the paid workforce pursuing jobs that fed families and attained education that led to better jobs and increased autonomy in unprecedented numbers.
Beyond employment and education challenges, obtaining health care informed by scientific research also presented a serious obstacle for women. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which traces its beginnings to 1798, grew to the world’s largest single funder of biomedical research after World War II. Yet, it historically excluded women as study participants until an alliance of women from the public sector and one from Congress joined forces in the 1980s to change this practice. Needed change was accomplished through the 1993 NIH Revitalization Act, which required the inclusion of women in clinical studies funded by the NIH.
With clinical investigations finally considering women’s health beyond reproductive health, research findings with data on women became a growing part of the scientific literature in the early years of the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, debate over the value of studying the biology of women’s health and sex differences in health continued.
The terms sex and gender evolved during this period of debate to distinguish studying differences in biology – using the term sex (females and males), and in social experience – using the term gender (women and men). It was the NIH Office for Research on Women’s Health that led the successful effort to establish a 2016 NIH requirement that biology-based laboratory studies, not only clinical studies, explore the underpinnings of health differences between women and men.
Today, as our scientific and cultural understanding expands, we have learned that sex and gender are not binary. And, in science, as our knowledge grows so must our efforts to welcome everyone in the identities they bring, and to enhance the precision of our language in adopting terms that value everyone.
Even so, we must not forget our history and the descriptive terms that serve us well.
Twenty-five years after the inception of our research center, we remain committed to advancing the health of women, studying how sex and gender influence health between and among groups of people, and successfully challenging historic inequities for the benefit of all. To my mind, maintaining the name “women” recognizes the historic obstacles surmounted by and enormous contributions made by those who came before us. Just as important, it embodies the continued relevance of challenges with us now and of those ahead as we advance health for women and all persons.