Black History Month: Feminism and Inclusion

“…I am committed to upholding our obligation to continue building diverse, inclusive movements for equality, and we promise not to rest until we have justice for all.”

Teresa C. Younger, President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, leading the charge for women’s health, safety and economic security.

White feminists have a bad history of ignoring Black women at best and actively harming and discriminating against them at worst.  Historically, white women have dominated both mainstream media and mainstream feminism.  The history we are taught in the US is white-centric, and it isn’t until February rolls around that we learn of historical Black figures and movements.  To make things worse, history is most often presented through a patriarchal gaze, overlooking and devaluing important historical female figures.  We have ignored leaders of the Civil Rights movement, teachers, artists, scientists, radicals, and activists that fought for equality in the face of hate and danger. This mess is why we have a LOT of work to do to prioritize inclusivity and diversity in today’s feminist movement.

Women at a Civil Rights protest at Howard University, circa 1920
In honor of Black History Month and the feminist women of color who have gone unacknowledged in the mainstream folds of the movement, we will feature a series of female scientists of color that are long overdue for some recognition.
These women are radical feminists because of their desire to bring attention to the plight of black women, which in some cases was and is different from the struggles of white women. Dealing with social conditions like slavery, structural racism, poverty and a denial of education, they called attention to the needs of black women in the U.S. in their own unique ways. And like other feminists, they were not afraid to do so.  The first lady on our list?  The esteemed Dr. Patricia Bath!

Patricia Bath:  Innovator and Humanitarian

Dr. Patricia Bath

Maybe you’ve never heard of Dr. Patricia Bath.  But you probably know, or know of, someone with cataracts or someone who has had laser cataract surgery.  If so, then you are familiar with Dr. Bath’s contributions to medicine.  As a child growing up in Harlem, Dr. Bath was all too familiar with the issues of poverty, racism, and sexism.  Her father was a Trinidadian immigrant and her mother was a descendant of African slaves and Cherokee Native Americans.  With the support of her parents and teachers, and a microscope set she received as a gift, she discovered a love of science and math in adolescence.  After only two and a half years, she received her high school diploma from Charles Evans Hughes High School and was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship to study cancer in relation to nutrition and stress at Yeshiva University and the Harlem Hospital Center.

She later attended Howard College where she completed her BA in Chemistry, receiving fellowships from prestigious organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health.  She completed her degree with the highest honors and soon after enrolled at Howard University where she had her first experience with black professors, Dr. LaSalle Lefall, Jr and Dr. Lois Young.  Both physicians being very socially conscious, they recognized the vast differences in medical care available to poor, black communities and passed that passion onto Patricia during medical school.  Dr. Bath became interested in social welfare and its relation to medicine, specifically the high rates of cataracts and blindness in black populations.

Dr. Bath interned at Harlem Hospital Center, later serving as fellow at Columbia.  In 1967, she traveled to Yugoslavia, where she saw first-hand the disparities in medical treatment among racial groups, and later noting that blindness occurred at twice the rate among the poor, black patients at Harlem Hospital Center compared to the more affluent, white patients at Columbia.  After returning to Columbia, she convinced her fellow colleagues to perform eye operations on blind patients from under-served  populations at no cost.  This approach had never been attempted before and led to the creation of “community ophthalmology“, a volunteer-based outreach program to serve under-represented groups in eye care.

Throughout her career, Dr. Bath has achieved a lot of firsts.  She was the first woman to serve on the staff of the Jules Stein Eye Institute.  She was also the first woman to head a post-graduate training program in ophthalmology, and the first woman to be elected as honorary staff of the UCLA Medical Center.  She was the first African-American woman doctor to receive a medical patent (four actually).  She founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness and was the first black person to serve as a resident at New York University in ophthalmology.  You can find her placard in the Hunter College Hall of Fame and has been declared by Howard University as a “Pioneer in Academic Medicine”.  In 1981, she patented the technique of using lasers to remove cataracts and in 2000 she devised a method to treat cataracts using ultrasound technology.  She continues to advocate for equal medical care in under-served communities and is an inspiration to many, including us here at Feminist Forester.

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