After 151 years of all-male leadership at the nation’s largest physician organization, a family physician from Texas broke through the glass ceiling at the American Medical Association on June 17, 1998.
Twenty-one years later, another Texas physician is poised to become the AMA’s sixth woman president – and its third in a row.
“What’s happened in the last 20 years is that the uniqueness of having a woman is not a big deal anymore,” said Galveston cardiologist Jim Rohack, MD, who served as AMA president about midway between its first and sixth woman leader.
It was a big deal in 1998 when Nancy Dickey, MD, then of Richmond became the AMA’s 152nd president – the first woman. One feminist writer went so far as to suggest Dr. Dickey be considered as the first woman’s face to be featured on U.S. paper currency – along with such female pioneers as Aretha Franklin, poet Phillis Wheatley, and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
“Clearly 20 years ago there was acknowledgment that it was a first and a significant first in 152 years,” Dr. Dickey told Texas Medicine Today earlier this week. “But it’s not an overnight thing. There were many, many who went before me who weren’t successful in their bid for the presidency but who had been chipping away at the very male AMA.”
Fort Worth allergist Sue Bailey, MD, clearly remembers Dr. Dickey’s election as a significant first.
“Nancy Dickey to me was an icon,” she said. “She was on the fast-track to leadership from day one. She was just so head and shoulders above everybody else. She was the right person to be the first woman president of the American Medical Association.”
Dr. Bailey is the only declared candidate for president-elect at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the AMA House of Delegates, which begins this weekend. If elected, she will follow Atlanta psychiatrist Patrice Harris, MD, who will be installed as AMA president on Tuesday, replacing Albuquerque oncologist Barbara McAneny, MD.
That trio will be AMA female presidents Nos. 4, 5, and 6.
“It’s extraordinary to look at the tremendous leaders that the five women since me represent,” Dr. Dickey said. “They have done such a fine job that it’s not a factor in the election anymore. It’s now a matter of looking at the leadership qualities that an individual brings, the message, and their capacity to deliver the message, and nobody’s looking at the genetic code.”
Winning a fair share of elections at the AMA House of Delegates is a sign, but not a guarantee, that women physicians have achieved parity with the men.
“I find it fascinating that the same year that Sue is being elected as president-elect of the AMA, the TMA finally got around to creating a [membership] section to focus on women,” Dr. Rohack said, referring to a long-brewing proposal that the Texas Medical Association House of Delegates approved last month.
Initially, Dr. Bailey says, she opposed the idea of a special section to identify and help TMA meet women’s physicians’ needs and to promote women physicians to leadership roles.
“I felt that if I just focused on women’s issues that would give everybody else an opportunity to jump over me in terms of leadership,” she said. “I’m in practice just like a male physician. I have the same concerns regarding payment and prior authorizations and all of the other socioeconomic issues at play.”
She now supports the Women in Medicine Section. Women’s health disparities, gender pay disparities, and sexual harassment are all problems women physicians want to see TMA address, Dr. Bailey said. “And, we haven’t had women in leadership,” she added.
Starting with the legendary May Owen, MD, in 1960, TMA had three women presidents before Dr. Dickey took the oath of office as the AMA’s first. But Dr. Bailey noted TMA has not elected a woman president since she held the post in 2010-11. Houston emergency medicine physician Diana Fite, MD, unanimously chosen last month to be president-elect, will break the 10-year drought next year.
In her AMA presidential installation address in 1998, Dr. Dickey referred to “the challenges of making it in a ‘man's’ field.” While cultural changes in the past 20 years have swept many of those challenges away, she said, many remain.
“There are still barriers to senior leadership – deans, full professors, university presidents. We are still in the minority. We still have work to do.”
Texas Physicians and Women Physicians Who
Have Served as AMA President
Edward H. Cary, MD, Dallas
Milford Owen Rouse, MD, Dallas
Joseph T. Painter, MD, Houston
- 1998-99: Nancy Dickey, MD, Richmond
- 2008-09: Nancy Nielsen, MD, New York
J. James Rohack, MD, Temple
- 2013-14: Ardis Dee Hoven, MD, Kentucky
- 2018-19: Barbara L. McAneny, MD, New
- 2019-20: Patrice A. Harris, MD, Georgia *
- 2020-21: Susan R. Bailey, MD, Fort Worth
* As of June
7, 2019, Dr. Harris was president-elect of the AMA, scheduled to be installed
as AMA president on June 13, 2019.
** As of June
7, 2019, Dr. Bailey was the only announced candidate for AMA president-elect.
Assuming she wins, she will be installed as AMA president in June 2020.