Sex and Medicine

Summary of the Text:

The book, Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession, by Rosemary Pringle, explores the vital question whether or not female doctors ultimately do make a difference in their field and what factors of oppression they face as women. Despite professional medicine being frequently viewed as constant grounds of discrimination against women, both as practitioners and patients, women continue to enter the field in growing numbers. In her book, Rosemary Pringle, Professor of Women’s Studies in Brisbane, sets out to analyze the role of women in medicine, articulating the culture of modern medicine by describing the experiences of female doctors, through the conducting of 150 life interviews with women doctors from the United Kingdom and Australia, in the early 1990s. Chapter 4, Women in Surgery is particularly interesting because it focuses on the role and struggles of female surgeons in contemporary medicine. Surgeons are viewed as the public performers of medicine, and woman have continuously described themselves as never feeling fully welcomed into this particular field, going as far as comparing a female surgeon to be a fish out of water. This chapter focuses mainly on the oppression that women feel as they work in the surgical field, and shows that overall women felt unwelcome. Throughout the book, Pringle has distilled her medical life histories and field work into chapters devoted to doctor-nurse relations, woman’s health movements, and woman in individual specialties, such as general practice, gynecology and surgery. In addition, there are recounts of the history of medicine, and postmodern feminist theory. Pringle successfully evokes the contemporary culture of modern medicine through her documentation of real life interviews and stories of women doctors, bringing to light the obstacles women have, and continue to face, in the medical field. She continues to challenge the ever-growing number of women entering the field of medicine to not accept the plight of their predecessors, but rise up and create a new legacy of women in modern medicine, as both practitioners and patients.

Biographical sketch:

Rosemary Pringle is one of Australia’s most prominent sociologists. Pringle works at Marquee University as a professor of sociology (Richmond). Pringle has written 3 books, Secretaries talk, Gender at Work, and Sex and Medicine. All of these books cover the topics of women in the workforce and the oppression or lack thereof that women face in these particular fields.  There is nothing online about the early life of Pringle but it is obvious that she has devoted much of her life to covering the topics of oppression in the workplace through analytical research which makes her a credible source.

Historical Context

During the decade prior to Sex and Medicine being published (1988-1998) there was a significant increase in the amount of women who were successful as physicians. Pringle notes that in this field women have undoubtedly shifted the flow of power (Pringle 127). This is a result of the fact that physician colleges have been more pressured to be democratic and create flexible working environments in the past decade (specifically in the U.S, Australia and England) (Pringle 130). In this time period, the field of general practice was particularly optimistic for prospective female doctors. Pringle notes that women in general practice during this time period (1988-1998) were increasingly more likely to be married, have children and be accepted by their male colleges. This is all regardless of the fact that these women were working as full time general practice physicians. This shows that because the women were beginning to be seen and treated as more equal, women are less likely to sacrifice a domestic life to pursue their goals (Ali).

Although Pringle does note progress and optimism with women working as physicians and specifically in general practice, there is still the general trend of oppression towards women in the medical field that is due to centuries of injustices. One specific field in which women have faced oppression over time is surgery. One reason for this is that historically, surgeons were not part of the upper class because surgery was rough, dreaded and did not pay as well as it does in the present day. As a result, the stigma has been created over the past 2 and a half centuries that surgeons are rough and manly which is described by Pringle as being a prime example of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (Pringle 76). Pringle also notes that this image continues to be portrayed in TV dramas such as ER and Chicago Hope. Thus, an age old stigma has carried over into the present day which serves to oppress women attempting to become surgeons.

While women are still facing oppression in many practices (such as surgery), it is encouraging to see progress with female physicians. Thus, the historical context surrounding Sex and Medicine is that women are have faced and still facing oppression in the field of medicine but the field is slowly becoming more level and democratic which is allowing women to enter the medical field in the same numbers and be treated with the same respect as men.

Connections to other people/ texts:

While male and female doctors use the same tools, they are undoubtedly treated differently.

One connection from Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession to other books we have read is the common theme of women facing uneven oppression in the workplace. For instance, Hidden Figures and Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession share the common theme of women facing discrimination despite the fact that they are just as if not more qualified than their male contemporaries. An example of the disparity between experience and job qualification is seen in chapter 5 of Hidden Figures, “In 1940, just 2 percent of all black women earned college degrees … Exactly zero percent of those 1940 college graduates became engineers. And yet, in an era when just 10 percent of white women and not even a full third of white men had earned college degrees, the West Computers had found jobs and each other at the ‘single best and biggest aeronautical research complex in the world’” (Shetterly 40). The contradiction of women having equal experience to their male contemporaries is also seen in Sex and Medicine when Pringle describes women as feeling largely unwelcome as surgeons because they are entering a field “whose traditions and values are firmly masculine, they find themselves unwelcome in an area in which all but the exceptional few are presumed incapable of surviving” (Pringle 69).

Furthermore, the theme of women having more difficulty getting into upper level schooling such as master programs is not only seen in Hidden Figures but also in Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession as it is more difficult for women to get into medical school. For instance, Pringle notes many obstacles of women gaining acceptance to medical school such as “hostility of male medical students and the persistent refusal to admit women by the medical staff” (Pringle, pg. 26). This theme is also seen in Hidden Figures as Mary Jackson had to receive permission from the City of Hampton to attend Hampton College which was still segregated.

Group of women studying in a medical school class room.

The format of Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession is not similar to any books that we have read this semester as it is more of a review of many medical doctors. This being said, Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession looks at specific problems and lists solutions unlike the mystery (Third Girl), Historical Fiction (Hidden Figures) and autobiographical (A House of my Own) books we have read this semester.


In a book review by Katy Richmond, she praises Pringle’s work by making statements about Pringle’s book such as, “Pringle aims not just to provide a description of women doctors in the 1990s, but to add to feminist theory and to the sociology of work and health” (Richmond). Richmond did have some critique as she thought that Pringle should have focused on doctors from only one country, “Perhaps it was a little over-ambitious to study both English and Australian women doctors, and perhaps it muddied the field a little to include women doctors up to the age of ninety-two” (Richmond).

In a separate review by Susan Halford, she admires Pringle’s text because it did not necessarily bring up the typical gender stereotype. Halford thought that the text showed great originality, “Throughout the book, Pringle takes great care to avoid easy ascription of male dominance or female powerlessness and this adds up to a forceful and convincing gendered analysis which need take no recourse to reification or fixity” (Halford).  Halford also praises Pringle for showing the advancement of women in the medical field, “This said, Pringle has uncovered extensive evidence to show beyond doubt that women entering the medical field are re-shaping those cultural norms and expectations” (Halford).

Richmond and Halford praised Pringle’s text with its progressive content because in 1998 (and present) women were not given equal opportunity to men in professional life. As a result, Pringle’s review of women’s role in the medical field was progressive for its time and reviewed professional disparities that were only recently coming into the public eye. However, the disparities between men and women were becoming more obvious during this period and not only Pringle’s text, but also the reviews note that society was shown to be slowly progressing towards a new goal of gender equality. Richmond’s critique of Sex and Medicine makes this review more credible because it shows that she did not complete the review with a bias towards Pringle’s work. In other words, Richmond’s critique is trustworthy because she not only praised but also critiqued Pringle’s work.

Richmond’s and Halford’s reviews of Sex and Medicine were the only that we could find throughout our research. It may seem contradictory that a book would have two particularly stunning reviews with no other reviews to its name. Sex and Medicine was Pringle’s third work that she completed. The previous two books Gender at Work (1983) and Secretaries Talk (1989) show the same trend as Sex in Medicine in the sense that they did not gain much popularity. As a result, when Pringle wrote Sex and Medicine she was not a popular author which could have contributed to the lack of popularity in Sex and Medicine. Pringle’s overall lack in popularity can most likely be contributed to the fact that there were numerous other authors writing similar work in the mid 80’s to the late 90’s which diluted Pringle’s work and impeded on her popularity. For instance, a quick Google search for key terms such as “progressive feminist authors 80’s and 90’s”, feminist authors 20th century, etc. yielded lists of numerous books and Pringle’s works were not mentioned on any of these lists. This shows that there were many other progressive feminist works written during the same time as Pringle’s works that simply overshadowed her works.

Works Cited

Ali, Aamna M., and Carie Lea Mcvay. “Women in Surgery: A History of Adversity, Resilience, and Accomplishment.” Journal of the American College of Surgeons, vol. 223, no. 4, 2016, pp. 670-673.

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“Changing the Face of Medicine, Mary Edwards Walker.” U.S. National Library of Medicine,National Institutes of Health, 3 June 2015,

Davies, Karen. “The Body and Doing Gender: the Relations between Doctors and Nurses in Hospital Work.”Sociology of Health and Illness, vol. 25, no. 7, 2003, pp. 720–742.,

Halford, Susan. “Book Review: Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession.” Sage Journals, 1 Dec. 1998,

Martin, Nicole. “The Clayman Institute for Gender Research.” Women Surgeons and the Challenges of “Having It All” | The Clayman Institute for Gender Research, 17 Nov. 2015,

More, Ellen Singer, 1946-. Restoring the balance: women physicians and the profession of medicine, 1850-1995. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1999.

Pringle, Rosemary, and Ann Game. Gender at Work. A&U Academic, 1983.

Pringle, Rosemary. Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011

Richmond, Katy. “Book Reviews: Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power and Authority in the Medical Profession.” Journal of Sociology, vol. 35, doi:

Rourke, Steven. “Women Who Changed the Course of American Medicine.” Medscape, 3 Feb. 2017,

Scully, Diana, and Pauline Bart. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Orifice: Women in Gynecology Textbooks.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 13, no. 1, 1 Feb. 2003, pp. 11-16

“Sex and Medicine: Gender, Power, and Authority in the Medical Profession.” Amazon ,  Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: the Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into    Space. Harper, 2017.

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