As far as medical research was concerned, males were forever the default sex and women little more than a footnote. Long-term studies of health issues usually excluded women as too hormonally variable, so their medical care tended to be based on hunches rather than science. The most famous one went like this: estrogen cures hot flashes, so it might prevent other age-related ills like heart disease and dementia, right?
No, fatally wrong. When the U.S. government finally put together a large, multiyear study of older women's healththe Women's Health Initiative (WHI) estrogen supplements, when combined with progestin as part of hormone-replacement therapy, actually increased women's risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia and breast cancer. More revelations from the WHI have rocked the biological world of women in just the past few months: calcium supplements don't necessarily save their bones, and a low-fat diet long touted as the acme of nutritional virtue doesn't seem to do much good at all.
A lot of people, most of them women, deserve a round of applause for their role in the WHI's myth-busting operation. U.S. politicians like Barbara Mikulski, Olympia Snowe and Pat Schroeder first pushed the government to recognize women as a biologically distinct demographic. Dr. Bernadine Healy, former director of the National Institutes of Health, launched the WHI. And what about the more than 160,000 women who took part in those studies, patiently following their assigned regimens and letting WHI physicians stalk them for years at a stretch?
But the standing ovation goes to a man, Jacques Rossouw, 63, the South African-born physician who heads the WHI. A modest fellow, he considers himself "gender impaired," but maybe it took a man to make it happen "a real insider," as Cindy Pearson, director of the National Women's Health Network, puts it. "He's passionate and committed, articulate. It may have been 'women's work,' but he was the man for the job."
Ehrenreich is an essayist and author of Bait and Switch and Nickel and Dimed