This story is published as part of StudentNation’s “Vision 2020: Election Stories From the Next Generation,” reports from young journalists that center the concerns of diverse young voters. In this project, working with Dr. Sherri Williams, we recruited young journalists from different backgrounds to develop story ideas and reporting about their peers’ concerns ahead of the most important election of our lives.
For two years, Theresa Maher interned at American University’s Health Promotion and Advocacy Center, where the 22-year-old learned firsthand how vital health care is to the nation’s future.
Today, Maher is outraged at the lack of attention around women’s health care in this year’s presidential election. For her, and thousands of women across the country like her, the voting booth is a place to reclaim power and support a presidential candidate who prioritizes women’s health.
“We’re ignoring literally half of the country when we ignore women’s access to health care,” said Maher, who lives in Washington, D.C. “When women say they are in pain, doctors assume that it’s normal or that they’re whining. But women know their bodies.”
Ninety percent of women with chronic pain report that the health care system discriminates against female patients. For example, men typically wait an average of 49 minutes before receiving treatment for abdominal pain. Women have to wait an average of 65 minutes to be treated for the same issue, according to a report from the National Women’s Law Center.
Gender health disparities and a national health care industry with systemic inequalities are motivating some young women to use their ballots in this national election to address bigotry based on gender, race, and class that some women face in medicine. Rikki Kyle, a senior studying public relations and strategic communication at American University, said a president who focuses on women’s health care is crucial because all women don’t have the same access to health care. “Trump has not made me, my sisters, my distant sisters, people in my community, who I share strife and adversities with, feel that he wants to help us or make sure that we’re OK,” said Kyle. A 21-year-old Black woman, Kyle grew up in Cleveland, where she saw disparities in access to health care among working-class women.
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 14 percent of all women in 2018 did not see a doctor because of costs. That rate rises to 17 percent for Black women. Kyle said she avoids medical institutions as much as possible because she feels they do not have her best interests at heart. “Prioritizing money, health care is a business at the end of the day,” said Kyle. “They are for profit.”
Michaila Peters, a senior political science and philosophy major at American University, said she is concerned that if the next president does not center women’s health, vital resources like rape kits or gynecology appointments will become limited. Peters, 21, said that the coming election has shown that the country has reached a crossroads, even a crisis point. But for Peters, this means that it is more important than ever to focus on women’s health. “If the next president doesn’t prioritize women’s health, things could get even worse than they’ve been,” she said.
The Trump administration’s anti-female agenda has made the fight for women’s health care more critical, Peters said.“It’s very hard to stand up to authority figures who create a culture of fearmongering,” she said. “Especially [when] that includes predation on women and just blatant sexism and objectification.”
Women want politicians who will push for policies that reform the health industry so that when women seek treatment, they are safe, Peters said. “I’ve experienced a sexual assault from a doctor, from a pediatrician,” she said. “I’d never opened up to anybody at the time because it’s really hard when it’s very taboo to talk about women’s health and sexual predation.”
Peters said that women, including those she knew growing up in Cambridge Springs, Pa., often don’t have a full range of health care options, including abortion, and women are forced to accept the health care that is available—even if it is substandard. For two decades, a chain of abortion clinics across several states headed by Steven Brigham, who had been barred from medical practice in Pennsylvania and Maryland, continued to operate despite repeated complaints of substandard care. Even after several clinics’ licenses were suspended for using cheap and unsafe procedures, they continued to operate. Women needed abortions at a reasonable price; the clinics preyed on their desperation. “There is no place for women to have the agency to make their own choices and to understand their own bodies,” Peters said.
Historic low voter participation among younger voters is a concern among some young women voters. According to a report by the Poynter Institute, out of four different age groups—18 to 29; 30 to 44; 45 to 59; and 60 and above—the youngest participants consistently reported the lowest turnout rate for the past 17 elections. “White men or older women who have more access to care are not going to push for [better access] because it’s not affecting them,” said Peters. “Women don’t realize how many of the things they’ve experienced are shared by all of the women around them.”
But women’s participation in elections offers some hope. Women voted 4 percent more than men in the 2016 presidential election, according to a report by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. Without access to health care, women are prevented from taking control of their own lives. But voting for those who will create equitable health care policy offers them some power, said Celeste Davis, a professorial lecturer of health studies at American University. “Young people have the opportunity to say, ‘No, thank you, we want to see something different.’” Davis said. “Health care should not be political…every day, women know exactly what they need and should vote for it.”
Women will lose autonomy over their bodies if the nation elects a president who governs based on his personal beliefs and not what is best for women, said Christian F. Nunes, president of the National Organization for Women. Nunes, a mother and a Black woman, said she experienced discrimination in health care. “If we are not taking care of our women, we are going to die out,” she said. Nunes, who has been advocating for women’s issues for 20 years, believes that young women voters have ideas about health care that need to be heard.
“Younger women know what needs to be changed by the detriments to health access they face and see around them,” Nunes said. “For the younger women, it’s important that everyone knows they have an impact, fundamentally, to make change happen.”