Women’s March Toronto 2017 © Chris Munro
We believe as women physicians and activists that Dr May Cohen’s story – just like US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s – has special significance for women, for society, and for us all.
During this disturbing era of renewed major challenges to hard-fought women’s abortion rights and choice, and increasing threats to gender equity affecting women, the LGBT community and marginalized communities everywhere, this documentary is both timely and pertinent.
In April 2016, Dr. May Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. This struck us as a very big deal in medical circles: disproportionately few women physicians and even fewer women family physicians have been recognized in this way.
It was amazing to us that a remarkable woman like May Cohen was still seemingly invisible and quite late in being fully recognized for such a prestigious award despite many awards named in her honour. We thought of writing an article for a medical journal or a biography about her. Then, our friend and award-winning cinematographer Zoe Dirse suggested we make a documentary film.
And that’s how our documentary about the The Gender Lady, The Fabulous Dr. May Cohen began.
We initially planned to film the Hall of Fame induction and interview a few of her family members, colleagues and friends at the ceremony. But as we interviewed May about her early life and the factors that propelled her into a lifelong career of advocating for women, we realized there was much more to May’s story.
May’s parents’ journey from Eastern Europe to Montreal and the ways that their social activism influenced her identity and professional life led us on a unique journey. We delved into the archival material about May’s parents and tracked down photographs from various women’s rights events. We searched through databases looking for material from the 1930’s to 50’s when May was a child, a camper at camp Naivelt, a left-wing Jewish youth camp near Toronto, and a medical student at University of Toronto where the academic and clinical experiences of women students differed adversely from that of their male peers.
Our interviews with May’s friends, family and colleagues enhanced our understanding of this incredible woman. Her children recall her activism and describe their parents’ marriage as an extraordinary model of equitable professional and personal partnership. Colleagues and students describe her as a brilliant clinician. Others describe her as a passionate, tough and fun role model, courageously willing to speak truth to power.
We produced this film to highlight May’s profound contributions to advancing women’s equity, improving their health care, achieving abortion rights, affirming women’s sexuality, and advancing women physicians.
We hope that others will be inspired by our film to pursue their own passions for social change.
Our documentary is dedicated to Dr. Gerry Cohen, May’s husband who died in November 2017.
Drs. Cheryl Levitt and Barbara Lent