September 13, 2011

Why are women more numerous and important as healers in some medical systems and men in others? Do women healers have special attributes that differ from those of male healers?

Decades ago, I. M. Lewis offered the now classic thesis that women are healers where there are “cults of affliction,” covert protest movements with rituals that feature possession/trance, which seek to compensate gender inequalities. Other anthropologists suggest that since men often suffer the same types of initiation illness as do women and also participate in possession cults, an explanation of why more women than men are healers in these cults can be found in the relationship between the gender system and systems of power and authority. More recently Lewis’ notion has been critically reviewed by Janice Boddy (1989). Based on studies of the Zar cult in northern Sudan, she suggests that although the idea of status and power balancing may be accurate, it is too unidimensional to adequately explain Sudanese women’s behavior. Boddy describes how men’s and women’s roles are complementary and suggests that this underlies women’s involvement in the cult, expressed in Zar spirit possessions. In contrast to appealing to sociocultural factors, such as gender role constructs, Jeanne Achterberg suggests that certain gender-related, stereotypical personal attributes are found in women who become healers—subjectivity, receptivity, relatedness, and understanding—which are also attributes of the “wounded healer,” an ideal type of healer.

Although the studies referenced above largely refer to women in developing countries, ritual healing cults are found in developed countries, particularly among immigrant and ethnic minority populations. The gender pattern in popular healing cults in the United States, such as Curanderismo, Espiritismo, Santena, and Vodun, seems to parallel that of their home country. Many more women than men are popular healers among Latinos (Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans), African Americans, and South Americans. However, where the cult is large and status differences exist, then men often dominate as leaders. Similarly, in institutionalized religions that carry out healing rituals, there may be more men than women carrying out the healer role, and the men occupy higher status positions. This difference appears related to opportunities for social status in a community of believers, such as in the Catholic charismatic movement or the Pentecostal churches. Lawless describes how the relatively few women preachers in the Pentecostal churches in rural Missouri were considered illegitimate as religious leaders; this view seems to persist.

In the United States, the dominating presence of men in medicine began to change only in the mid1970s. Prior to that time few women were admitted into medical training although many received training through apprenticeship or homeopathic schools. The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania was the exception as the only all-women medical school from 1910 to 1970.

Women as psychotherapists and physicians exhibit a deep commitment to their work, which assists them to endure the dilemmas and conflicts engendered in reconciling personal (“feminine”) values (particularly those focused on home and family) with their vocations. The difficulties women experience in medical training and practice have been described for both the United States and Australia (Pringle, 1998; Wear, 1996). Currently many medical school classes have equal numbers of men and women but relatively few women hold leadership positions within the field of medicine. Psychology has been more open to women as practitioners yet, as in medicine, many more men hold highstatus positions as chairs of academic departments or directors of clinics or other institutions. Although men dominate clinical psychology, women are predominant in the alternative routes for practicing psychotherapy, such as counseling psychology, psychiatric nursing, and social work.


There are indications that women manage their distress more successfully than men when carrying out therapeutic work. One study of burnout among mental health professionals showed that although males and females reported the same numbers of job stressors, strong associations existed between stressors and burnout only for males; no clear associations were found for the women. Perhaps the emotional demands of mental health care are more compatible with women’s ideas and self-expectations. The socialization of the traditional Spiritist healer into her healing role aims at protecting her from the “contagion” of malignant spirit-causes of a client’s distress through sharing the healing process with a group and by working spiritually to attract spirit-protectors as personal guides. This suggests that enhanced relatedness among women mental health professionals (a professional “sisterhood”) may serve as protective support against burnout.

Fewer malpractice claims are filed against women physicians. This suggests that because male physicians are more attached to the authority and power inherent in the physician’s role, they are more affected when that role is attacked. Women practitioners worried more about responsibility than men, a parallel to popular healers in Peru as described by Glass-Coffin (1996). Several studies indicate that men attribute their successes to ability and their failures to luck, while women’s attributions are exactly the opposite.

There are numerous studies comparing men and women physicians on patterns of provider-patient communication. Significant findings are that patients speak more, disclose more psychosocial and biomedical information, and make more positive statements to women physicians. In general, regardless of gender, patients of women physicians expressed greater comfort, were more engaged, disclosed more, and were more assertive.


Female psychotherapists report significantly higher rates of physical and sexual abuse in childhood, alcoholism and severe mental illness in parents, as well as death of a parent or sibling. Moreover, they experienced a relatively high prevalence of trauma and family dysfunction during childhood. These facts imply a “wounded healer” syndrome as motivation to enter mental health care or health professional careers, but discount the notion that women health professionals enter the field to resolve personal conflicts. One study showed that the women mental health professionals had significantly less anxiety, depression, dissociation, sleep disturbances, and impaired relationships than male professionals. Perhaps, like ritual healers, mental health professionals experience less distress because they have managed to overcome it (and utilize this capacity in their work).


A number of authors have argued that the mental health and medical professions are undergoing a process of “feminization.” This view suggests the final piece in understanding the “why” and “how” of women as healers. It seems that a devaluation of psychotherapy and medicine as professional pursuits is occurring, in part due to the policies of managed care systems. This is related to the entry of growing numbers of women into medicine and mental health care professions, replacing men who begin to find these careers less attractive. This reasoning does not fully account for why women find health professional careers more attractive, or why women’s participation in medicine has recently become more accepted (apart from the effect of the feminist movement). Medicine’s dominant principles have objectified body-experience and have focused health care on the rational and on scientific achievements for restoring physical well-being, often to the neglect of subjectivity, satisfying communication, and the sharing of meaning and experience with patients. Healers in religious cults generally display these latter characteristics. It appears that growing dissatisfactions with modern medicine and mental health care have resulted in greater appreciation for these capacities in health care, which in turn has led to greater appreciation of women as healers.

SEE ALSO: African American, Asian and Pacific Islander, Charismatic healers, Complementary and alternative health practices, Curanderos, Latinos, Physicians, Women in the Health Professions

Suggested Reading

  • Boddy, J. (1989). Wombs and alien spirits: Women, men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Bowman, M. A., & Allen, D. I. (1990). Stress and women physicians (2nd ed.). New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Geis, R. E., Jesilow, P., & Geis, G. (1991). The Amelia Stern Syndrome: A diagnosis of a condition among female physicians? Social Science and Medicine, 33(8), 967-971.
  • Glass-Coffin, B. (1996). Male and female healing in Northern Peru: Metaphors, models and manifestations of difference. Journal of Ritual Studies, 10(1), 63-91.
  • Gross, E. B. (1992). Gender differences in physician stress. Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, 47(4), 107-114.
  • Hall, J. A., & Roter, D. L. (2002). Do patients talk differently to male and female physicians? A meta-analytic review. Patient Education and Counseling, 48, 117-124.
  • Koss-Chioino, J. D. (1992). Women as healers, women as patients: Mental health care and traditional healing in Puerto Rico. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Philipson, I. J. (1993). On the shoulders of women: The feminization of psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Pringle, R. (1998). Sex and medicine: Gender, power and authority in the medical profession. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wear, D. (Ed.). (1996). Women in medical education: An anthology of experience. Albany: State University of New York Press.


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