Heart and Soul

Tonya Lewis Lee on Equity in Health

I grew up in a household where both of my parents worked. My father was the breadwinner with the high-powered job that propelled my family solidly into America’s upper middle class. My mother’s job as a teacher, and later, as a social worker, was also important to our family’s bottom line. Like many moms, she was responsible for taking care of the house and the needs of me, my sister and my father in addition to her own needs. My father took care of the outside—mowing the lawn and doing handyman-type work. My sister and I had to help and had chores that were related to both the inside domestic work and the exterior work.  With no brothers, there was no question we all had to pitch in, and that we all were capable.

As a young African-American woman, I was struck by racial inequities and I certainly experienced overt racism from an early age.  Because of my upbringing and encounters, I realized gender inequities more directly as an adult. But the two are connected: I often find that when women speak of gender equity, they are speaking of issues that white women face. Importantly, black women feel these issues differently. When I think about women’s rights, I think about the fact that my grandmother on my mother’s side had no choice but to work. She knew equal pay wasn’t a possibility—she just needed the work, so that she could support her family. When I think about health care, I think about women like Henrietta Lacks, who for years, society took advantage of because they were poor or they were women of color. It’s not only about race, it’s also about class. It’s about being on a level playing field.

So when I think of gender equity now, I think about all the issues that encompass the fight: fair pay, support for working families, a working environment free from sexual harassment, safe environments in which to raise our children and access good quality health care, This is particularly true when it comes heart health.  Heart disease and stroke are the number one killers of women, yet there is much more research being done on men.

These issues are human rights.  After all, we are all born from a woman and most of us are supported by women as primary caregivers.  The only way to have a healthy, productive, thriving society is to come from healthy, productive, thriving women.  Without gender equity—whether at the hospital, in the office, or in our communities—our world cannot live up to its best potential.

Whether we know it or not, we all suffer when women are not fully empowered.


Producer, writer, and advocate Tonya Lewis Lee is an ambassador for the Women’s Heart Alliance.