Story of 'trailblazing' Ontario doctor highlighted in new film codirected by London physician
The Gender Lady: The Fabulous Dr. May Cohen is being screened by the London Jewish Community Foundation
The true story of a "trailblazing" doctor who advocated for women's health in southern Ontario is being highlighted in an award-winning documentary directed by two family physicians.
The Gender Lady: The Fabulous Dr. May Cohen follows the life of retired family physician May Cohen, 90, who in the 1970s fought for women's legal access to abortion.
The film is being screened online by the London Jewish Community Foundation on Sunday in honour of Women's History Month.
The two doctors behind the film, Dr. Barbara Lent, a retired London family physician and professor at Western University, and Dr. Cheryl Levitt, a McMaster University family medicine professor, decided to make the film in fall of 2015 upon the announcement of Cohen's induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
"She had been an important person in both of our lives up to that point, but this was a huge event that needed to be recognized and celebrated," Lent told CBC's Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre.
"We thought about very traditional ways of doing that, like writing something about Dr. Cohen and her life and her impact, but we decided, by many serendipitous events, to pursue a film."
Cohen graduated medical school at the University of Toronto in 1955, at a time when just 10 per cent of her peers were women.
"When she went into practice she confronted some of the challenges that her women patients faced," Lent said.
"She was actively involved in the hospital in a therapeutic abortion committee, and that led her to recognize some of the really significant challenges that women faced, which led her into understanding the need for better access to contraception, the need for different attitudes to human sexuality."
"Over time, many of her colleagues didn't appreciate the issues that she was interested in and often resisted some of her efforts to move things forward."
Lent, who met Cohen about 30 years ago, believes Cohen's greatest accomplishment was showing younger physicians the importance of staying committed to fighting for things that are important to them.
"It's not always easy, but you need to find the personal strength and the support in friends and family to move forward with the issues that you care about."
Stepping into the role of filmmakers was an "interesting challenge," Lent said of her and Levitt's experience.
Since the documentary's release in 2018, Lent said she's watched the film with Cohen a number of times.
"She's really delighted having had the film made, but she's also very humble and sometimes a bit embarrassed," she said of Cohen.
"It's lovely because she recognises the efforts she made, but she's also very clear that she couldn't have done this work by herself, so she recognizes how much the support of her husband and her family meant to her and she recognizes the support that she got from friends when she was going through her own challenging issues."
With files from CBC London's Afternoon Drive