"I'm awfully glad you're on my side," summed up a woman interviewer when Georgetown University medical professor Estelle Ramey recalled her victories yesterday -- and at least one setback -- on the way to the top of a male-dominated profession.
The victories have been big ones for Ramey, an endocrinologist who -- is counterpoint to her activist role in women's rights -- has for several years been studying why men die earlier than women.
Several years ago, she told a luncheon audience, a major publisher of medical books spiced up its anatomy texts -- "to make a dull subject interesting to males" -- with Playboy-like pinups. Her own school voted to purchase the text.
Ramey had just been elected president of a new organization of women in science. So she wrote a letter to the publisher threatening a nationwide boycott of all the company's books. When the firm's president "got on the line, I told him to come talk to me. You're always in a better position in your own domain."
When he showed up, "I poured tea. I wore ruffles. You always put men off balance if you don't wear boots and a battle jacket. You look like their wives, all fragile and dainty."
The result was the company promised it would not ship any more of the controversial texts. "That cost them a pretty penny." And the irony, she said, "is that our association for women in science had only a few hundred members. We couldn't have mounted a boycott in a telephone booth. He didn't know that."
The incident that brought her to public attention occurred in 1970 when she challenged prominent surgeon Edgar F. Berman (an adviser to Hubert Humphrey), who had claimed women are not fit for top jobs because of their "raging hormones."
"It was being accepted," she said, "that the doctor was expressing the truth, that women during their menstrual period shouldn't be trusted."
She agreed to debate the doctor, and it took place on the 50th anniversary of women's right to vote and the day her grandson was born. That, she has always felt "was a sign from above -- She has sent me a sign."
The doctor "asked what would have happened if we had had a woman in the White House during the Bay of Pigs. Well," she retorted, "what did happen at the Bay of Pigs?"
The setback for Ramey, now 62, came early in her career when she gave up a chemistry professor's post in New York City to accompany her lawyer husband -- "in the tradition of my generation" -- to Tennessee.
"I had been a teacher in New York City. I applied to what I thought was a lesser department in Knoxville. I had published some papers and won awards. How could they turn me down?" As it turned out, "Very easily."
The department head, she said, "settled the matter very quickly." He told her: "Mrs. Ramey, we have never hired a woman, and I do not intend to hire a woman. Go home and take care of your husband."
Though the setback was only temporary, it taught her a lesson. "Any woman who has status has had some man open doors for her. A man stands at every door. In academia, I couldn't have gotten professional tenure without the men who voted it."
Ramey spoke yesterday on Weta radio's monthly "Women of Achievement" series. She was interviewed by program host Anne Kimbell Relph, a communications consultant with George Washington University and the University of Southern California. The interview will be rebroadcast next Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
Ramey also touched on these topics during the interview and in questions from the audience:
The major health hazard to women "is smoking. Not DES, not radiation, not hysterectomies. Nothing else comes anywhere near." As chairman of the subcommittee on health for the President's Advisory Committee on Women she is pushing for more educational material aimed at young women.
In recent years, "more and more women have been coming into medicine, but that's leveling off at about 25 percent. We don't know why." She noted that medical colleges, have begun accepting older women students. And why not? she asked. They're needed. Many male doctors in mid-career "get into real estate" and others die young. "But women go on and on forever. We are a biological marvel."
Women need to be better educated on the mentrual period and menopause. Even women medical students "are not nearly as knowledgeable as you would expect."
Freud, she said, threw up his hands and asked, "Dear God, what does a woman want?" Any woman could have told him, she said, "She wants everything that life has to offer."
Her father once asked, "Why do you study so hard? You'll spoil those pretty eyes. Some lucky man will carry you off some day." But her mother knew better. She told Ramey: "Pretty eyes fade and that man who carries you off some day might carry off someone else."