I started attending ACEP Board of Directors (BOD) meetings in 1971 when Ron Krome, MD, invited me to the BOD meeting in Miami. He introduced me as the first intern in emergency medicine and got the board to add me to the Undergraduate Education Committee as their first resident representative, a commitment to residents that continues today. ACEP was small then, about 300 members, and I met all the leaders and staff attending that third Scientific Assembly. I was hooked on ACEP.
I met new members as the college grew and was appointed to at least one ACEP committee every year. When the Council was created, I became the Maine Councillor, joining four other women on the Council floor. Seldom one to keep my opinions to myself, I spoke up at meetings and stayed in touch with the staff, board, and committee members.
So, imagine the thrill of answering the phone and hearing an ACEP Past President ask you to run for the ACEP BOD. Funny thing was, I never planned to run for the board until Karl Mangold, MD, called to ask me if the nominating committee could put my name on the ballot. I was overwhelmed and honored; my head grew three sizes that day.
Without another thought, I told him, “Of course, I would be delighted to run.”
“I’m not asking you to vote for me because I am a woman, I am asking you not to vote against me because I am a woman.” —Pamela P. Bensen, MD, MS, FACEP
Later, I explained to my husband, Kork, that no one got elected to the board on the first try, so we didn’t need to worry about the impact my rash answer would have on our young family or my job. We had two kids under seven and a house with a 100-percent mortgage. I had a 24-hours-on-3-days-off clinical job, a 30 hours a week unpaid ED directorship, a volunteer EMS teacher-director position, ACEP committee assignments, and I was co-chairing the community 911 committee. Kork had just returned to work on tug boats after a two-year bout with Epstein-Barr virus–induced kidney and liver failure, a Guillian-Barre-like peripheral neuropathy, and was battling an addiction to corticosteroids.
Running for the Board Back Then
Being a board candidate was very different in the 70s. Campaigns were inexpensive and laid back. I did not have to travel to state chapter meetings—many states didn’t even have meetings. I only had to answer written questions and attend by-invitation-only big-state-chapter cocktail parties, which were held at the Scientific Assembly, to meet Councillors who didn’t know me.
In 1973, the board had appointed Ellen Taliaferro, MD, FACEP, to serve out the board term of Stanley Gold, MD, when he resigned for health reasons. At age five, ACEP had its first woman board member. We never even thought about a glass ceiling—obviously there was not one.
However, it didn’t last. When Ellen ran for the seat she already occupied at the will of the board, the Council did not elect her. The Board had accepted women in leadership, but the Council had not.
As predicted, I lost that first election, the second, and the third. My years as a candidate were separated by years when three other women, Elizabeth Fields, MD, Dr. Taliaferro, and Vera Morkovin, MD, were nominated. They, too, lost their elections.
President after president put me on committees. As my experience increased, I was asked to chair committees. Year after year, I sat on the Council. Every two or three years the nominating committee would ask me to run for the board. Ever the optimist, I kept saying yes, and kept losing.
The year I ran and lost for the fourth time, I was greeted at the post-Council reception by a fellow Councillor. He commiserated that I was the most qualified candidate, “But, you know us southern gentlemen, we jus’ couldn’t vote for a woman.” I was saved from assault and battery charges because my right arm, linked in my husband’s, was suddenly immobilized by his.
The nominating committee did not skip a beat. The very next year, they asked me to run again. I was not, as I assured them, a glutton for punishment; I refused. I relented only after three members of the committee called to assure me I was not being asked to be the token female, destined to be led to rejection once again. The committee had discussed the gender situation and my qualifications and was sure I would be elected.
My fifth campaign was different. I decided to confront the gender issue head on. I wanted to make sure the Council saw their glass ceiling. At the meet-the-candidates forum, which had been co-opted from the small chapters event I had started, we were asked what we brought to the board that no one else had. I responded, “I bring a broad perspective,” listed my ACEP committee history, detailed the projects I had worked on for the College, and finished my answer with “and I have more estrogen than anyone else running.” My serious humor did get a good laugh.
For my closing remarks, at the risk of offending my southern colleague who “jus’ couldn’t vote for a woman,” I repeated that story from my previous loss. I concluded with, “I’m not asking you to vote for me because I am a woman, I am asking you not to vote against me because I am a woman.” And this time, I won. In 1982, when ACEP was 14 years old, after five tries, I became the first woman elected to the ACEP Board of Directors. Since then, at least one woman has served on the board each year.
Dr. Bensen is president of Medical Education Programs in Buffalo Junction, Virginia.