How ‘Yentl Syndrome’ Moved Barbra Streisand to Speak Out on Women’s Health (Watch)

In a speech for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Tuesday, Barbra Streisand called for gender equity not just in medicine, but in Hollywood as well.

“The time is ripe for a great leap forward on behalf of gender equity in health care in science, in the workplace, in Hollywood, politics, media, and even at home,” the singer said.

Early in her talk for the Rall Cultural Lecture series, Streisand compared the professions of artists and scientists, whose life’s work, passion, and purpose “is improving and uplifting humanity.” But she urged that everyone must be included, emphasizing the need for “greater diversity and inclusion.” In particular, she chastised the inequities and biases in the arts and sciences that still persist, including fair access for women — “whether we’re talking about women in Hollywood or women’s representation in medical research.”

Streisand described how she experienced gender inequality in small ways, “but it wasn’t until I wanted to make a film called ‘Yentl’ that I experienced it in a big way.” She had a clear vision of the film she wanted to make and didn’t think it would be that difficult to achieve. “I was a so-called ‘bankable star.’ That is until I said I also wanted to direct it.”

She found that studios kept turning her down, and was frustrated at the demonization in perceptions of women as authoritative and ambitious.

“Strong men were seen as leaders, and looked up to; strong women were seen as suspect and looked down upon. He was called assertive; while she was called aggressive,” Streisand recalled.

Running head-on into such bias was life-changing for Streisand and mobilized her commitment to women’s equality.

She was first connected to the NIH in July of 1991, when Dr. Bernadine Healy, who was the only female director of the NIH, published a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine that she called “The Yentl Syndrome.”

According to Streisand, she found “that women with heart attacks were not getting the same quality of care as men. Unless a woman’s symptoms looked just like a man’s — the classic crushing pain in the chest — too often she would be misdiagnosed or undertreated.” She continued, stating that maybe it would be considered a panic attack or an antacid, or “maybe she would be found dead in her bed the next day.”

Streisand called for acknowledgment of sex-specific differences in approaches to testing treatments and therapies, in light of the painful toll such inequity has taken on women’s lives.

She went on to call attention to her involvement with the Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles starting in 2008, as she “wanted to raise awareness among women before they found themselves in the hospital. I wanted to help drive policy change at every level because the fact is, heart disease is killing more women, more people than all forms of cancer combined.”

Streisand also discussed the Women’s Heart Alliance, which she created in 2014 to prevent women from needlessly dying of heart disease and stroke, advocating for funding and research to understand even more, and apply those breakthroughs to improve prevention, care, treatment, and outcomes for all. They started from the recognition that, biologically, men and women are not the same. “We have different equipment … different plumbing!”

Streisand closed by calling for more funding and lauding Katherine Johnson, the subject of “Hidden Figures,” since “we’re no longer content to be hidden figures. Women, like men, are demanding to be valued as creators, innovators, and human beings.”

The whole speech will be available on the Women’s Heart Alliance Facebook page on Friday at 11 a.m. PT.

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