Tuesday, February 20, 2024

LIBRARY WEBINAR: Women in White Coats: Challenges Faced by the First Female Doctors

“Women in White Coats—My Journey into the World of Victorian Women Doctors.”

On September 27, Warren County Libraries hosted a webinar about the first women doctors. Author and journalist Olivia Campbell presented on the topic, drawing from her book Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine.

This webinar dove deep into not only the historical females presented in this webinar, but also other women who practiced medicine, though the public’s reaction varied.

Merit-Ptah was a chief physician in the Pharaoh’s court in c. 2700 BCE. However, women who practiced medicine were often called witches and tortured and killed because of it.
It was believed that a woman’s place was at home.

“Books might distract lady cooks,” an example provided by Campbell that was often used by men to further discourage women.

Male doctors even fabricated medical reasons to dissuade women from becoming doctors. They claimed that arduous labor—both mental and physical, and especially during
menstruation—would result in women becoming “feeble-minded.”

Women in medicine were seen as deranged and were disowned and ostracized by their families and society, something that dates back to the idea of witchcraft. For example, since Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, who graduated in 1856 and helped Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell establish a women’s hospital in New York, was not born a boy, she received no praise from her father.

Eliza Mosher graduated in 1875 and “became University of Michigan’s first female faculty member in 1896” Campbell stated. Mosher’s mother wanted to put her in a lunatic asylum.

Rosalie Slaughter Morton—yes, that is her name—was “First chair of the Public Health Education Committee of the American Medical Association in 1909” Campbell explained. In order to pursue a medical career, Morton waited until her father passed away.

Bertha Van Hoosen’s mother constantly cried about her wish to study and practice medicine; as such, her father refused to pay for her medical schooling. Van Hoosen went on to found the American Medical Women’s Association in 1915.

Campbell’s book focuses on the lives of three specific women and the trials they faced as they tried to enter a field that only men had been allowed in for so long. Those three women are: Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake.

Campbell chose to focus on these three in particular because they were the first women doctors in their respective countries. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first doctor of medicine (MD) practicing in the United States. She wanted to become successful, especially after being told that she couldn’t do it. She had to prove them wrong.

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Garrett Anderson was the first licensed woman physician practicing in England. Sophia Jex-Blake was the first woman MD practicing in Scotland. She watched her mother suffer from poor medical treatment and she herself suffered; she became a doctor because she wanted to put an end to women’s suffering.

In fact, women doctors were motivated to earn their degrees and open their own practices
because they saw male doctors misdiagnose and/or ignore other women, resulting in the
women’s suffering and deaths. This included difficult childbirth experiences; something that hit close to home for Campbell herself. Overall, though, they also really wanted to broaden women’s horizons with job opportunities.

One very common piece of advice at the time for women wishing to pursue a career in medicine was this: Go to France and disguise yourself as a man.

France was used as an example, but it is true that women were essentially forced to go to Europe (countries like France, Germany and Switzerland) to study and receive the best education.

For Elizabeth Blackwell, though, this would not work; she wanted to be the first woman doctor in the United States, which meant she had to do her schooling as a woman. She was accepted into the Geneva Medical College, but after the scrutiny the college faced for allowing a woman student, they closed their doors to other women the moment Blackwell graduated.

She then took various classes wherever she could until she was able to get her license and begin practicing medicine. After she got her license, the laws surrounding obtaining a medical license changed to hinder women further. A few years later, in Paris, Blackwell officially earned her MD.

Sophia Jex-Blake put an ad in the newspaper urging more women to join her in Edinburgh. It worked, and they became known as the “Edinburgh Seven.”

While they were allowed in classes, they were basically left to teach themselves; when it was time to graduate, despite doing the exact same work as the male students in addition to having to teach themselves, they were not given degrees.

There were many male medical student temper tantrums (riots) about women joining, including one where the 30 women were heavily outnumbered by 300 angry men. Campbell included a newspaper clipping in her presentation.

The clipping is titled ‘Blackguardism” and outlines the behaviors of the men and the women during one of the many protests that took place to keep women out of the medical field. This riot occurred on November 6, 1869.

Newspaper clipping about the 1869 Pennsylvania riot against women medical
students. Taken by A. Svendsen from Webinar presentation, 9/2023.

Another riot, in Edinburgh this time, happened because of a co-ed exam. This one happened in November of 1870, one year after the Pennsylvania riot. Men flung disgusting things at the women students and added to the chaos by then letting sheep loose inside the exam hall.

Throughout the chaos and discrimination, the women had to remain stone-faced and could not fight back. They did use the riots to their advantage, however.

When they were interviewed later, they questioned the public’s opinion on the men who harassed them—Were they really fit to be doctors? Could they really be trusted? This meant that the public largely sided with the women, and not the men, on this matter.

Also, between male and female medical students, the female students had higher test scores than the male students, which likely did not help change the male students’ opinions of them.

It is important to note here that while many men opposed women doctors, there were a few who helped and protected them. These men were sometimes other students and often mentors to the women.

Once women had their medical licenses, though, women had to open their own private practices because they could not work in hospitals and, if they could, they weren’t being hired. They also spent a lot of time fundraising to help raise money so that they were able to open their own practices or hospitals.

Blackwell, Garrett Anderson and Jex-Blake banded together to create the first women’s college for medicine in London in 1874. They also helped implement physical education for girls in schools.

Most women doctors were also active in feminist circles and movements. Blackwell was not, but she was older than Garrett Anderson and Jex-Blake, and also disliked America’s version of feminism.

While some government officials and offices were against female doctors, others were very
helpful. Some visited these women as patients, then shared how women doctors changed their lives and continued to promote them in other ways.

However, most of the patients that women doctors saw were women and children; men usually preferred seeing other men doctors.

One interesting fact is that when it was time for the female students to perform a cadaver
dissection—also known as dissecting a corpse—all of them expressed concerns about the
dissection. Instead of being disgusted by it, though, they found themselves fascinated by the inner workings of a human body.

Despite the time and energy these women poured into turning their ambitions into a reality, not only for them, but for women everywhere, Blackwell, Garrett Anderson, Jex-Blake and certainly many others had families as well—something society found to be shocking. Elizabeth Blackwell was a single mother.

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Garrett Anderson wore frilly dresses to show that practicing medicine didn’t make her any less of a woman, as it was believed to be a masculine career. Additionally, Garrett Anderson’s relationship with her husband, James Skelton Anderson—who was also a doctor—was discussed heavily in medical journals, since having both partners working jobs outside of the house all day was previously unheard of.

She proved that it could be done, even with children in the picture as well.

Sophia Jex-Blake, Campbell’s personal favorite of the three, was a lesbian, had three kids,
performed surgery while pregnant and had a temperament that hindered the progress of women doctors at some points and greatly helped it at others.

In spite of the hardships these women faced, they managed to thrive.

Jex-Blake requested that all of her papers be destroyed upon her death; thankfully, her partner copied down quotes and tidbits before following through with the request. Otherwise, much of Jex-Blake’s contribution to women doctors would have been lost.

Despite all of the progress that has been made, women are still statistically underrepresented in medical fields today. However, women doctors really changed the world of medicine—especially when it came to women’s medicine.

“They brought healthcare to women and women to healthcare” Campbell stated.

It’s difficult to grasp just how much these women suffered. In addition to having to fight quietly yet persistently for their right to their education and licenses, they had to deal with subjectivity in the form of certain questions. For example, they had to deal with wondering if they would be perceived as just looking for a husband, instead of being seen as serious in their aspirations.

If you’re interested in knowing more, be sure to check out her book: Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine. It is available through the Warren County Library Catalog.

Annalyse Svendsen
Annalyse Svendsen, Contributing Writer

Annalyse recently graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her B.A. in Humanities. She also minored in Creative Writing and studied French and American Sign Language in an effort to learn how to communicate with more people. Annalyse only recently moved to Hardwick but grew up in Stillwater and attended Stillwater Elementary School and Kittatinny Regional High School. While in high school, she was an active member of both the Book Club—where she served as president—and the Marching Band—where she served as the band’s librarian. At FDU, she served as the secretary of the Ping Pong Club, as well as the vice president of Rose & Thorn. Annalyse has always been passionate about learning. She has a passion for writing and plans to pursue a master’s degree in either Library Sciences or Creative Writing.