Thursday, April 23, 2009

The First Women's Advocates

While researching women doctors for the book I’m writing, I’ve discovered some interesting traits among the women who fought tradition and pushed headlong into the man’s world of medicine.

They believed women had the same intellect as men.
They held steadfast to their belief they didn’t have to define themselves by their husband.
While being nurturing, they were willing to, in some instances, sacrifice their desire for children to help others.
They all believed in the suffrage movement.
They believed all women, especially those having a baby a year, should have the choice of contraceptives.

The women who pursued medical careers in the 1800’s were forward thinkers who had to fight not only men, but the greater society to prove they were worthy of their education.

One such woman was Bethenia Owens-Adair : 1840-1926

She traveled to Oregon by wagon with her family in 1843 and didn’t begin a formal education until she was twelve. At the age of fourteen she married a family farmhand and divorced in 1859.

To support herself and her son she opened a millinery shop in 1873 in Roseburg , OR. While there she coordinated a visit and lecture by Susan B. Anthony. After six years, she felt her intellect was being wasted and leaving her son with her friend, Abigail Scott Duniway, the editor of a women’s suffragists’ journal, she attended medical college. In 1880 she graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School. In 1884 she married Col. John Adair.

During her career she wrote papers and was active in her belief criminals and institutionalized mental patients should be sterilized.

She, like many other women who stepped outside the box in the 1800’s, met much disapproval throughout her lifetime for her divorce, her career, her involvement in women’s suffrage, and the sterilization.

She wrote this in a reminiscence posted in the Oregon Journal on June 28, 1914:

"When I finally announced that I was going to become a doctor it broke the heart of all my friends, and I was publicly disgraced. Women that I had known for years drew their skirts aside and went by on the other side of the street; men refused to bow to me, and friendless and alone, I started by stage for San Francisco on my way to Philadelphia."

It took strong women to forge the groundwork for what women today take for granted.


Tanya Hanson said...

What a wonderful post, Paty. I knew our foremothers struggled and it makes me feel so lazy and spoiled sometimes. I don't think I could have ever left my son, however.

When writer Margaret Fuller wrote in her book Women in the Nineteeth Century that women were equal to men, she created a serious scandal. Well, I guess we fight some of that today still.

Thanks again.

Ashley Ludwig said...

Paty - Tanya's right. We have things so easy - the world at our fingertips, we should have no excuses at all for pressing onward and upward with anything we choose to do!

Well written, and thanks for the post!


Susan Macatee said...

Great story, Paty! I'm also working on a new story where my heroine who served as a nurse during the Civil War, wishes to attend medical school and become a doctor. I'm amazed at the strength of the real women I've been researching. They weren't satisfied with society's image of what a Victorian woman was supposed to be and pushed and fought for the freedoms women in all westernized countries share today.

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Excellent information, Paty. As I was reading, I kept thinking of the TV series--Medicine Woman where Jane Seymour played Dr. Mikela Quinn. Of course, her life was far more glamerous than the real women doctors. We women have come a long way.

Helen Hardt said...

Very informative, as always. I keep thinking about that tidbit in your current WIP about why men thought women couldn't be doctors -- because they thought they'd be attracted to their male patients. LOL!

Tanya Hanson said...

Does that suggest men doctors were attracted to their female patients LOL. What a lame excuse.

I totally loved Dr. Quinn. I remember looking up many of the historical tidbits on her show and they actually were accurate.

Linda A. said...

Really interesting post. I also feel soft and lazy when I remember the struggles of ambitious women through the ages to be taken seriously. If you wanted to be more than a wife and mother, you were ridiculed or ostracized. That went for women in the arts as well as business and the professions. we owe all those pioneers a huge debt.

Deborah Schneider said...

Paty, what great information! I grew up in Oswego county and attended the SUNY at Oswego. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was famous, having received her medical degree in 1855, wore men's trousers and coat at her wedding, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for her service in the Union Medical Corps during the Civil War. When I hear about women who say they are "too busy" to vote I remember what the women who fought for women's rights went through to obtain those rights.

Paty Jager said...

Thanks Tanya. Yes, we still struggle in some ways but strong women of our pasts built the foundation for what we have today.

You're welcome, Ashley.

Yes, Susan, the strength and perseverance of the women in the 1800's is mind boggling. When you look at how many times they went through all the "correct" motions to get the vote and were denied, yet kept staying within the bounds of what men deemed acceptable to bring about the change of attitude.

Loretta, you're right, Dr. Quinn while showing some of the trials of a woman doctor it didn't clearly portray what all they went through.

Helen, male doctors felt women were to weak to control themselves, when it is/was actually the other way around most times.

Linda A., So true.

Deborah, it is amazing how many fo the first women doctors, did, in deed, dress in trousers. Some because it made getting around and taking care of patients on horseback easier, and others as a statement that they didn't have to be confined to women's clothing to be a woman.