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.