There are so many women in medicine today – myself included – that we take it for granted. In fact, by 2017, women outnumbered men in medical school classes in the US. However, just like the right to vote and the right to enter many other professions, women had to wage war to gain entry into what was, by men, considered their holy terrain. In fact, it was not until the late 1800’s, when a few brave, brilliant, and brawny young women on both the European and American continents battled over the course of many years to achieve full MD status.
Many authors credit Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, born in Britain and later moved to America, as a major pioneer in this area, and she is probably the most well-known. But she could not have moved the needle alone, as they say. While she was fighting the battle mostly in America (although doing a good deal of her clinical training and public speaking in the UK), her colleagues, such as Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex Blake were waging the war on the other side of the Atlantic. While they were each very different women, approaching their mission with different styles, personalities, and tactics, they also relied upon each other for support and guidance. These women suffered not only prejudice, hardship, and a brutally uphill battle, but also physical oppression. Sophia, and her 6 fellow female students in Edinburgh were harassed to the point of having mud and garbage thrown at them on their way into medical school class by their male colleagues – with the support and encouragement of their male professors. In spite of this, these women persevered, overcoming these unspeakable hardships to go on to establish medical schools and hospitals for women.
It is neither surprising nor novel to read about (white) men fearing others being included among their ranks and using their power, influence, and even violence to attempt to maintain their unilateral hold on a particular enterprise. But while they held on, the field of medicine, particularly healthcare for women, truly stagnated. It was only when women were given full medical practitioner status that women’s issues were brought to the fore and women’s health truly advanced. Women were finally able to come forward and speak about their very private complaints, expose how they’d been treated by some male practitioners in the past, and have advocates with any power to make significant scientific advancements in their care.
This is an incredibly well-researched documentation of a dramatic advancement in the care of women for and by women.. Not a light read, but an important one.