In honour of celebrating all the strong and powerful women in the world, on international women’s day on the 8th of March, I will be exploring the battle women have faced becoming respected in the medical field.
In the face of adversity, women have always been resilient and strong, pushing for change in the way they are treated and the prejudice they are faced with. They have fought and struggled to prove their strength and intelligence. In the late nineteenth century, women were finally accepted as medical practitioners, but it was not an easy journey.
Women have always been intimately involved in medical matters, from the ancient to the modern world. There have been several roles women have played. Women have worked as midwives, nurses, apothecaries and bone-setters. But as the study of medicine became formalised, women were increasingly being excluded from the narrative. In the 14th century, King Henry VIII was quoted as saying “No carpenter, smith, weaver or women shall practise surgery.” When governments declared that only those trained at universities could practise as doctors, women were forbidden from this training.
In her pursuit to break into the medical profession, Margaret Ann Bulkley went to the lengths of adopting a male persona to be accepted. She successfully pulled it off and she became fully qualified as Dr James Barry in 1812 from Edinburgh University. From there this ‘’beardless lad’’ went on to have a distinguished career as a skilful British army surgeon for more than 40 years. Barry developed a reputation for her surgical prowess and commitment to improving conditions for soldiers and the local population. Barry was so successful at maintaining her deception that it was only when she died of dysentery in 1865 that her secret was discovered. Despite her skill, her gender made her an embarrassment to both the war department and medical association. Therefore, these findings were kept hidden and Dr Barry was officially buried as a man.
By the mid-19th century, more women were demanding entry to medical school. At the time, women were still considered intellectually inferior and weaker than men. Men expressed concerns that exposure to gore might pose a risk to, what they considered, delicate female health. However, women were exasperated with the prejudice they faced and started to fight back, such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson or Elizabeth Blackwell.
Dr Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female physician in the United States. Blackwell applied, and was rejected, by many schools. Yet she persisted, until she eventually gained admission to the Geneva College of Medicine, by a mere accident. To show his liberalism, the dean had presented the application directly to his students, asking whether a woman should be allowed to attend the classes. Much to the dean’s surprise, the students, thinking it a great joke, voted unanimously to admit her. She managed to gain a medical degree in 1849 and set up the New York Infirmary for Poor Women before returning to England, where she was accepted into the Medical Register in 1858. Despite a flood of protests within the medical community, other women soon followed suit, notably among them Elizabeth’s younger sister, Emily Blackwell, as well as Maria Zakrzewska, Mary Putnam Jacobi and Ann Preston.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first English woman to qualify as a doctor. Not a single British medical school, that she applied to, would accept her. Through determination and perseverance, she managed to practice medicine by exploiting a loophole and sat exams for the Society of Apothecaries in 1865, going on to set up the Dispensary for Women. She was the last woman to study medicine through this method as the following year it was blocked. This is due to male doctors’ opposition to female doctors and each time a loophole was found that allowed them to progress in the medical profession, the rules would be changed to prevent it from happening again.
Anderson went on to campaign about women’s involvement in medicine, contributing to the 1876 “Enabling Act” that allowed the licensing of both male and female doctors. Unfortunately, this did not change the antagonistic attitudes of most British medical schools towards women. But did that stop women? Of course not, they just opened their own doors, setting up their own schools and hospitals. In 1874, a group of determined and pioneering women, including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex Blake, established the first medical school in Britain to allow women to graduate and practise medicine. This was the London School of Medicine for Women. The coming decades saw more and more medical schools accepting women, and in 1892 the British Medical Association finally accepted female doctors.
Today, female medical students outnumber their male colleagues and there are numerous qualified female doctors practising in the UK, America and all over the world. Although the progress made to get to this point has been outstanding, women still have more progress to make before equality is reached. Female doctors, on average earn 1/3 less than their male counterparts, are significantly under-represented in some specialities, particularly surgery, and there are very few women in senior clinical academic positions.
The journey is not yet over.
Women’s involvement in medicine has been accompanied with disapproval and at times, outright antagonism. This has meant that the medical profession has been dominated by men for most of its history. But throughout, women have persisted and found the strength within them to fight for their right to practice medicine.
By Bernice Mangundu