Health, disease and society: Scottish influence in the 19th century
Health, disease and society: Scottish influence in the 19th century

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Health, disease and society: Scottish influence in the 19th century

3.2 The push for – and opposition to – women in medicine

In Britain, the campaign for access to the medical profession began at Edinburgh University in 1869, and was led by Sophia Jex-Blake (1840–1913). Influenced by the feminist movement of the time, Jex-Blake had a wide-ranging education and was keen to earn an independent living. She fought a relentless battle with the Edinburgh University authorities. Initially, the university refused to admit a lone female student, so Jex-Blake recruited a small group of women. Once admitted, the women were denied access to the university's medical classes so they made their own arrangements for learning these subjects, organising separate classes with professors sympathetic to their cause and attending courses taught outside the university. They were then denied access to clinical training at Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary, and were only admitted after a long battle with the hospital authorities. Finally, they were denied the right to graduate. Jex-Blake eventually qualified in Bern, Switzerland, and received her licence through the Irish College of Physicians (Blake, 1990, pp. 97–155).

Female medical students also faced physical violence. Despite medical students' growing reputation for studiousness, Jex-Blake and her fellow female students were roughly handled by the male students. During a ‘riot’ in Edinburgh, Jex-Blake and her companions were jeered at and had the gates of the medical school slammed in their faces. Later, a live sheep was pushed into their classroom, and on leaving the lecture the women had mud thrown at them and were pushed and jostled (Blake, 1990, pp. 125–8). Across Europe, similar resistance was shown to women who wanted to study medicine. In Spain, a group of female medical students passed their examinations but were refused a full degree. And one Spanish student, Pilar Tauregui, was attacked by her male classmates when she attended medical school in 1881 (Anderson and Zinsser, 1988, p. 189).

Why were medical men so violently opposed to women becoming practitioners?

Exercise 2

Read ‘The impact of women doctors [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’.

  1. Why is the author of this editorial so worried about the prospect of women qualifying as doctors?
  2. What arguments are used to oppose the entry of women to the profession?

Discussion

  1. The author is deeply concerned about the effect that women will have on the medical profession. As he boldly states towards the end of the extract: ‘the profession is overstocked’. Such claims were used to justify raising the requirements for medical licensing in order to reduce the number of male practitioners. Competition from women doctors will mean that the income of each will further decline, and fewer men of ability will be attracted to the profession. The presence of female doctors also threatens the status of the profession. At this time, medical men were trying to raise the status of their occupation by emphasising the need for practitioners to possess highly specialised knowledge. If women, who were thought to have very limited intellectual capacities, could qualify, then this devalued medical knowledge.
  2. The editorial reiterates the argument that women are not physiologically suited to a career in medicine. They lack the physical stamina, they would be overcome with emotion at the sight of a patient in pain and they cannot be trusted to respect patient confidentiality. (The author here assumes a biological tendency to ‘gossip’.) If women do complete a medical training, they run the risk of losing their natural female qualities of compassion and kindness. The author also introduced some new arguments. While denying that women patients are demanding female physicians (the author suggests that a ‘thoughtful’ woman regards the idea of a female medical attendant as repulsive), he seems to assume that female doctors will concentrate on midwifery. Such specialism is equated to quackery and poor standards of practice, and is seen as a backward step. Doctors have only recently saved obstetrics from the practice of untrained wise-women. The author claims that female practitioners who work only in obstetrics will not acquire, and are not capable of acquiring, a full medical education – another sign of the quack doctor. This will further devalue all medical training, resulting in a reduction in the quality of service, and will threaten the status of the whole profession.

The idea that women could not become competent practitioners was not confined to the medical press. It was also the subject for cartoons in the popular press (Figure 2).

Figure 2 The caption to this cartoon, entitled The Coming Race, reads: ‘Doctor Evangeline: “By the bye, Mr Sawyer, are you engaged tomorrow afternoon? I have rather a ticklish operation to perform – an amputation, you know.” Mr Sawyer: “I shall be very happy to do it for you.” Doctor Evangeline: “O, no, not that! But will you kindly come and administer the chloroform for me?”’ The humour rests on the way the cartoon turns on its head the stereotype of the helpless woman and strong man. It portrays a ‘comic’ situation – where a fashionably dressed, small female doctor claims greater surgical competence than a man. At the same time, it accurately captures the way doctors did ask each other for help in administering anaesthetics. The cartoonist reflects the ambiguous views held of women doctors. In the 1870s, when only a few women were training as practitioners, they were depicted as small, elaborately dressed feminine figures. By 1900, when a small number of women were practising successfully, a more ‘mannish’ stereotype emerged, wearing a plain skirt and masculine jacket. She was often the butt of the joke.
(From Punch, 14 September 1872, p. 113) ©
From Punch, 14 September 1872, p. 113
Figure 2 The caption to this cartoon, entitled The Coming Race, reads: ‘Doctor Evangeline: “By the bye, Mr Sawyer, are you engaged tomorrow afternoon? I have rather a ticklish operation to perform – an amputation, you know.” Mr Sawyer: “I shall be very happy to do it for you.” Doctor Evangeline: “O, no, not that! But will you kindly come and administer the chloroform for me?”’ The humour rests on the way the cartoon turns on its head the stereotype of the helpless woman and strong man. It portrays a ‘comic’ situation – where a fashionably dressed, small female doctor claims greater surgical competence than a man. At the same time, it accurately captures the way doctors did ask each other for help in administering anaesthetics. The cartoonist reflects the ambiguous views held of women doctors. In the 1870s, when only a few women were training as practitioners, they were depicted as small, elaborately dressed feminine figures. By 1900, when a small number of women were practising successfully, a more ‘mannish’ stereotype emerged, wearing a plain skirt and masculine jacket. She was often the butt of the joke.
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