The other week, Maria wrote a great history of midwifery, a field of medicine that was traditionally practiced by women into the 1800s. But at the same time that male physicians were insisting that they were the only ones qualified to treat women, some women were insisting that they were qualified to become physicians themselves.
In 1848, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman admitted to Geneva Medical College in New York – but her admission was based less on her merit and more on, well, the whims of the all-male student body. Apparently the school’s administrators didn’t want to risk rejecting a woman, so rather than make a final decision, they asked the students to decide if Blackwell should be admitted. The students thought that a rival school had admitted Blackwell’s application as a joke, and agreed to admit her.
Two years later, the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania – which, as the name implies, was the first medical school for women – opened; forty women immediately enrolled.
At Geneva Medical College, Blackwell took all of the same courses as her male classmates and even dissected male cadavers; she graduated at the top of her class but, following further study in France, could not find a job in the United States. After her younger sister, Emily Blackwell, graduated from Case Western Reserve University’s medical school, the Blackwell sisters joined with another female physician, Marie Zakrewska, to open the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857. This was the first U.S. hospital that focused on women’s health and had an all-female staff, but it was far from the only one. Women responded to the discrimination that they faced by forming their own organizations, hospitals, and clinics, including the New England Hospital for Women and Children and the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children.
Other firsts followed throughout the rest of the 19th century: in 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African-American woman to receive an M.D.; in 1870, my alma mater, the University of Michigan, was the first state medical school to admit women; and in 1876, Sarah Hackett Stevenson became the first female member of the American Medical Association. By the end of the century, there were more than 7,000 female physicians in the United States, up from about 200 in the 1860s.
While women continued to make advances throughout the 20th century, by 1965 they made up only 7% of medical school graduates, down from 12% in 1949. Yet the 1970s brought some significant changes to both the field of medicine and medical education. The passage of Title IX in 1972 and the Public Health Service Act three years later helped to lift restrictions for women in the medical and educational fields, but perhaps just as important were the women’s movement and a burgeoning national interest in alternative medicine. Female medical students and physicians, many of whom had had their own less-than-empowering interactions as patients with male physicians, wanted to ensure that their patients would be treated with respect and care, particularly in fields like gynecology and obstetrics. The publication of Our Bodies, Our Selves gave women a manual of sorts, not just to their bodies but to their right as patients to receive respectful and thorough health care. In addition, after abortion became legal in 1973, some female physicians and health care workers established independent, women-focused clinics that provided both abortion care and a range of other health services.
In 2002, women made up 25.2% of all U.S physicians. The following year saw an all-time high in the number of women applying to medical school: 49.2% of all medical school applicants. As women continue to make inroads in both medical education and practice, even that field of medicine most associated with women – midwifery – is experiencing a renaissance of sorts.
For more information on all sorts of issues related to women’s health and medicine, the two-volume anthology Voices of the Women’s Health Movement offers a great collection of writing on medicine, sexuality, and politics. And the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective/Our Bodies Ourselves now offers a range of books in the Our Bodies series, including editions focusing on pregnancy, menopause, and teens.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.