In the middle of the 19e century, Sophia Jex-Blake struggled against constant roadblocks as a woman trying to get a medical degree – so she decided to start her own school.
Founded in 1874, the London School of Medicine for Women was the first and only place where a woman could obtain a medical degree in the UK for many years. Between its opening and 1911, the number of female physicians in the country increased from two to 495. Jex-Blake was also the first female physician to practice in Scotland. The hospital she established in Edinburgh has provided female doctors with jobs and female patients with high quality care for 80 years.
While Jex-Blake’s legacy as a medical pioneer is well established, one aspect of her personal biography is often overlooked: His romantic partners were women. And Jex-Blake was far from the only notable lesbian in the medical movement.
Some might argue that Jex-Blake’s sexuality was an asset in her role as a pioneer of women’s rights. Other women in the movement might be embarrassed by their desire not to step on men’s toes. In The Excellent Doctor Blackwell: The Life of the First Female Doctor, Biographer Julia Boyd writes that Britain’s first female doctor Elizabeth Blackwell “wanted her sex to have greater opportunities … but not at the expense of men.”
Jex-Blake, on the other hand, saw no reason why women shouldn’t have it all and have it now. Resolute, stubborn and angry, but endowed with a quick wit and eloquence, his contemporaries often cringe at his outspokenness. She wrote responses to articles opposing female doctors in medical publications and engaged in heated arguments with her professors at public meetings.
In his 1869 anthology essay Women’s work and women’s culture, Jex-Blake demanded to know: “Who has the right to say that they [women] will not be allowed to make their work scientific when they wish, but will be limited to only mechanical details and the tedious routine of nursing, while men are reserved any intelligent knowledge of disease and any study of the laws by which health can be preserved or restored. ”
She might have surprised some with her words, but it was hard to argue with Jex-Blake’s results. The publicity it garnered resulted in significant public support for the right of women to become doctors.
The Victorian era sets tough limits for women
Medicine was one of the first professional battlegrounds where women pushed the standards of the era for women. The vocation options of the early Victorian era left a lot to be desired. In terms of professions, teaching was essentially the only acceptable career. For upper-class women, working was considered an embarrassment for their families; jobs were reserved for women who did not have a husband to support them.
Rosalie Slaughter Morton’s aristocratic father was so outraged by the idea of his daughter making any money that it was not until after her death that she attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1893. Since he left her no inheritance, she used the money she had saved since childhood and eventually graduated to become a doctor and surgeon.
Florence Nightingale’s family have raised similar objections to her career aspirations as a nurse. Whenever she brought up the subject with her mother and sister, they would have needed to revive each other with a scent of salt.
Jex-Blake’s father had only allowed her to become a math teacher if she didn’t accept a salary. Even though a woman had a pre-marriage career, she was expected to quit when she married.
These strict social norms have left some women in a particular dilemma. What if you didn’t intend to marry a man? How could you support yourself financially? This challenge has prompted queer women to lead the way in proving that their gender can work in any profession.
The 19th century women who paved the way in medicine
Nineteenth-century doctors Emily Blackwell, Marie Zakrzewska, Lucy Sewall, Harriot Hunt, Susan Dimock, Sara Josephine Baker, and Louisa Garrett Anderson all preferred women (and many of their romantic partners were also doctors). And while there may have been a stigma around working women, some argue that there was less societal contempt attached to women loving women.
“Such relationships enjoyed a higher level of acceptance than many experience today,” writes historian Arleen Tuchman in her biography of Marie Zakrzewska. Tuchman says that in his writings Zakrzewska “blurred the line between conventional marriage and same-sex relationships with great confidence and ease, providing further evidence that the anxieties that would surface later in the century about lesbians were not yet present ”.
Tuchman also believes that our modern preoccupation with whether these partnerships were sexual “reveals more about our own understanding of camaraderie and intimacy than that of women in the past.
Women’s hospitals meet a need
Blackwell and Zakrzewska were among the first women in the United States to earn medical degrees, in 1854 and 1856, respectively. Together with Elizabeth, Blackwell’s sister, they created a women’s hospital in New York. It was constantly expanding, never large enough to accommodate all the women who wanted to be treated there. Later, they added a medical school for women to their offerings. Blackwell met Elizabeth Cushier when she became a student at her university. Cushier then began working alongside Blackwell at his hospital.
“I don’t know what Dr Emily would do without her. She absolutely basks in his presence; and it looks like she’s been waiting for him for a whole life, ”gushed a colleague of Cushier’s. Blackwell and Cushier have raised an adopted daughter together. By the time Blackwell closed the college in 1899, 364 women had obtained medical degrees there. In 1981, Blackwell Hospital moved and merged with another institution. It is now known as the New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital.
Shortly after establishing the New York Women’s Hospital, Zakrzewska traveled to Boston to repeat the experiment. In 1862, she opened the New England Hospital for Women and Children. That same year, Julia Sprague moved into Zakrzewska’s house, and they quickly began a relationship that lasted until Zakrzewska’s death 40 years later.
Women flocked to his hospital, which was one of the first in the country to institute sanitation and sterilization protocols. Boston’s top doctors were thrilled with his singular success in preventing the spread of the disease. Before sterilization became the norm, a hospital visit could make patients sicker than before. Zakrzewska Hospital remains open as Dimock Community Health Center.
When Jex-Blake visited the Boston Hospital, she met resident physician Lucy Sewall and the two began planning a life together. These plans were cut short when Jex-Blake’s father died, forcing her to return to the UK. Like Blackwell, she eventually found a lasting love with a former medical student turned physician colleague: Margaret Todd.
By creating medical schools and hospitals for women, these 19epioneers of the century helped open up the profession of medicine to women. One of the biggest hurdles for female medical students at the time was finding a place to receive practical training and internships, and then find a job. Most establishments invariably refuse women. These hospitals have responded to this need.
By the late 1800s, new terms had appeared in the English language: “new woman,” to describe educated and independent career women, “Boston marriages,” to describe two professional women sharing a household, and “Sapphist. », To describe the women who loved women. By pursuing their careers, overturning norms and offering their personal track records as examples, these women ensured that others like them could thrive in their private and professional lives.