The United States of America began with a fight for representation. Every moment of this country’s history has been marked with strides towards true freedom for all. Women in America have had to fight for every right that they currently have, and be activists for this cause today. Over the past 150 years, the role of the traditional American woman has evolved from a domestic housewife to professor, soldier, medical professional, and so much more. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) have historically been comprised of male-dominated fields, with the few exceptions of trades traditionally seen in a feminine light. In an era of great change, we should look back and see who we have to thank for beginning the fight for equality that we are still advocating for today¹.
Prior to the 1860s, medicine was administered by practitioners with no formal education. In the 1850s one could practice medicine as an “unlicensed physician”. An unlicensed physician was a person who apprenticed under a licensed physician until they had enough knowledge to begin practicing medicine on their own. However, these individuals had no formal education from a medical school and were likely a huge liability. This likely made the medical field more diverse, and there were a handful of women who practiced unlicensed. However at this time there were no licensed female physicians⁵.
Despite this bustle in the administration, women in early medicine were still confined to traditionally feminine roles and had positions such as midwives and herbalists². In the early 1800s women were not allowed to attend college, so they trained through apprenticeships to do mundane, non-medical tasks such as cleaning floors, washing dishes, and feeding patients³. Still, nursing did not become a career that could be gained via education until Florence Nightingale’s time in the 1860s. This new wave of nursing was eventually brought to America when Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing became the first nursing institute in the United States⁴.
The women that braved medical work faced great discimination, even amongst themselves. Florence Nightingale herself once said that “nurses are not ‘Medical Men’”, and to “avoid the semblance of encouraging such gross ignorance”⁶. However, this did not stop these trailblazing women from prospering. Let’s take a look at the story of the first women in the United States to earn a medical degree, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821. She immigrated with her family of eleven to New York when she was eleven-years-old⁷. She was the daughter of progressive Quakers; her father, Samuel Blackwell, was an abolitionist who moved his family to several big cities across the country and advocated for rights such as freeing African Americans. Unfortunately, Samuel died when Elizabeth was seventeen years old, leaving the family impoverished. To keep her family afloat, Elizabeth, her mother, and two of her sisters began teaching and opened their own private school: The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies⁸.
Elizabeth Blackwell had the spirit of her father, and desired to break societal norms. After years of teaching, she became interested in medicine while having a conversation with a terminally ill friend of hers. Her friend confided in Blackwell that she believed that if she could have received care from a woman instead of a man that her quality of care would have been far greater and her health would be much better. This conversation sparked something in Blackwell, and she became more curious about the medical world. She was particularly interested in the negative effects of doctors not washing their hands before performing procedures⁹. With this newfound curiosity, Blackwell decided to break free of her traditional societal roles and pursue a formal education in medicine¹º.
Blackwell applied to over 10 medical schools with no avail. She was even advised to disguise herself as a man in order to gain acceptance, but she refused the blasphemy and persisted on. She eventually got her foot in the door when the admission group at Geneva Medical School thought her application to be a joke and egged it on. During her years of schooling at Geneva, Blackwell faced harsh criticism. She was not allowed to attend labs, was forced to sit separately from her male classmates in lectures. This judgement did not end when she left the doors of Geneva; at every turn in town someone was there telling her just how wrong it was for her to attend medical school and how she should stick to being a woman¹¹. Despite all of this, she gradually gained the favor of her peers and graduated first in her class in 1849, becoming the first woman in America to earn a medical degree.
Unfortunately, Blackwell’s struggle did not end at graduation. For years she continued to face prejudice and was unable to find a job that would allow a female doctor to practice. Even long after her father had passed, Blackwell still carried his fighting spirit for moral justice. After twelve long years of searching for a job that would allow a woman to practice medicine, she eventually found work caring for union soldiers during the Civil War. After her time on the battlefield, she moved around New England and eventually settled back in New York; there she set up shop and found purpose tending to underprivileged people in the very city that initially accepted her as an immigrant years ago.
Despite the trials and tribulations that she faced, Dr. Blackwell set the stage for what would soon become a prosperous career path for many women, including her own sister, Emily Blackwell¹². Not only did she fight for gender representation in healthcare, she fought for the rights of women to learn and gain an education just as men can. Today we can thank Elizabeth Blackwell for setting the stage for women of all ages to pursue a career in STEM. Blackwell made great strides for all American women, and she also set the stage for an even more revolutionary thought: African American women in prominent healthcare positions.
- Johnson, Megan. “A Majority of Younger Physicians Are Female.” Athena Health, 14 Feb. 2018, www.athenahealth.com/knowledge-hub/practice-management/healthcare-future-female#:%7E:text=The%20healthcare%20future%20is%20female&text=From%20January%20to%20June%202017,under%2040%20percent%20are%20male.
- Robertson, Lauren, and Susan Walters Schmid. “Florida: Laws and Rules of Nursing.” ATrain Education, www.atrainceu.com/node/1763. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.
- “A Brief Look at the History of Nursing.” Advent Health University Online, https://online.ahu.edu/blog/brief-look-history-nursing/#:~:text=In%20the%201800’s%2C%20nursing%20began,now%20fulfilled%20by%20academic%20institutions. Accessed 28 Oct. 2020.
- Passmore, Susan. “A Timeline of Nursing Education.” The Sentinel Watch, 5 Mar. 2020, www.americansentinel.edu/blog/2016/09/06/a-timeline-of-nursing-education/#:%7E:text=1873%2D1889%3A%20The%20Bellevue%20Hospital,features%20a%20one%2Dyear%20program.
- Wikipedia contributors. “Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery.” Wikipedia, 13 Jan. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Nightingale_Faculty_of_Nursing_and_Midwifery.
- Nightingale, Florence. “Florence Nightingale’s Letter of Advice to Bellevue.” JSTOR, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Feb. 1911, www.jstor.org/stable/3404989?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elizabeth Blackwell British American Physician.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Jan. 2021, www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-Blackwell.
- Famous Scientists. “Elizabeth Blackwell – Biography, Facts and Pictures.” Famous Scientists, 15 Aug. 2018, www.famousscientists.org/elizabeth-blackwell/#:%7E:text=Just%20a%20few%20weeks%20after,French%20Academy%20for%20Young%20Ladies.
- Michaels, Debra. “Elizabeth Blackwell.” National Women’s History Museum, 2015, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/elizabeth-blackwell.
- Weiner, Stacy. “Celebrating 10 Women Medical Pioneers.” National Women’s History Museum, 3 Mar. 2020, www.aamc.org/news-insights/celebrating-10-women-medical-pioneers#:%7E:text=Elizabeth%20Blackwell%2C%20MD%20(1821%2D1910)%3A%20A%20fabulous%20first&text=In%201849%2C%20Elizabeth%20Blackwell%20became,care%20from%20a%20female%20doctor.n.
- Ruth, Janice E. “Letter, Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron Concerning Women’s Rights and the Education of Women Physicians, 4 March 1851.” American Memory, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(mcc/065)). Accessed 13 Oct. 2020.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elizabeth Blackwell | Biography & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Jan. 2021, www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-Blackwell.