I can’t believe the month is almost over! It seems like yesterday that it started with my book release. I was supposed to post this way earlier in the month, but things have gone crazy round these parts (in a good way…more on that in a future post) so I’ve had very little time for author stuff.
I had the pleasure of being asked by my fellow author Janis Daly to participate in her 31 Titles for Women’s History Month promotion. This list is chock full of my friends and writers I admire, like Kate Quinn, Lauren Willig, Susan Vreeland, Sarah Bird, Alison Weir, Marie Benedict, Paula McClain, Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, Tracey Chevalier, Jennifer Chiaverini, Susan Meissner, Therese Anne Folwer and more.
In fact, I’ve read 11 of these books already! I’m making it my personal challenge to read the rest by the end of the year. And to be listed among them is such a great honor! I hope you will take a look at them and find (or more!) that you like.
I’d also like to thank Janis for having me and Madame Presidentess as part of this promotion and to highlight her new release The Unlocked Path, which is about Eliza Pearson Edwards, who was one of the early graduates of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Janis is also taking suggestions for her 2024 list, so if you can think of any, please drop her a note!
Remember, women’s history isn’t just for March! It should be celebrated all year long!
Today is International Women’s Day, which is part of Women’s History Month (post on that coming soon). Today is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.
But it is equally important to look at how far we still have to go. I wrote this last August for Women’s Equality Day (August 26) but never posted it. That means the numbers are slightly out of date, likely still accurate. I have updated dates and the references to “this year” mean 2023.
Women are FAR from equal in the United States. Despite being one of the most advanced and powerful nations on the planet, we rank 51 out of 149 countries in gender equality. To put this in perspective, all of our neighboring countries are doing better than we are: Canada is #16, Cuba is #23 and Mexico is #50.
This is due in part to the fact that white women earn only 82 cents for every dollar men make, and the numbers are even worse for women of color. Black women earn only 70 cents and Latina women, 65 cents for every man’s dollar. In addition, our government is far from equal. In the most gender-equal country, Iceland, women hold nearly 40% of parliamentary seats. In the United States, while we have a record number of women serving in Congress, we are still in the minority, with only 27% of members being female (24 of 100 seats in the Senate and 120 of 435 seats in the House).
Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ERA–which still hasn’t been passed. The United States is one of only seven United Nations member states who do not have an Equal Rights law in their constitution (193 countries do) or a provision that outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex (115 additional countries do). The other six countries without such a law are Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Tonga.
Now, you may argue that other laws such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment together mean equality for women. But they don’t. Court rulings and interpretations in the years since they were passed make it nearly impossible to prove gender discrimination in a court of law and leaving women open to the repeal or reversal of their rights at any time.
Women in the United States have been fighting to pass an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution since Alice Paul first introduced it in 1923. The fight really gained steam in the 1970s and for a while it looked like it might pass, but the June 30, 1982, ratification deadline saw the ERA three states short of ratification. The ERA was considered dead until it was revived in March 2017 by Senator Pat Spearman. Nevada quickly became the 36th state to pass it, followed by Illinois and Virginia.
As of today, 38 states have ratified the ERA, enough for it to become law, though a few are trying to rescind their ratification. So what’s the holdup? That pesky 1982 deadline, which is not part of the law itself, but was put forth in its proposal. The Senate has voted to drop the arbitrary time limit for ratification and the measure has been waiting in the Senate since March 17, 2021. There has been no sign of movement and given current political trends, despite the need for it being greater than ever, it doesn’t look like the ERA will become law anytime soon.
Unfortunately, the future outlook for gender parity in the U.S. isn’t a sunny one, either. The U.S. loses about 2% in its gender equality score each year due to the factors outlined above, as well as a downward trend in women’s education and low political participation. The World Economic Forum estimates that at this rate, it will take another 208 years to close the gender gap in the United States.
What You Can Do
While this may seem depressing and a reason for apathy, these statistics should actually enliven and fuel us. As with the suffrage movement, it is only when women band together to demand their rights that change takes place. You CAN make a difference. Here are some suggestions to get involved:
The single most powerful thing you can do is VOTE! As we have seen in close elections in previous years, every single vote makes a difference. Whether you are voting for your local school board or president of the United States, you are influencing the future of our government, schools and political environment.
Join women’s advocacy groups like the League of Women Voters, the American Academy of University Women (AAUW), the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) or the YWCA USA. There are local chapters of every national group in most major and some smaller cities.
Contact your local, state and national representatives. Today it is easier than ever to advocate for change. Email, call or write your representatives, or talk to them on social media. Sign petitions online or when approached. Your representatives are meant to represent you and your thoughts and they can best do that when they know what is on your mind.
Run for office. Not everyone is suited to be in politics, but those who are should toss their proverbial hat into the ring. Even if you only serve on a school board or county council, you are increasing the number of women in politics and setting a positive example for future generations of women and girls.
Advocate for women in your workplace. Don’t forget that doing your best work can get you promoted. By mentoring or being mentored, you’re shoring up the future of Mercy leadership. And don’t forget to consider female candidates (especially those of color) when you’re hiring.
Educate yourself. The more you know, the more of an informed voter you are and the better you can educate your children. You might want to start with current events, then look into the history of how that situation came to be and then brank off into other aspects. Try to get your information form credible sources and always be wary of information you see on social media.
Speak up and speak out. Each one of us has a voice and no matter what our culture says, we have the exact same right to use it as men do. Speak up in meetings; don’t let your male co-workers mansplain or talk over you. If you are active on social media, take a stance when you see injustice being done. (But please keep Mercy’s social media policy in place if where you work is known or can easily be identified.) Attend protests and rallies if you are so moved.
You can even help by joining women across the country who are fighting to get Women’s Equality Day recognized as a National Day of Celebration, the first step toward eventually making it a National Holiday.
As it is said, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” which means we also hold half the power in the world. If every woman did her part, together with our male allies we could affect major change.
The book that started with a passing reference in my research for Madame Presidentess and the question of “what else is other there about Virginia?” quickly turned into “why has no one else written about them?” And now it is out in the world!
I’ll be honest with you guys, I’m dreaming big with this book. Some of you have already heard me say that I’ve had a Pulitzer Prize in mind in since I started researching–and I’m holding to that. I’m also nursing a *small* hope I will hit the New York Times bestseller list with this book. (If you want to help out, I’ve got a page with graphics and info on it that you can share. No pressure at all.)
So you want to buy the book? Thank you so much. Here is every buy link that I am aware of:
If you’re store of choice isn’t here, please check their website and put in my name or the book title. If you are going to a brick and mortar store, if they don’t have it, they will be able to order it for you.
Other things you can do to help:
Share information on social media.
If you’re on TikTok, make a brief video using #booktok.
If you’re on Instagram, share graphics using #bookstagram
Encourage your friends and family to buy it.
Write an honest review on Amazon. (One sentence is enough!)
Ask for it at your local libraries, schools, and bookstores.
Recommend it to your book club (I do in person and online visits).
Anything else you can think of to persuade people to buy it.
Thank you all so much for all of your support. I’m very excited that Virginia and Francis are finally getting their due more than 120 years after their deaths. This is the most important work I’ve done to date and I hope everyone finds it as fascinating as I did.
PS – Did you know there is a lot of information that didn’t make it into the book? Check it out here.
Here in the U.S. I am blessed to be celebrating this month in peace, but I have been thinking a lot about the women of Ukraine, who are once again bravely defending their homes, some for the second or third time in their lives. From members of Parliament to citizens from the countryside, they are joining together in Resistance.
When we think about war, it is usually the soldiers on the battlefield or the government leaders (mostly men) who come to mind. But for all of known history, women have been fighting in their own ways. Today, as we kick off this important month, I want to remember all the women, past and present, who have:
Like Boudicca, led revolts when their homes were invaded.
Like Boudicca’s daughters, survived rape and other forms of abuse at enemy hands.
Like Catherine Van Rensselaer and Peggy Schuyler, burned their own crops so the enemy wouldn’t have anything to eat.
Like Hypatia, defended the intellectual and cultural centers of their cities.
Like Irena Sendler, risked their lives to save children from death at enemy hands.
Like Virginia Minor, supplied hospitals with food and comforted the sick and dying.
Like Catherine McAuley and her Sisters of Mercy, walked bravely onto the front lines and into enemy territory to nurse the wounded and dying on both sides.
Like Catherine Jarrige and the martyrs of Compiegne, stayed true to their faith and values, even in the face of death.
Like Elise Rivet, gave their lives in exchange for those of the innocent.
Like Stanislawa Leszczyńska, aided women in their hour of need and brought new life into the world amid death and darkness.
Like Hedy Lamarr, used their intelligence to invent revolutionary technology in times of war.
Like Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah and Eleanor Roosevelt, used their diplomatic skills to try and broker peace.
Like Deborah Sampson, hid their sex in order to fight in their army.
Like Naomi Parker Fraley, the real Rosie the Riveter, worked in factories, producing the items men needed to fight.
And the millions of unnamed, ordinary women who have:
Taken up arms (legally or not) to defend her homes, families, and homelands.
Governed or run their lands while men were away at war.
Lost children, husbands, fathers, brothers and fellow women to war.
Lost their lives to bombings, gunfire and other violence.
Sewed clothing, made bandages and cooked food for those who would fight.
Raised money to aid their cause.
Prayed for peace while bombs fell around them and gunfire blared.
We salute you and thank you for all you have done. May we learn from your strength, tenacity and courage. And may your efforts never be forgotten.
If you are the praying kind, please do so for the women of Ukraine and all who face similar circumstances around the world.
As part of Women’s History Month, I was asked to give a speech last week on the importance of women’s history, why I write it and how we can all participate in women’s history. I’ve cut out the part at the beginning where I introduced myself and my books to the audience to get to the good part. Hope you enjoy.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve had a natural aversion to the idea that anyone’s life can be forgotten. And when I started studying women’s history as part of my research, I realized that has happened to hundreds of generations of women. I have nothing against men, but the reality is, history as we know it was written by white, rich men. That means that people of color, women and other minorities were left out because they weren’t considered important.
That that has to change. How are we as women going to know the breadth of our history and our capacity for strength if we don’t have role models to look back and admire and pattern our lives upon? As women, for a long time all we had in Western history were Cleopatra, Queen Boudicca of the Celts, Elenore of Aquitaine, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Susan B. Anthony. And that is slim pickings, especially if you are anything other than white, European or American, and rich.
It is my personal mission to rescue forgotten women, to tell their stories and elevate women’s place in general in history. We need a variety of stories from all time periods. We need to see a large swath of life experiences, of different types of strength. A lot of times when we hear the words “strong woman” or “strong female character” our minds automatically jump to a kick-ass superhero type of woman. But as we all know, that is not the only kind of strength nor is it even the most common. What about the mental, emotional and spiritual strength of women who have overcome rape, abuse, loss of children, war, and every type of calamity to live on? If you have ever visited an old graveyard and seen how young so many women died and paused over the number of tiny graves around them—their children who died in infancy or before—you have witnessed true strength. Of those who survived, some went on to do great things, while others lived quiet lives, but they all mattered. And we need to know their stories so that we feel seen. That is what gives us the courage to make history of our own.
Thankfully, I’m not alone. There are many other authors who write about little-known women. Marie Benedict is one of my favorites. She has written about Albert Einstein’s wife, Hedy Lamarr and Clementine Churchill. There is also Melanie Benjamin, who told the story of Charles Lindberg’s wife; Paula McLain, who wrote about Hemmingway’s wives and Beryl Markham, a famous aviatrix; the duo of Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, who have written about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy, and Eliza Hamilton; C.W. Gortner, who has told the stories of Coco Chanel, Sarah Bernhardt and Marlene Dietrich; and Mary Sharrat who has written about St. Hildegard of Bigen, mystic Margery Kempe, composer Alma Mahler, and Aemilia Bassano Lanier, who may have been Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, just to name a few.
Your Role in Women’s History But you don’t have to be a writer to have a role in women’s history. That just happens to be where my talent lies and how I best express myself. Yours could be something totally different: music, dance, sculpting, painting, photography—anything. As long as you keep a record. It is those records that will secure your place in history. Keep a journal, a family cookbook, save newspaper clippings or love letters. You don’t ever have to share them with anyone if you don’t want to.
I am of the firm belief that everyone has something to offer the world, something that when looked back upon by future generations, will set them apart from everyone else. You don’t have to be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg or a Kamala Harris to make history. You make history just by being you.
There are so many wonderful “lost” stories that live in our memories or our family traditions that would benefit others if we just told them. Whether they are wisdom that can be gained from the old ways of doing things like family medicinal recipes passed through generations or life lessons that came from surviving hard times, we all have something to share.
That’s why it is important to tell your story. If you want you can write a memoire for yourself, your family or to be published. You can start a blog or keep a journal. Just document your life.
For researchers, journals are one of the best ways to truly understand what living in another time was like. I was lucky enough to find the journal of Elizabeth Merriweather when I was researching the biography I just completed. She was a cousin by marriage of my subjects, Virginia and Francis Minor. While the Minors themselves did not leave any personal papers behind, reading Elizabeth’s diary gave me an up close and personal look at life during the Civil War in the south. But more importantly, it helped me to understand why Elizabeth held the controversial views she did. In another example, the stories of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII were saved because a group of 60 of their peers thought to have them keep diaries, take pictures and donate pieces of wartime life like ration books and identification papers. Without those, we would have no idea who those anonymous victims were.
Write down your family stories. We all have that one off-the-wall family member or notorious family story that everyone knows. Why not commit it to paper for future generations, along with everything else you can think of about your family? At some point in our lives, most people yearn to know more about where and who they came from. Recording your family history, not just your genealogical chart, but the stories (whether verified or family legend) that go with it, will be so valuable for future generations, especially in cases were members of the family are estranged or die before others get the chance to ask them the burning questions.
Family stories are more than fact; they are the traditions and lore that are associated with a bloodline. For example, the paternal side of my family has a story about how one member married a Native American woman of the Blackfoot tribe and another about how someone went west with Brigham Young, neither of which I’ve ever tried to verify, but they are part of our lore. On the other hand, we know for a fact that my great-great grandfather helped establish and build Our Lady of the Holy Cross church in Baden, Missouri. On my mom’s side, my grandmother lived through Nazi-occupied Austria during WWII. All of these things provide fodder for telling stories that, while not my own, shape who I am as a person.
You don’t have to be famous in order to set up an archive that will be available to researchers after your death. Most historical societies and some universities will help you with this for a reasonable fee. I know for certain that the State Historical Society of Missouri offers this service. You may not think that your family records, letters, email/social media or other ephemera could ever possibly be of use to anyone. But remember this: When I was researching the family of Virginia and Francis Minor—and trying to reconstruct them from practically nothings—one of the most valuable resources I came across was their family Bible that dated from the early 1800s. I can guarantee you they weren’t thinking “gosh, someday a researcher from St. Louis is going to hold this in her hands and be in awe of the history contained herein” as they were filling in births, deaths and names of slaves in their household. But that is exactly what happened. And letters from Warner Washington Minor to his boss were crucial to me being able to reconstruct his job at the University of Virginia. If these things were important to me as a stranger, imagine how much more a family member would cherish them.
We are all important parts of history, whether we think so or not. Big or small our lives have meaning and impact. Whether or not you consider yourself a good writer, recording your story or those of your family is very important. It is the literary equivalent of carving “I was here” into the universe. You may be fortunate enough to make your mark on history in other ways, but only you know your true story. Tell it or others will tell it for you. You deserve for the world to know who you really are.
If you don’t know where to start, begin by following your dreams and passions. Ben Franklin is quoted as saying, “Write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Writing about what you love will make it enjoyable and give you a way to focus.
I recently had the chance to read an advance copy of a book written by a friend of mine. I want to leave you with a quote from his book: “Work on what you love. A lot of people are artists in their heads. They have a great idea of what they could create…But the ones who succeed are the ones who are willing to work and thrive on that work. It’s not always fun, but it is wonderful, because the work of an artist is to create something beautiful and offer it on a platter to the world. What greater calling could there be?”
March is National Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Equality Day. Despite representing 50.8% of people in the United States and coming a long way since our nation’s founding, women are still considered a minority group. That is because, like people of color of both sexes, they have fewer rights compared to white men. In fact, 85% of the constitutions in the world now contain wording that protects the equal rights of women. However, despite being one of the oldest in the world, the U.S. Constitution does not. The U.S. is one of only 28 U.N. member nations that doesn’t guarantee equal rights between men and women in its laws. Overall, we are 53rd out of 153 countries that the World Economic Forum studies regarding gender equality.
This is one of many reasons why we celebrate women’s history in March. I decided to write about how women’s power evolved in the United States for this blog. There was so much fascinating information that it turned into a three-part series.
Part 1 will focus on how women gained power within marriage.
Part 2 will cover women in the workplace.
Part 3 will show how women went from not even being considered citizens to holding the second highest office in the land.
Women Under Coverture
No discussion of women’s rights* in the United States can begin without an explanation of coverture. In 1769, the American colonies formally accepted the English system of law called coverture, which had prior to that time been in place informally but not committed to paper. Under this system, women were “covered” under the law by a man from their first moment of existence. At birth, a woman’s rights were subsumed by her father. Upon marriage, they passed into her husband’s hands, so that during her entire life—unless she became a widow—she had essentially the same rights as a child, a slave, or a person declared mentally unfit.
The actual language of the law stated, “by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.” Therefore, women did not legally exist. This made women highly dependent on the men in their lives for everything, especially as it related to money and the law. They couldn’t vote, enter into contracts, or be sued. As historian Catherine Allgor explains, “They could not own or work in business. Married women could not own land or any other property, not even the clothes on their backs, and upon the death of her husband, a woman’s legal agency would transfer to her nearest male relative…. [A husband] owned her labor and could even lease her to work for someone else, taking her wages. He had absolute ownership of his wife’s children. If he chose, he could take custody of children after a divorce and could refuse to allow his former wife to ever see them again; and he could seize her property from other heirs upon her death… And of course, a husband could legally beat his wife, or ask that she be remanded to prison or an asylum…When it came to their rights as specifically women and wives, legally the only difference between a slave and a married woman was that a husband could not sell his wife…and even these distinctions were sometimes shaky.”
In the American colonies, ending a marriage was even more difficult than being in one. While some marriages were “dissolved,” divorce as it is defined today was rare until the late 19th century. For women in the southern colonies, divorce was not an option because they followed English law. However, women in the northern colonies had it little better; they could only divorce their husbands if they could prove adultery, desertion or bigamy.
These restrictions eased somewhat after the Revolutionary War, partly because people began to think that if colonies could leave their king, why couldn’t a husband leave his wife? However, proof of cause still had to be provided, i.e. that one spouse had committed the crimes listed above, or were physically cruel, had threatened their life, did not provide economically or refused their marital duty in the bedroom.
Laws Begin to Change
The first American law that permitted a woman any control over her own property was passed in Connecticut in 1808. It allowed a woman to leave a will and have her bequests honored. But that was power only after death. Similarly, widows had the right of “dower,” which is the right to property they brought into the marriage, as well as to one-third of their husbands’ estate. But again, this power only came after his death.
From 1821-1931, a series of marriage reform laws began to chip away at the stranglehold coverture had over women’s lives. For most of the 19th century, states passed a series of marriage reform laws aimed at granting women greater property rights, but they varied widely by state. The first state to act, in 1839, was Mississippi, which granted women the right to hold property in their own names with the caveat that they had to have permission from their husbands.
In 1849, New York issued one of the most sweeping changes to marriage law under the Married Women’s Property Act, which granted a married woman separate control over any rent or profit earned from property she held at the time of her marriage and protected it from her husband’s creditors. In addition, if a married woman was given property during her marriage through a grant or bequest, such as inheriting from her father, it was under her control, not that of her current or future husband. New York expanded women’s rights in 1860 with a reform statute stating “the earnings of any married woman, from her trade, business, labor or services, shall be her sole and separate property.” For the first time, women had full control over the money they earned.
During this period, divorce became increasingly common, though adultery or cruelty still were really the only grounds. This was due in part, at least to the increasing economic independence changes in marriage law gave to women. Divorce was expensive, so previously only the higher classes could afford to bring suit, which many did not out of fear for their reputation and social standing. But now some women’s rights advocates—including Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872—began to advance the belief that the law and religion should have nothing to do with marriage or divorce. Woodhull famously proclaimed that she believed a marriage occurred when two people fell in love and dissolved when they were no longer in love.
In 1871, cruelty, one of the most common reasons for divorce, became illegal for the very first time when Alabama became the first state to outlaw the beating of one’s wife. Previously, according to lore, a husband was only allowed to whip his wife with a switch no bigger than his thumb (which is where we get the phrase “rule of thumb”). Other states attempted to follow, with mixed results. Maryland made wife-beating illegal in 1882, but it wasn’t until 1920 that it was formally illegal in all states, and not until 1970 that domestic violence was treated as a serious crime under the judicial system.
20th Century Progress
By the year 1900, every state had passed legislation granting married women the right to keep their own wages and to own property in their own name. The fight for the next three decades (1907-1931) was to allow women to marry foreign men (especially Asian men) without losing their own citizenship, which began with the Expatriation Act (also known as the Married Women’s Citizenship Act) of 1907. The Cable Act of 1922 (also called the Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act), partially reversed this ruling, stating “the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of her sex or because she is a married woman;” however, a wife’s nationality was still dependent upon her husband’s status. This law was amended four times and repealed before the Nationality Act of 1940 allowed women to marry men of any nationality without loss of citizenship and restored the status of all affected by previous laws.
In 1967, interracial marriage (meaning Black and White) was legalized in the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia, but is still not accepted in some places today. Two years later, California adopted the nation’s first “no fault” divorce law, allowing divorce by mutual consent. By 1975, no-fault divorce was common in all states.
But the ability to own property, keep one’s wages and marry and divorce at will is just the beginning of how modern women gained the rights we have today. In the next edition, we’ll look at women in the workplace and how we went from being regarded as the “angel of the house” in Victorian times to working women, wives and mothers today.
Please keep in mind that women’s history is very complex, so these articles can only scratch the surface. In addition, these articles are written in general terms. In reality, women of the upper classes experienced the world very differently from those of the lower and each race of women has their own history and their own struggles that continue to this day.
Allgor. Catherine. “Remember…I’m Your Man”: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton.” Historians on Hamilton. Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter, eds. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rugters University Press, 2018, 104-106.
This is my monthly column for the Women in Leadership Newsletter for my day job.
Did you know that Feb. 3 is National Women Physicians Day? That’s because it is also the birthday (1821) of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school and become a doctor in the United States.
Elizabeth was born in Bristol, England, into a Quaker family known for being reformers. Her parents were anti-slavery activists, her sister Antoinette would become the first ordained female Protestant minister, and her brother Henry would go on to marry American suffragist Lucy Stone, founder of the American Woman’s Suffrage Association.
For financial reasons and because her father wanted to help abolish slavery in the United States, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1832 when Elizabeth was only 11. Six years later, her father died, leaving the family destitute during a national financial crisis. To make ends meet, her mother, two older sisters and Elizabeth worked as teachers at The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, a school they founded.
One day, as one of Elizabeth’s female friends lay dying, the woman said she believed her suffering would have been less if she had had a female physician. At that moment, Elizabeth knew that was what she was meant to do, despite having a natural aversion to “everything connected with the body…the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.” But there was one big problem: none of the medical schools in the U.S. would admit women. Her only option was to find a physician who would allow her to apprentice under him for informal training. She found not one, but two doctors in Philadelphia who were willing to help her. Elizabeth worked as a teacher while living with the physicians’ families.
While she was training, Elizabeth applied to all the major medical schools and was universally rejected; even when she applied to the small schools, she only received one acceptance letter, from Geneva Medical College in New York. What she didn’t know was that the faculty had opposed her admission but since she was qualified in all ways but gender, they felt they couldn’t reject her outright. So, they referred the decision to the students, who thought the whole thing was a practical joke, and voted unanimously
to admit her.
Elizabeth arrived in Geneva on Nov. 6, 1847, well after the beginning of the term. Not only did she have to catch up on her classwork, but she faced very strong discrimination. Her professors forced her to sit separately from the male students during lectures and often excluded her from labs, fearing that her delicate female sensibilities couldn’t handle subject matter like the male reproductive system. At the same time, the citizens of Geneva shunned her as an improper woman for defying her God-given roles of wife and mother. She wrote of this time:
“I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.”
After graduating on Jan. 23, 1849, with the highest grades in her class, Elizabeth—now Dr. Blackwell—continued her training in London and Paris, though the doctors in those hospitals only allowed her to work in midwifery and nursing. During that time, she realized that doctors often caused epidemics by failing to wash their hands between patients, so she emphasized preventive care and personal hygiene in her departments.
In 1851, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City, where she encountered even more discrimination against female physicians, who were thought to all be abortionists, though that procedure was illegal and most female physicians did not practice it. This attitude meant she had few patients and was not welcomed at many hospitals and clinics. Like so many women before her, she took matters into her own hands and opened her own small clinic to treat poor women. She is quoted as saying, “If society will not admit of a woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.”
By 1857, her sister, Emily, had followed in her footsteps to become a doctor, earning her medical degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Together, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. This medical establishment welcomed aspiring female physicians and nurses and gave them what men sought to deny them: training in practical medical skills.
During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters trained nurses for Union hospitals and Elizabeth founded the Woman’s Central Relief Association because the male physicians in the United States Sanitary Commission refused to help her.
After the war, in 1867 or 1868 (sources conflict on the date), Dr. Blackwell opened a medical college for women in New York City. A year later, she placed Emily in charge and moved permanently to London, where one of her first acts was to found the National Health Society.
Despite failing health, Dr. Blackwell established the London School of Medicine for Women with Sophia Jex-Blake, one of her students in New York, in 1874. The following year, Dr. Blackwell became a professor of gynecology at the school, a position she held for three years before retiring from medicine.
Dr. Blackwell never married, choosing instead to spend her retirement time advocating for social and moral reform. She also published more than 15 books, including Medicine as a Profession For Women in 1860, Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864 and an 1895 autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. She died in 1910 at the age of 89.
Today, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is recognized for her influence on the medical profession in the United States and the United Kingdom. Biographer Janice Nimura has just released a new book on Elizabeth and her sister Emily titled The Doctors Blackwell. Check it out or read this interview with the author on NPR to learn more about these pioneering women in medicine.
Fun fact: The first female physician in western history that we know of is Metrodora, a Greek doctor who lived sometime between 200-400 AD/CE. She wrote the oldest known medical book by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women.
For those who are not aware, my day job is in health care. This is an article I was asked to write by our Women in Leadership program.
February is Black History Month, so it is only appropriate that we reflect upon the tremendous—and often overlooked—contributions of Black women and men in health care, both within our company and in the United States in general. While doing so, we must also acknowledge and ask forgiveness for the inexcusable discrimination and injustice perpetrated upon our Black brothers and sisters, a pain that continues to this day. As we reflect, let us pray for understanding, unity and love, that our country may become a haven of tolerance for all and celebrate both our differences and our similarities as children of God, equally worthy of respect and dignity.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (First Black Female Doctor in the U.S.)
Rebecca was born in Delaware in 1831 and was raised by her aunt, who frequently cared for sick neighbors. This experience is what influenced her to become a healer herself. At the time there was no formal schooling for nurses, so Rebecca’s training was all on the job. She worked as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts, from 1852-1860, when she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston. In 1864, she became the first Black American female to earn a medical degree.
(You may see references to a woman named Rebecca Cole holding this distinction, one for which she was given credit for many years. Because she received her degree in 1867, she is now considered the second Black American woman to hold a medical degree.)
Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston until the Civil War ended and she moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she cared for “a population of over 30,000 colored” in her own estimation. Despite experiencing terrible racism, she worked with other black physicians and the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide food, housing, medical care, education and legal assistance to former slaves.
Sometime later she moved back to Boston. In 1883, she published Book of Medical Discourses, one of the earliest medical publications by a Black American.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (First Black Nurse Licensed in the U.S.)
Mary was born in 1845 in Boston to freed slaves who had moved there from North Carolina. She received a superb education at Phillips School in Boston, which later became one of the first integrated schools in the country. By the time she was a teenager, she felt a calling to become a nurse. She found employment at New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was run completely by women and provided care only to women and children. She worked there for the next 15 years in roles as varied as janitor, cook, washer woman and nurse’s aide.
In 1878, Mary was accepted into a 16-month nursing training program at the hospital. During this program she worked 16-hour shifts attending lectures and lessons led by doctors in the hospital. She was also taught bedside procedures by experienced nurses. The students earned a weekly wage ranging from $1-$4. The course work was so rigorous that out of a class of 42 students, only four graduated, including Mary, in 1879.
After receiving her diploma, Mary found that Black public nurses faced harsh discrimination, and so went into private care nursing in the homes of rich White families on the East coast. She was often treated like a servant instead of a professional and thus worked to distance herself from the household staff. She became renowned for her professionalism, efficiency, patience and bedside manner, a reputation that spread across the United States.
Mary wanted more than anything to improve the reputation of Black nurses across the country. In 1896, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, which later became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). This group was overwhelmingly White and not very friendly toward Black nurses, so Mary cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908.
After her death in 1926, Mary was recognized with numerous honors. In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses founded the Mary Mahoney Award, which is still given today to nurses who promote integration in nursing. Mary was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1993.
Opaline Wadkins (Nurse and Integration Pioneer)
Opaline Wadkins’ career began in 1938 when she was hired by the Texas Department of Public Health to recruit Black nurses. Two years later she moved to Oklahoma City where she lobbied for the rights of Black patients. It took five years, but in 1945 Opaline finally convinced the city to found its first hospital to treat Black patients, University Hospital South Ward, and establish a school to train Black nurses. Between 1949 and 1953 she trained over 200 Black LPNs.
In 1954, Opaline became the first Black nursing supervisor at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City. While working for there, she was also studying for her master’s degree in public health. She was especially concerned about the lack of access young Black people had to information about their health. When she graduated, Opaline became the first Black person to earn a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Oklahoma.
With her passion for public health, she started new initiatives to provide care to minorities living in Oklahoma. One of her most successful programs was a health and well-baby care initiative for Native Americans which effectively decreased infant mortality by 50%. She also worked with local churches to provide health and diabetic clinics to Black patients living in Oklahoma City and was instrumental in desegregating the University of Oklahoma College of Nursing.
Opaline retired in 1976. The governor of Oklahoma declared Nov. 14 as Opaline Wadkins Day. She was later honored by the VA Hospital Nursing Service and the Oklahoma Public Health Association. In 1993, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame. She died in 2000 at her home in Oklahoma City.
Other Notable Black People in Medical History:
In 1721, a slaved named Onesimus described the African method of inoculation against smallpox to Cotton Mather. The technique was used to protect soldiers during the Revolutionary War and was perfected in the 1790s by British doctor Edward Jenner. (To learn more about this, check out The Speckled Monster by Jennifer Lee Carrell.)
Born into slavery, Dr. James Durham bought his freedom in 1762. He then started his own medical practice in New Orleans, becoming the first Black doctor in the United States.
In 1837, James McCune Smith became the first Black American to receive a medical degree (from the Glasgow Medical School in Scotland) and opened the first pharmacy in the US owned and operated by a person of color.
In 1847, David Jones Peck became the first Black person to graduate from a medical school in the United States, Rush Medical College, in Chicago, Illinois.
In 1862, former slave Susie Baker (later known as Susie King Taylor) became the first Black U.S. Army nurse during the Civil War.
In 1891, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams founded the first black-owned hospital in America, Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses. Two years later he performed the first successful open-heart surgery. In 1897 he founded the National Medical Association because Black people were denied membership in the American Medical Association. He was also a charter member of the
American College of Surgeons in 1913 and was the first and only Black member for many years.
In 1912, Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as the country’s first Black psychiatrist, published the first comprehensive clinical review of all Alzheimer’s cases reported to date. He was also the first to translate into English much of Alois Alzheimer’s work on the disease that bears his name.
In 1921 – Dr. Meta L. Christy became the world’s first Black osteopathic physician after graduating from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
In 1936, Dr. William Augustus Hinton was the first Black American physician to publish a textbook, Syphilis and Its Treatment.
In 1950, Dr. Helen O. Dickens became the first Black woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons.
In 1978, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall was elected the first Black president of the American Cancer Society.
In 1981, Alexa Canady became the first Black female neurosurgeon in the U.S.
and Dr. Mae C. Jemison became the first Black female astronaut in NASA history. In 1992 she became the first Black woman in space, where she researched various vaccines and conducted experiments onboard the shuttle Endeavour.
In 1991, Dr. Vivian Pinn became the first woman and the first Black person to hold the title of Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, National Institutes of Health.
In 1993, Dr. Edward S. Cooper became the first Black person elected as National President of the American Heart Association and Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first Black person to be appointed as U.S. Surgeon General.
In 1995, Dr. Lonnie Bristow became the first Black President of the American Medical Association (AMA) in its 148-year history.
In 2002, Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps became the first Black woman to serve as President of the American Medical Women’s Association.
In 2018, Dr. Patrice Harris became the first Black woman President-Elect of the country’s largest physician organization, the AMA.