Sex and Fair Play: Establishing the Woman Doctor

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Editor: Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 17,369 words

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[(essay date 2005) In the following essay, Swenson examines the debate over women in medicine in nineteenth-century Great Britain, particularly the question of whether practicing medicine would "unsex" a woman, by using women doctors who appeared in fiction as barometers of the argument.]

When the young heroine of Radclyffe Hall's 1924 novel, The Unlit Lamp, announces to her father that she wishes to study medicine, he responds in a tirade:

It's positively indecent--an unsexing, indecent profession for any woman, and any woman who takes it up is indecent and unsexed. ... Not one penny will I spend on any education that is likely to unsex a daughter of mine. I'll have none of these new-fangled woman's rights ideas in my house. ... A sawbones indeed! Do you think you're a boy? Have you gone stark, staring mad?1

Colonel Ogden's objections to women doctors typify those voiced throughout the Victorian period and down to his own; that medical study would unsex women was the trump card played by all opponents. However, the career's power--implicit in antifeminists' fierce resistance--made medical education particularly appealing to the most ambitious, intellectual, or feminist women. Despite unabated protests of their indecency, women doctors began to threaten the medical establishment in Britain as early as the 1860s.

The British medical-woman movement began in earnest in 1869 when Sophia Jex-Blake and four other women enrolled as medical students at the only British university that would take them--the University of Edinburgh. As the women were soon to learn, however, enrollment did not guarantee equal education or the right to graduate. The male medical establishment, represented by the Royal Colleges, fought the education, certification, and employment of women doctors at every step. As Sophia Jex-Blake remarked, the Medical Registration Act of 1858 effectively allowed protectionist British medical schools to keep women out of the established profession by denying registration to any doctor holding a foreign degree.2 Even those men who supported medical women did so more in the spirit of fair play than from belief in woman's abilities. The medical establishment's most powerful weapon against this threat came from its own "scientific" findings that suggested that women were unsuited for the intellectual and physical work involved. Medical study and practice would harm women's health--particularly their reproductive health--and unsex them. One male physician, writing in 1879, neatly summarized the arguments that filled the pages of the Lancet and other establishment publications:

Many of the most estimable members of our profession perceive in the medical education and destination of women a horrible and vicious attempt deliberately to unsex themselves--in the acquisition of anatomical and physiological knowledge the gratification of a prurient and morbid curiosity and thirst after forbidden information--and in the performance of routine medical and surgical duties the assumption of offices which Nature intended entirely for the sterner sex.3

Such arguments demonstrate that, even as a fully certified physician, the Victorian medical woman could not completely dissociate herself from her cultural other, the prostitute. For instance, responding...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420096760