Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995

Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995

Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995

Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995


From about 1850, American women physicians won gradual acceptance from male colleagues and the general public, primarily as caregivers to women and children. By 1920, they represented approximately five percent of the profession. But within a decade, their niche in American medicine--women's medical schools and medical societies, dispensaries for women and children, women's hospitals, and settlement house clinics--had declined. The steady increase of women entering medical schools also halted, a trend not reversed until the 1960s. Yet, as women's traditional niche in the profession disappeared, a vanguard of women doctors slowly opened new paths to professional advancement and public health advocacy.

Drawing on rich archival sources and her own extensive interviews with women physicians, Ellen More shows how the Victorian ideal of balance influenced the practice of healing for women doctors in America over the past 150 years. She argues that the history of women practitioners throughout the twentieth century fulfills the expectations constructed within the Victorian culture of professionalism. Restoring the Balance demonstrates that women doctors--collectively and individually--sought to balance the distinctive interests and culture of women against the claims of disinterestedness, scientific objectivity, and specialization of modern medical professionalism. That goal, More writes, reaffirmed by each generation, lies at the heart of her central question: what does it mean to be a woman physician?


In all departures of health of body, mind, or spirit, I believe there is a
loss of balance. [Though] we may have other terms, harmony, equilib
rium, etc., the point and principle of getting righted… must be to re
store that balance.

Sarah Adamson Dolley, M.D., 1896

If we women can be more honest in dealing with conflicts between
family and career, we can lead our male colleagues to also be more
open and flexible in balancing personal and professional lives.

Anonymous quotation in Association of American
Medical Colleges Project Committee Report,
Increasing Women’s Leadership in Academic Medicine, 1996

FROM DRS. BERNADINE HEALY, Frances Conley, Antonia Novello, Joycelyn Elders, Ruth Kirschstein, Vivian Pinn, Susan Love, Joyce Wallace, and Nancy Dickey to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, American women physicians were a notable public presence during die 1990s. As government officials, researchers, clinicians, and reformers, women physicians appeared prominently in media coverage of the medical profession. This is a far cry from the mixture of public condescension and admiration accorded the nineteenth-century pioneer Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, or the anger and resentment directed at so many of her successors until well into the 1970s.

Not all cultural indicators of women’s progress in medicine are so encouraging, however. For women struggling to succeed in the medical professions, indeed in all fields, books and articles about sexual harassment, the “mommy track,” and the “second shift,” as well as the persistence of sex stereotyping, glass ceilings, unequal pay, and unreliable day care, indicate that much work remains to be done. Women in medicine . . .

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