Academic journal article Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

With High Hopes: Women Contract Surgeons in World War I

Academic journal article Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

With High Hopes: Women Contract Surgeons in World War I

Article excerpt

"And what shall we say of the women ... Their contribution in the great result is beyond appraisal. They have added a new luster to the annals of American womanhood."

--President Wilson

With the start of World War I (WWI), the government sent out a call for doctors. Yet once again women found that the government refused to commission them as medical officers, a practice that had existed since the Civil War. Even with the start of World War II, there was no change in the government's stand regarding the enlistment of women physicians. A few accepted positions as contract surgeons hoping this might lead to a regular commission, but nine women doctors were unwilling to serve in a second-class capacity, and in 1942 they joined the British Medical Corps. (1) It was not until April 16, 1943, when President Roosevelt signed the Sparkman-Johnson Bill that women physicians were granted the right to commissions in the Medical Corps of the United States Army and Navy.

While the government would not award status to females as military surgeons in WWI, women were still encouraged to volunteer in other capacities that seemed more suited to their feminine role than tending wounded in the trenches. At a meeting of the New England Hospital Society in 1916, for example, Dr. N.J. Blackwood, medical inspector of the United States Navy, maintained that women should be prepared to take the places of men and learn "from the great manufacturing houses how drugs are made." (2) He urged the female doctors present to organize first aid classes and become familiar with dietetics, or even join the Red Cross. While the reaction of the audience was not recorded, one cannot help but think that his address was denigrating to women physicians as it implied that their training and level of competence was not on the same plane at that of the male military surgeon.

It is no wonder that quite a few women were outspoken about their profession that was dominated by males in nearly every public arena, and with the outbreak of war, here was but more one more situation that proved their point. Of course, the issue was far more complex given the personal motives of the women themselves. Women doctors were plagued by conflicts between separatism and assimilation, and nowhere were this more evident than in their division over the issue of the kind of service they should be able to provide during wartime. Many believed that their training and experience qualified them to answer the call of duty in a medical or surgical capacity just the same as any a man. If men and women were educated alike in medical schools, the argument went, why should the question of gender enter into the practice of medicine at a time when it was most needed?

At the same time, however, many feared that if the war lasted a long time so many male physicians would be called to the front that medical service to civilians would be deficient. One positive outcome was the number of internships increased for women and some medical schools began to admit females. Western Reserve University decided, in 1918 to admit the first women the following year. (3) With the advent of the World War II, however, women physicians were still insisting that their situation had not greatly improved. Even though the country was fighting once more for the right to be free, one doctor declared, "women must still fight for the right to fight to be free." (4)

On the other side of the issue, some women doctors maintained that while they were filled with the same patriotic fervor that drove their male colleagues to enlist in WWI, their needs and urges were different. This position was related in part to the reform activity from about 1900 to 1930 when social feminists were beginning to make an impact on the public. Women were beginning to give special thought to their contributions to social change, and this meant that they adhered to a vision of their own roles and how they impacted the idea of female uniqueness. …

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