Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"Few Things More Womanly or More Noble": Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and the Advent of the Woman Doctor in America

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"Few Things More Womanly or More Noble": Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and the Advent of the Woman Doctor in America

Article excerpt

In 1867, a twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth Stuart Phelps compassionately devoted her first essay to the plight of American women burdened with unrewarding domestic labor or leisured idleness. "Next to ill-health," she argued in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, "the principal cause of women's unhappiness--for women are not happy--is the want of something to do.... Whether for self-support, or for the pure employment's sake, the search for work--for successful work, for congenial work--is at the bottom of half the feminine miseries of the world" ("What Shall They Do?" 522). Maintaining that "[i]f a girl, for any reason, wants a positive, outside object for her days ... it is her business to find one, and it is the business of her friends to help her," Phelps proposes a number of occupational suggestions to women: "[C]an you teach? Or can't you teach? Can you measure alpaca? trim bonnets? run a machine?... Then can you keep a ledger? write book notices for a busy editor? fill out insurance policies? Be a city missionary? Read to an old lady? Take care of an invalid? Go into the hospitals?" (522, 522-23). Her series of alternatives concludes, however, with an option to which Phelps would come to attach a singular and surpassing value during the first half of her career: "Be a doctor? and be sure that you could be few things more womanly or more noble. The brave pioneers--God bless them for it!--have broken the way for you. It is an easier way now than the path of the idle or the ill-paid" (523).

In most circles in the country at this time, as Phelps's first biographer observes, "Women doctors were just beginning to be heard of--with shudders" (Bennett 25-26). Still, it was not altogether outlandish for Phelps to promote medicine as a field for women. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical diploma, followed by other "brave pioneers" like Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. During this period, women doctors founded hospitals for women and children in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and schools like the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania gradually prospered. By 1867, when Phelps's piece appeared in Harper's, several hundred women had evidently begun practicing medicine in the United States, despite widespread and frequently venomous opposition. Phelps came of age when the first generation of officially certified women in the American medical profession was emerging, and so she was ideally positioned to witness such a development and to grasp its significance for the lives and condition of women. As one scholar observes, "Phelps wished choices to be available for women and especially supported the entry of women into medical careers" (Masteller 137). Throughout the 1870s, Phelps returned to the topic in essays, columns, public letters, and short stories--an early advocacy that culminated in her novel Doctor Zay (1882), obviously Phelps's fullest treatment of the figure of the woman physician.

Although Doctor Zay has dominated the critical discussion of her interest in women doctors, the novel has a long and spacious fore-ground in a wealth of little-known polemical, journalistic, and imaginative writings by Phelps. These writings underscore the achievements of already established women doctors, their special role in the domain of women's health, the imperative of medically educating and training women in the face of pernicious resistance, the necessity of coeducation in medicine, the model of independence and self-sufficiency presented by the woman physician, and the medical woman's symbolic value as an agent of healing between the North and South in post-Civil War America. Between 1867 and 1882, when the number of women doctors in the United States increased substantially, few writers proved more keenly or vocally responsive than Phelps to the advent of women in American medicine. An exploration of her largely overlooked early prose demonstrates that Phelps played an instrumental role in culturally, socially, and professionally legitimating the figure of the American medical woman during a crucial fifteen-year period when the woman doctor remained perhaps the most provocative and controversial new presence on the nation's occupational landscape. …

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