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

By Ellen S. More | Go to book overview

3
Maternalist Medicine: Women
Physicians in the Progressive Era

Twenty years ago… a young woman who was restless and yearned to
sacrifice herself, would have become a missionary or married a drink-
ing man in order to save him. Today she studies medicine or goes into
settlement work.

“In the Social Settlements,” Chicago Evening Post (1908)

SEPARATIST medical associations such as women’s medical societies did not long satisfy women doctors’ commitment to improving the health of their main constituency, women and children. Even while participating in organizations such as the Practitioners’ Society, many women physicians also pursued more direct involvement with municipal health care initiatives. Besides, even the most successful women physicians faced substantial barriers to more competitive careers in medical schools and on hospital staffs in the first decades of the twentieth century.1

Many circumvented those more prestigious routes to professional advancement—by choice and by necessity—and instead pursued careers in public health or private benevolent institutions. If hospital and medical school appointments were slow to materialize, bureaus of public health and child hygiene, shelters for unwed mothers, and settlement house dispensaries offered opportunities either to supplement a fledgling private practice or to pursue an alternative career in medical benevolence.


Women Physicians and Maternalist Reform

The legitimacy of such pursuits for medical women was rooted in the rich soil of late nineteenth-century maternalist discourse. Maternalist reform, as it has been labeled, envisioned “a state in which women

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