Celebrating America's Women Physicians

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Higher Education
Suggested Reading
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A Medicine of Their Own: The Stories of American Women Healers introduces students to women's entrance to the medical profession in the nineteenth century through readings in fiction, autobiographical documents, and medical history. Together, literary and historical sources open up a window into women's traditional healing work, the constraints of race and gender that they faced while medicine professionalized, and the remarkable work that women accomplished as agents of social and medical change. This module also provides guidelines and resources for a class writing project, a biography of an early woman doctor, using archival materials and sources from the Changing the Face of Medicine exhibition. The biography project demonstrates the importance of recovery work in women's history and provides students with a hands-on opportunity to gain awareness of audience while crafting prose for a political purpose.

The module consists of six one-hour classes. Each class provides a selection of primary and secondary readings along with suggested class discussion questions designed to draw out main themes among the primary documents and the arguments of the secondary sources. Information about the module's author, suggested use, and academic objectives is available online at About the Module.

Class 1: Before Maternity Wards: Women's Traditional Healing Work

  • Before Maternity Wards: Women's Traditional Healing Work delves into women's longstanding roles as midwives, community healers, and plantation nurses. Historically, sick care, burial preparation, and birthing have been practiced by skilled women who learned from other women and from experience.

Class 2: Professional Medicine Pushes Women Out

  • Professional Medicine Pushes Women Out examines the conflict between gender roles while medicine professionalized in the nineteenth century. Male doctors appropriated women's healing work and the medical profession further reinforced a gender hierarchy by establishing biological evidence of women's perceived inferiority.

Class 3: The Seeds of Change: Women, Medicine, and Social Reform

  • The Seeds of Change: Women, Medicine, and Social Reform reveals that women became most active in political change during an era of particularly narrow restrictions on their rights, and that women's entrance into professional medicine was fundamentally linked with their political activism.

Class 4: Women Go to Medical School

  • Women Go to Medical School illustrates the diverse challenges women faced as they fought for education because of financial hardship, race and gender barriers, and social and professional marginalization. These challenges—and even arguments in support of women doctors—reveal a deep cultural anxiety over gender, healing, and authority.

Class 5: Healing the Social Body

  • Healing the Social Body presents documents, fiction, and images that both glorify and undercut women's authority as healers in diverse contexts—from caricatures of homely women in bloomers to confident and admired family physicians in novels to real women who were indispensable as midwives in rural areas even into the twentieth century.

Class 6: A Profession of Their Own?

  • A Profession of Their Own? In the sixth and final class, students apply what they have discovered about the origins of women doctors through autobiography and fiction written by late twentieth-century physicians, enabling students to identify what advances have been made and what barriers must still be challenged.