Celebrating America's Women Physicians

Transparent spacer
Higher Education
Suggested Reading
Transparent spacer

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

Introduction: The rich and extensive reforms that flourished prior to the Civil War gave women a hard-won opportunity to participate in addressing inequalities in areas such as women's rights, education, and professionalism. Before women's rights, however, the abolitionist movement provided women with a platform to speak and write against injustice; autobiographical narratives became staples of reformers' work in raising awareness of social injustice. The formerly enslaved Harriet Jacobs reveals the sexual violence that enslaved women routinely suffered. Elizabeth Blackwell and her family were abolitionists and freethinkers, as she explains in the first chapter of her memoir Pioneer Work. A pair of readings compare Dr. Sarah Dolley, a real-life woman physician involved in political change, with "Dr. Sarah" in Rebecca Harding Davis's short story about a woman physician who must choose between addressing Congress and adopting the orphaned children of a former suitor. This pairing reflects the fact that, even late into the century, women physicians were often also involved in political work. An excerpt from Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson's Reading Autobiography offers some critical tools for interpreting autobiography as a type of narrative reflecting the beliefs and goals of an individual rather than as what might be assumed to be a purely objective account of events.




  • Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, pp. 10–13.

Discussion Questions

  1. For Jacobs: What are the conditions of living for enslaved girls and women, according to Harriet Jacobs? Recall the list of rights denied to free women in Stanton's "Declaration of Sentiments;" how are enslaved women denied more rights than free women? Why do you think that Jacobs calls attention to the fact that her cruel "master" is a physician?
  2. For Dolley and Davis: How does Dr. Sarah Dolley's career as a physician and activist parallel Davis's character Dr. Sarah? In what ways are they different? How do you interpret the ending of "A Day with Dr. Sarah"—is she giving up or gaining something as a physician? What about as a women's rights activist?
  3. For Blackwell: How does the Blackwell family's participation in abolition and progressive thinking give Elizabeth a perspective on breaking social prescriptions for women? Note how many times Blackwell describes her robust health as a child and adolescent; why do you think she emphasizes her health so heavily (connect with Smith-Rosenberg and Rosenberg's "The Female Animal" and apply the autobiographical theory of Smith and Watson)?
  4. For all readings: What are some connections between diverse women's social status and their involvement in social reform?

Biography Project

Using the discussion notes from the Ulrich and Fett readings in class 1 as a departure point, students develop 4-5 research questions about the physician whom students chose to research, especially around the social context within which she lived—for example, does this physician come from a family involved in women's rights, women's education, or abolition?