Female Doctors and Social Change



Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

Today, I want to continue to share some of the fun tidbits I’ve gotten through my research for Secret & Charades, my upcoming novel. Evangeline Olson is a doctor. And in 1872 that was a difficult profession for a woman to pursue. There were many stigmas associated with a woman in the medical field.


The idea of a woman seeing more of a male patient’s body than polite society deemed appropriate was a big hurdle. Even nurses of the time had to deal with this attitude. Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton established strict guidelines for their nurses’ behavior, thereby changing the perception of society toward those women.

The assumption that women lacked the mental capacity to understand medicine was another. It was difficult for a woman to get into medical school or find a doctor who would apprentice her. Let me mention here that medical school was not a prerequisite for practicing medicine and quacks abounded.

In my investigation , I discovered many interesting stories about female doctors. Let me mention two women who lives were extraordinary.elizabeth-blackwell-quotes-4

Elizabeth Blackwell

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a degree in medicine. When Geneva Medical School received her application, they asked the all-male student body to vote whether to admit her. They thought it was a practical joke and agreed to allow her entrance. Once everyone realized she was serious, the school and the community were horrified. She was ostracized by many. Professors refused to allow her entrance to lecture demonstrations declaring it inappropriate for women.

Her tenacity proved the student body wrong. She graduated first in her class in 1849. No hospital would hire her. So, she began seeing patients in her home. In 1857 she opened the New York infirmary for women and children. The first hospital operated by women with clinical training for women.


Mary walker

Dr. Mary Walker

Mary Walker


Dr. Mary Walker  received her medical degree in 1855 from Syracuse Medical School. She married a fellow student, and they set up a medical practice. It failed because people were reluctant to see a female doctor. Their short marriage ended in divorce.

Mary Walker was very forward thinking about women’s rights and dress. She wore shorter skirts with men’s trouser’s underneath. Frequently, her appearance was criticized. She refused to wear what she consider unhealthy, restrictive female attire. In later years she often wore masculine clothes including a top hat. When asked why she wore men’s clothes, her reply, “these are not men’s clothes these are my clothes.” Mary was jailed on more than one occasion for wearing men’s clothing.

Malk Walker two

Dr. Walker advocated comfortable clothes for women.


Dr. Walker was the first woman ever to receive the Congressional Medical of Honor. During the Civil War Mary was mistakenly arrested as a spy by the Confederacy, sent to a POW camp and released in a prisoner exchange.  She served as a civilian surgeon in the Union Army.

Both of these ladies were pioneers in opening the way for women to receive medical degrees. It still took decades for them to be respected as doctors. Midwifery for generations was the only acceptable medical calling for a woman.

Reading the many accounts of female physicians gave me the idea of casting my character of Evangeline as more than just a mail-order bride.


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