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Pulse - Winter 2016 Perspective from a Progressive Past

Most of us know the statistics: Nationally, about 47 percent of medical students are women, and 35 percent of physicians currently practicing are women. With a little more time, numbers of women and men in the profession will nearly be equal. The number of women doctors in the United States hovered around 6 percent from the end of the 19th century until the 1970s, so these recent statistics represent relatively significant growth over the last 40 years. This rapid increase was due largely to the second wave of the women's movement, prompting Title IX in the Higher Education Act Amendments (1972) and the Public Service Act (1975), banning discrimination on the basis of gender.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte, WMC 1889

Eliza Grier, WMC 1897

These images of Susan LaFlesche Picotte, WMC 1889 (top) and Eliza Grier, WMC 1897, are preserved in The Legacy Center: Archives & Special Collections. Visit the award-winning website produced by the center: Doctor or Doctress? Explore American History Through the Stories of Women Physicians.

But when did women get started on this path? How did they join the ranks of the profession? Why does it matter?

The College of Medicine at Drexel is the successor institution to the world's first and longest-lasting medical school for women. The Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania opened in 1850 and is estimated to have produced as many as a third of all American women physicians until 1968.

Women medical students and physicians of the 19th century were regularly described as "unwomanly" and were criticized by some for stepping outside their "sphere." Others felt that women and medicine were a natural fit because caring for sick family members at home was an acceptable role for women. Becoming professional caregivers would simply be an extension of those duties.

Some argued that there was no reason women could not be physicians if given the same educational and professional opportunities. In an influential essay, Mary Putnam Jacobi (WMC 1864) used science to refute the notion that the nature of women's bodies imposed limits on their learning and professional life, exposing that idea as a poor justification to keep women out of paid work.

There was also a demand for women physicians: Some women patients were eager to be seen by women doctors, in part due to a perceived sympathetic understanding, but also due to a desire to feel less vulnerable during examination, as well as Victorian-era modesty. This particularly opened doors for women in gynecology and obstetrics.

The role of Woman's Med as a significant producer of women doctors placed it squarely among those organizations that sought equality for women. Founded in the Age of Reform by Philadelphia's progressive-minded Quakers and some free-thinking businessmen, the school was established at a time when women who were interested in science and health care, and who wanted or needed to earn their own living, had little opportunity for acceptance to a traditional medical school.

Equality at Woman's Med went beyond gender to include race and ethnicity. Rebecca Cole, who graduated in 1867, was the first of 11 African-American women to graduate from the school before the turn of the 20th century. At least one of those students, Eliza Grier, is known to have started life as a slave. Though fewer in number, Native American women also enrolled. Alumna Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first Native American woman to earn an MD.

Woman's Med also opened its doors to women from all over the world. By 1904, women from Japan, India, Syria, Jamaica, Brazil, England, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Russia, China, Burma, Australia and the Congo Free State were counted among its alumnae.

As a single-sex school, Woman's Med may not have seemed very interested in diversity, but providing medical education for women made the college a major contributor to diversifying the profession. The inclusion of women of all backgrounds and ethnicities reflected the school's ethos of equality and community. Today we know that diversity of experience and perspective in the student body helps prepare students to better serve a diverse population as physicians.

— Joanne Murray, Director, The Legacy Center: Archives & Special Collections

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