bookmark_borderWomen doctors faced profound discrimination a century ago

Women now make up about 60 percent of doctors under 35. The situation was very different in the past.

Dr. Mary Bacon
Dr. Mary Bacon, first woman doctor admitted to Bridgeton, NJ, Hospital staff. Shown on her graduation from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (1916). Photo courtesy of Mary Caruthers Cossaboon.

In her book “Doctors Wanted, No Women Need Apply”: Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835-1975, Mary Roth Walsh recounts the terrible difficulty women faced in studying medicine and in working as physicians. During the “golden age” of women physicians in the late nineteenth century, only about ten percent of medical students were female. The percentage dropped significantly in the following decades, mostly, according to Walsh, because male doctors wanted it that way.

I drew upon Walsh’s study and other sources in my depiction of Dr. Sarah Kennecott, the female co-protagonist in my book Into the Suffering City: A Novel of Baltimore. Sarah had an advantage in her quest to become a doctor in the first decade of the twentieth century. She was able to study at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, which was not only one of the best schools in the country—it was also one of the few top-flight institutions that admitted women. This liberal policy was in place only because a group of wealthy Baltimore women conditioned a substantial financial gift on the enrollment of female students.

Sarah is smart and determined. But, as I recount in the story, her talent cuts both ways. A senior faculty member acknowledges her academic success and then humiliates her in packed classroom of her peers with the following diatribe:

“Female success may force men to lose their confidence and their vitality. High-achieving females could drag medicine away from manly progress and toward useless womanly frivolity …. Yes, we can have first-rate women doctors—at great cost to the medical profession. Think of it—the physician of tomorrow might prefer mindless chatter rather than aggressive combat against disease.”

I paraphrased writings from the period conveying this exact sentiment among male doctors. Most men were convinced that women didn’t have “the right stuff” to equal male physicians. It was a confoundingly closed circle: men were seen as better suited to doctoring since the vast majority of doctors were men. Any women considering medicine had few role models to emulate. Toss in the ingrained sexism and misogyny on the part of more than a few male physicians, and the path forward for aspiring females was steep and rocky.

Credit: Wellcome Library. Caption suggests he has purposefully caught a cold in order to be seen by the young pretty doctor. CC BY 4.0

In my novel, Sarah is also on the autism spectrum, a trait unknown and unappreciated at the time. As with her superior intellect, her autism brings advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, she has trouble interacting socially and comes across as odd to neurotypicals. But she is able to mount a tremendous focus to get things done, as she is unencumbered by the distractions most people face. This is the same kind of autistic “superpower” attributed to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Like Thunberg, Sarah sees issues with fierce moral clarity and has a powerful commitment to justice.

Most women lacking a superpower in the past were effectively shut out of a medical career. With the rise of a more equitable educational and professional environment in recent years, that situation thankfully has changed.


bookmark_borderA viral song from 1909 turned American music sexy, rude, and violent

Posted on February 20, 2020 by billlefurgy

Sex elbowed its way into American popular culture during the early years of the twentieth century. I learned more about this while researching my novel, Into the Suffering City, which is set in 1909 Baltimore.

Romance had, of course, long been a staple of music played in the home and other venues. Songwriters a tacit agreement with moral guardians: focus on chaste courtship and keep the euphemisms and double entendres subtle. A song such as “Cuddle up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine” (1908) could tease with lyrics such as “she grew more cold, and he grew more bold” and “like to make you comfy, cozy/’cause I love from head to toesie, lovey mine.” No real harm done–-everyone assumed the cuddling couple were engaged and merely exploring the bounds of premarital affection.

Cracks were appearing in the surface of this placid conformity. Ragtime music, with its lively sound, appeared in the mid-1890s and was growing ever more popular. Young people found excitement in the music’s syncopation–displaced beats from the typical beat sequence of a song. “Syncopation caused an individual to feel a propulsion, a swing,” states the Library of Congress, “and if played correctly, a musical looseness generally unknown to the public.” Many older people found ragtime disreputable and dangerous due to its association with “low-class Black music” associated with brothels and saloons; no doubt this disdain only encouraged many others to embrace the sound.

Newspapers of the era document plenty of ragtime outrage. The Sioux City Journal of March 9, 1903, carried a story declaring the music immoral. “It’s rhythm is pernicious, it’s words abominable. If mothers want their boys to be good they must teach them to tune their whistles to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and spank them into abandoning … “[Just Because She Made Dem] Goo-Goo Eyes.” The St. Louis Republic on June 13, 1904, reported “the influence of ragtime music on the morals is like that of absinthe–it kills the better understanding,” and “the plague of trashy music is upon us like a fever epidemic, and its evil effects can be heard at all times and most places.”

The article was right about one thing: the audience for provocative music was expanding by leaps and bounds. New York’s songwriting capital, Tin Pan Alley, certainly noticed. In May 1909 Harry Von Tilzer and Jimmy Lucas released (actually, they stole it) “I Love, Love, Love My Wife, But Oh! You Kid!” a variation on a more innocent 1908 song. The lyrics were spiced up considerably:

Now Jonesy was a married man,
Oh yes, he was,
Sweet girlie on the single plan,
I guess, she was,
Now Jonesy stopped and spoke to girlie,
Just as old friends often do,
And he said “I’m married,
But, that but my dear means you.”

This casual acknowledgement imminent sex–-extramarital at that-–was rocket fuel for the song’s popularity. “Oh, You Kid madness” ensued with neckties, buttons, pins, figurines, and dishware. Everyone, so it seemed, was flinging the catchphrase around with a grin and a chuckle, impervious to the condemnation reigning down from clergymen and other upright citizens.

Issues cropped up when men used “oh you kid” on the street to flirt. Some recipients were indignant; the October 3, 1909 Detroit Free Press recorded one woman’s rejoinder as “you low down, cock-eyed street loafer!” The August 31,1909 Baltimore Sun says a judge fined users of uninvited “kid” comments $25.

Bigger problems took place when the catchphrase was lobbed at a woman within hearing range of a male gallant. The October 28, 1909, New York Times states that a stranger beat up a man who called out “oh you kid” to a young woman–even though the two were married. The judge hearing the case stated “he would not fine any man who administered” such a whipping. At least one fatality is attributed to such street interactions: the October 17, 1909, Baltimore Sun tells of a husband shooting a man to death in Atlanta after a “kid” remark.

The song and its related street altercations epitomized a fundamental contradiction in cities of the era. As young people flooded in to find work, there were naturally more of them out and about in public savoring freedom they never could have experienced back on the farm. This inspired a sense of adventure for most and boldness on the part of some. But an older social code that called for enforced female chastity still held sway.

The success flowing from “Oh! You Kid” opened the floodgates for racy songs, which chipped steadily away at staid social convention. Performers such as Sophie Tucker led the charge with tunes such as “That Loving Soul Kiss,” “Moanin’ Low,” and “I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mammas.” Tucker even turned the tables with a female meditation on adultery called “My Husband’s in the City.”

Thankfully, there are no known reports of street fights taking place over the lyrics of any Tucker songs.