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For all that the prevailing view of 19th century men was that women were "the weaker sex", not every woman was willing to agree. Despite the formidable barriers placed in their path, women managed to force their way into the most unexpected places. And that included any kind of medical training for women. Given that such training would involve exposing women students to material deemed inappropriate for their gender, most medical schools automatically rejected any women applicants.
By the mid-1850s however, things began to change. Along with the example of Florence Nightingale and her fellow nurses tending wounded soldiers during the Crimean war, Elizabeth Blackwell made medical history by being the first woman to graduate from a medical school in 1849 and the first to be placed on the United Kingdom Medical Register in 1859. Along with her sister Emily, Blackwell helped mentor a new generation of women medical students, as well as promoting the cause of medical education for women in general.
Not surprisingly, there was still considerable opposition. One of the most outspoken of the doctors opposing medical education for women was Edward H. Clarke of Harvard University. And, of course, being a doctor, his arguments focused on the medical reasons for why they shouldn't become doctors. In his 1873 book, Sex and Education, Clarke emphasized that women had the right to do anything of which they were physically capable. But it was the phrase "physically capable" that was the sticking point for him.
As Clarke pointed out, the development of the female reproductive system placed strains on the body which prevented them from the kind of intellectual development seen in boys going through puberty. Since the nervous system couldn't do "two things well at the same time," females needed to concentrate primarily on their physical development to ensure their health. Though Clarke was careful in how he worded his views, the implication seems clear enough: Women who receive the kind of higher education that men do risk developing various health problems including "neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system" because their overactive brains were using up the physical resources needed for proper development of their reproductive systems.
Even more importantly from Clarke's perspective, women who devoted too much time to intellectual pursuits also experienced mental changes. This included losing their maternal instincts and "an an appearance of Amazonian coarseness and force." He added that such women "are analogous to the sexless class of termites. Naturalists tell us that these insects are divided into males and females, and a third class called workers and soldiers, who have no reproductive apparatus, and who, in their structure and instincts, are unlike the fertile individuals."
That wasn't to say that Clarke objected to all higher education for women. He stressed that men and women needed to be educated separately and that different educational methods be used to avoid the medical problems associated with overstraining the female reproductive system. Female-only classes would also include periodic rest times keyed to their menstrual periods to avoid conflict. They would also need shorter study hours due to their inability to handle the kind of academic pressure that men could. As he pointed out:
A girl cannot spend more than four, or, in occasional instances, five hours of force daily upon her studies, and leave sufficient margin for the general physical growth that she must make.... If she puts as much force into her brain education as a boy, the brain or the special apparatus [i.e., the reproductive system] will suffer.
Given his own status as a Harvard professor, he concluded that women be prevented from attending Harvard Medical School or any other academic institution where they might be forced to compete with men intellectually given that such pressure would endanger their potential status as wives and mothers. For that matter, forcing men to compete with women in this way would diminish both genders since, as he phrased it, "To make boys half-girls, and girls half-boys, can never be the legitimate function of any college."
Not that Clarke was the only medical pundit to argue that women were too unstable and frail to be educated alongside men. In his 1900 address to the American Gynecological Society, George Julius Englemann urged that schools for girls needed to deal with the "instability and susceptibility of the girl during the functional [menstrual] waves which permeate her entire being" by providing rest during the menstrual periods.
Given fears that menstruation made all women unstable, even educational institutions that had begun admitting women raised concerns about damaging the health of their women students. An 1877 statement by the Board of Regents at the University of Wisconsin suggested that "it is better that the future matrons of the state should be without a University training than that it should be produced at the fearful expense of ruined health; better that the future mothers of the state should be robust, hearty, healthy women, than that, by over study, they entail upon their descendants the germs of disease." In other words, women students risked damaging their own health and the health of the future children by too much study.
Well, into the 20th century, the co-education of men and women remained a controversial topic and most schools pushed for a sexually segregated curriculum that taught "appropriate" subjects for boys and girls. This included courses such as Home Economics which were meant to direct women towards their future roles as wives and mothers. Separate colleges for men and women were also founded including Radcliffe College in Massachusetts and Vassar College in New York and quickly developed reputations for academic excellence. Still, their graduates often found themselves at a disadvantage in male-dominated industries such as medicine.
Not surprisingly, some of the early sexologists such as Mary Putnam Jacobi (a pupil of Elizabeth Blackwell) often found themselves challenging the prevailing opinions about menstrual instability in women. It was Jacobi who had pioneered research into "the menstrual wave", and many male doctors cited her work while dismissing her conclusions that women were fully capable of handling the educational burden placed on their male counterparts. This battle over women's education would continue for decades afterward.
To be continued
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