ENG 213 Archives Project at the Geneva Historical Society
"160 Years of Public Ambiguity: Inquiring into the Reception History of
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Social and Medical Pioneer"
By Isabella Comstock '11 and Aubrie Augustine '11
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
It is interesting how the presence of Elizabeth Blackwell at Geneva Medical College upset the women as much, if not more so, than the men. This is shown by two letters written by a male medical student, Samuel Craddock Jr., to his sister. In the first letter there is no mention of Blackwell at all, yet there is mention of Professor Lee whom we know to be one of Blackwell's professors (Craddock, Oct. 9, para. 5). This leads us to believe that Mr. Craddock Jr. and Ms. Blackwell were in the same class, or at least the same department. The second letter from Mr. Craddock Jr. to his sister states, "I have been informed, by those who have had the opportunity of knowing that there is the most peaceable0 class of Medical Students here this term, they have had in a long time" (Craddock, Oct. 25, para 6). This class includes Miss Elizabeth Blackwell. These two letters give us the sense that Blackwell did not cause a huge uproar – at least in terms of the male students on campus. These are the same male students who agreed to allow Blackwell to study on the Geneva campus. Craddock notes that he admires the education of a woman and that it is important to him over their physical beauty (Craddock, Oct. 25, para. 8). This supports a statement that Blackwell makes in Pioneer Work: "I soon felt perfectly at home amongst my fellow-students" (112). Therefore there is no mockery in Craddock's letter as to the elevation of a woman from a position of submission to a position of intellectual equality with men, which supports statements made by Blackwell herself as to how the students treated her at the college.
In a newspaper article covering graduation day for the class of 1849, which included Elizabeth Blackwell, the author portrays Blackwell as reserved or unassuming. He makes it seem as if the audience were very supportive, loving, and grateful. According to this author, the moment in which Blackwell received her diploma "proved too much for the audience, and quick as thought the building rang with applause" (Geneva Medical College Commencement). There is, however, a different attitude from the elder women of the community who also attended commencement. Margaret Munro DeLancey is not as humble toward one whom she calls "the Lioness of the day," Miss Blackwell (Letter, 1849). Margaret DeLancey continuously makes derogatory comments about Blackwell as well as a woman in a choir who sang loudly and emphasized the anthem. This woman was, to DeLancey, "the most conspicuous individual" (Letter, 1849). It is as though Ms. DeLancey does not appreciate a woman in the spotlight even though she herself is a woman. This is consistent with a statement that Blackwell makes in her autobiography: "Very slowly I perceived that a [Geneva] doctor's wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal" (Pioneer Work, 111). The men at the college appear to be more accepting of Blackwell's studies than the women of the community. It is shocking to think that women would not be supportive of one another attempting to elevate the sex in society.
Men may have portrayed Blackwell as unimportant or unassuming because they did not want to seem intimidated by Blackwell. To admit such would be admitting that a woman could succeed in the field of medicine and even become better than men in the same field. It seems that this portrayal of Blackwell as unimportant is very misogynistic. As we know, Blackwell is a very important woman and her achievements as a woman in the medical field are what made her such. Also, Blackwell does not represent herself as an unassuming person. In fact she seems the opposite, which is shown in a letter she writes to Ezra Cornell. Mr. Cornell had at some time prior to the letter proclaimed that he was interested in starting a medical school for women. In the letter Blackwell tells him, "I am very desirous of learning what your plan really is" (Paragraph 2, Apr. 1869). In this letter, Blackwell portrays herself as an authoritative figure. By portraying herself in this way, Blackwell does not allow herself to get pushed around; instead she is the one doing the pushing in order to make sure Mr. Cornell keeps his word.
- We have presented one reason why men may have down-played Blackwell as an important figure and a role model; what may some others be?
- Also, why were women judgmental and not supportive of Blackwell and her achievements, what might they have stood to lose by being such?
By Elizabeth Perry '12 and Megan Kuechle '10
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
The article "Hobart Awarded Degree to First Woman Doctor" ("Hobart") (1939) is geared toward adult men and women and emphasizes Elizabeth Blackwell's struggles and accomplishments. The mere fact that the words "Hobart" and "First Woman" are in the title convey that this article was trying to attract attention from both sexes. Hobart is famously a men's school, which, combined with "First Woman," creates a sort of contradiction that sparks an interest. By mentioning these words, the author is connecting Blackwell's success to Hobart College and, further within the article, to Syracuse University. She had become a public icon and a topic of discussion when this article was written in the early 1930s, as seen through the sheer number of other articles about her (more than ten available at the Geneva Historical Society from the 1930s). In contrast to Blackwell's autobiography Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, this particular article emphasizes the harsh reality of her struggle, whereas her book gives a more positive portrayal. For example, the article tells how Blackwell was voted into the medical college by the students as a joke, and that they covered up this mistake by stating, "a pretty girl would do a great deal to make medicine interesting" ("Hobart" par. 8). In addition, the article states that Blackwell was snubbed by other women and the community as a whole, as "A doctor's wife at the boarding house where the girl lived pointedly avoided speaking to her" ("Hobart" par. 10). The outside source gives a perspective different from Blackwell's autobiography, where she writes, for example, that "being several years older than my companions, they treated me like an elder sister, and talked freely together, feeling my friendly sympathy" (115). It's peculiar that the newspaper article portrayed her as a 'girl.' After explaining her hardships, the article stresses Blackwell's education and success through opening the New York Infirmary, which creates a normal and successful representation of Blackwell. She was seen as a freak during her actual education, but was no longer viewed that way when "Hobart" was written almost a century later. The article takes the time to normalize her by explaining her acceptance socially into the Geneva medical community after her return from Pennsylvania where she fought typhoid.
Blackwell is also constructed for a broad range of readers as a role model who achieved a career despite societal norms working against her. Children were even targeted for newspaper publicity when discussing Blackwell, as evident in the article "Junior Editors' Quiz on Elizabeth Blackwell" ("Junior") (year unknown), where a young girl wrote in with a summary of the history of Blackwell. "Junior" further attracts its targeted audience by including a cartoon character of Blackwell and a child's response to the question, "who is Elizabeth Blackwell?" This type of article sparked discussion about college and further education for women, the advancement of which was one of Blackwell's main goals. As seen in her autobiography, this ambition was successful because in 1869, "the public recognition of the justice and advantage of such a measure had steadily grown," addressing the recognition of Blackwell's degree (265). This further demonstrates how Blackwell had become a household name by the first half of the twentieth century.
At the time that these articles were written, gender roles were beginning to be highly debated because of the roles women assumed during World War II. These articles were written at the end of the Great Depression, and people were in need of a role model. Elizabeth Blackwell provided the perfect success story that gave hope to women across the nation. Further, these articles set up Blackwell as a pioneer who could be used in the women's wartime work in taking over men's jobs. During World War II, women had a chance to work in factories while the men were at war, but when the men returned they reclaimed their places in the factories, thus returning women to the homestead. Since women were successful at the factories, gender roles became controversial, perhaps explaining why newspapers published articles with gender themes like Blackwell's story. The construction of Blackwell during this time period was left up to the reader's interpretation, as opposed to when she was alive and constructed in biased forms.
- How did World War II change gender roles in a way that would inspire newspapers and other publishers to write about Elizabeth Blackwell, and further, to write in the way they did (in an unbiased, informative style)?
- Why would a newspaper choose to have a child-directed, prize-offering article about Elizabeth Blackwell such a long time after her graduation?
- Why were the articles about Blackwell much less biased in this later period than when she first became a doctor?
By Tallarie Thurgood '12 and Jamie Rasmussen '10
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
The first chapter of Malcom Johnston's 1947 biographical account of Elizabeth Blackwell is titled "A Pioneer Institution for a Pioneer Student." It delves into the history of Geneva College and examines how both Blackwell and the institution worked together in opening the medical profession for women. Geneva College worked for the awarding of a medical diploma conferring the right to women to practice medicine and is considered "a pioneer in education" by Johnston. Interestingly, Johnston was affiliated with the Colleges when he wrote this so it can almost serve as a piece of propaganda along with being a historical account. Johnston seeks to fit Blackwell into the history of Geneva which he describes as "a place already dominated by the spirit and tradition of pioneers." The focus shifts from being entirely on Blackwell to both Blackwell and the institution. Johnston does cite her tremendous effort, selflessness and the fact that she did not fully realize the antagonism she was up against until she graduated from Geneva. Johnston places emphasis on the role of the College, appropriately citing a letter describing it as "an institution which rises above popular prejudice of the day and confers its honors upon a highly educated and intellectual female."
The second half of Johnston's book suggests even more that he is promoting the college in general. The audience seems to be meant for incoming applicants in 1947, trying to promote the College and the town of Geneva. In 1947, women's rights were moving much farther along and it seems that Johnston was almost using Blackwell. Blackwell was another addition to the already pioneer-filled history of Geneva. Supporting this theory is Johnston's description of the college's acceptance of her. He describes her acceptance as the current students allowing it because they knew she could handle it. It seems like a very optimistic outlook considering the exclusively male student body. He also adds how the commencement ceremony was held in the small church she used to attend instead of the large Trinity church as a tribute to her. In addition to that he adds a letter from Blackwell's brother into the reading. In this letter there are several descriptions of how the students and teachers were beyond kind to her and how much they supported her. While most of this is a factual document and must be true, the facts and documents that Johnston chooses are very interesting and most definitely promote the kindness of the college. But as stated before, Blackwell's accomplishments as an individual were not overlooked in any way and he seems to try and balance the credit where needed between the college and Blackwell.
- How vital was it for Blackwell to find a "pioneering medical institution"?
- How much credit should be given to Blackwell and how much to the institution? Equal credit?
By Bernadette Wormuth '12 and Abi Wikoff '10
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
In 1949, The American Women's Medical Association, in collaboration with Hobart and William Smith Colleges, awarded eighteen of its members with a celebration of their medical achievements and the 100th year of Blackwell's graduation from Geneva Medical College (Conroy 2). These recipients, like Blackwell, were rewarded for their determination to be an individual within an oppressive society. Blackwell's determination involved improving medical working conditions for women. Her attempt to establish a hospital entirely operated by women was a struggle in itself: "female doctors would be looked upon with so much suspicion that the police would interfere; that if deaths occurred their death certificates would not be recognised…" (Blackwell, Pioneer Work 236). To recognize these struggles, the Colleges decided to commemorate Blackwell's unique achievements by establishing The Elizabeth Blackwell Award in 1958 ("Sixth Award"). Each award was given to a remarkable woman who based her life upon bettering humanity. As conveyed through each award brochure, the Colleges' view of Blackwell was undoubtedly positive. A brief biography based on Blackwell's accomplishments, including a description of the "insuperable obstacles" she encountered, was printed in each booklet ("Sixth Award"). Blackwell was referred to as a "pioneer in preventive medicine and in the promotion of antisepsis and hygiene," indicating her outstanding contribution concerning fundamental advances in medicine ("Sixth Award").
Within one decade however, the brochures contained less information regarding Blackwell's biography and became more focused on the Colleges' establishment of the award. In 1966, the cover no longer was embossed with the replica of the medal received by each recipient. Instead, it featured the seals of Hobart and William Smith Colleges ("Ninth Award"). The lost feature of the embossed award was appalling since the award was named after Blackwell. It seems as time progressed, the Colleges wanted more recognition for their establishment of the award. Another explanation for dropping the award image is that over time, society became more informed about Blackwell's achievements from previous event programs. Each recipient also received a vase engraved with Blackwell's initials. This award was meant to acknowledge women for their individuality, but ironically the vase is quintessentially a feminine object. This suggests that throughout the 1950s and 1960s women were encouraged to be independent, but still to lead a domesticated lifestyle.
The Elizabeth Blackwell Award signified each recipient's exceptional "service to mankind" (Gwendolyn Grant Mellon ). The importance of this extraordinary event was to relive Blackwell's profound success by awarding modern-day women for their insightful and compassionate contributions to humanity. Gwendolyn Grant Mellon was the first recipient of the award. Although her husband was recognized for the idea to build a hospital in Haiti, Gwendolyn was known for managing several facets of this innovative project (Gwendolyn Grant Mellon). During the late 1950s to mid 1960s, there was an amalgamation of the "domesticated" role of women and their determination to become more involved in fulfilling a career. Mellon was in charge of managing laundry and being a hostess in her husband's hospital, while also having the task of being a lab technician and an engineer (Gwendolyn Grant Mellon). Mellon, like Blackwell, chose to "leave a subordinate position and seek to obtain a complete medical education" (Blackwell, Pioneer Work 104). Mann received the sixth Blackwell Award for being the founder of the National Council on Alcoholism ("Sixth Award"). The recipient had been a recovering alcoholic herself and had wanted the public to understand that alcoholism is a disease. Mann felt this subject should be taken seriously; it is not a matter that individuals should discriminate against if someone needs help or counseling. This was considered a bold step for any individual during this time period, especially for a woman. Mann's determination and positive attitude towards humanity resembles Blackwell's optimistic attitude as she stated in her autobiography: "Don't be discouraged. There is no doubt about losing many opportunities because of our sex, but you must also bear in mind the advantages all students labour under, unless in exceptional cases" (Pioneer Work 229). Blackwell and each of the award recipients inspire society to follow their aspirations in enhancing opportunities for mankind without succumbing to gender boundaries. Today we see the evidence of these influential women in the decreasing disparity between men and women in society.
- Did Blackwell and the recipients of her award use male assistance to aid their cause for humanity or were men considered a dominating force that inspired these women to make a name for themselves?
- Why did the Colleges decide to emphasize their establishment of the award and decrease Blackwell's biography in the brochures, if she was such an important figure throughout history?
By Kelsey McLaughlin '11 and Sarah Gall '11
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
In the second half of the twentieth century, and fifty years after Elizabeth Blackwell's death in 1910, she was a world-renowned figure in the minds of many, as she remains today. The social changes going on in this particular time period, however, influenced the ways in which writers represented her then as opposed to now. The 1960s and 70s mark the second wave of feminism, shaping writers such as Mary Roth Walsh and Isabel Whittier, who found it important to represent women as strong and confident in a time when they were actually fighting for women's rights themselves.
Isabel Whittier's book Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell: The First Woman Doctor, published in 1961, acted as a short biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, including her major events and accomplishments, as well as Whittier's personal opinions on the subject of Blackwell's character and of her impact on the world. She portrayed Blackwell with much warmth as she wrote, "Few perhaps realize what charm and self-control or poise she possessed. Her iron will made possible her unusual perseverance" (Whittier 2). Whittier credited much of Blackwell's independent character to her family, with her father's political progressiveness and the many independent thinkers who were guests in the Blackwells' home. Within this short account of Blackwell's life, Whittier was able to capture a more detailed account of some of the struggles Blackwell encountered such as the outsiders' opinions on her endeavors and her accident, losing sight in one of her eyes, in Paris. She described how the students at Geneva College voted her into the school as a joke and how many people viewed Blackwell as "mad or bad" after her first return from Europe (Whittier 2). Regarding her accident, Whittier wrote, "The poison spread through her body. She became a very sick woman and eventually lost her left eye. This accident terminated her service at La Maternite, ended the possibility of her becoming a surgeon and brought to an end a romance with one of the men studying [at La Maternite] for a medical degree" (Whittier 3). Blackwell left out the detail of these different struggles she faced. As an autobiographer, Blackwell is only able to provide a limited portrayal of others' opinions due to her own perceptions. She may also have felt that too much personal information on the subject of her accident was not necessary for her purpose of writing, which was to promote women's capabilities as medical professionals. Whittier wrote with a different purpose: to reintroduce the role Blackwell played in the history of women, and to give new light to the overwhelming challenges and struggles she faced in the medical profession.
Dr. Mary R. Walsh wrote an introduction with similar feminist rhetoric for the 1977 reprinted version of Blackwell's memoir, Opening the Medical Profession to Women. She included a very detailed summary of Blackwell's life, particularly stressing her family life, education, and sense of self. Walsh describes Blackwell's liberal family: "three of her sisters had careers, and two brothers were well-known reformers whose wives were Antoinette Brown Blackwell, [the] first American woman minister, and Lucy Stone, a woman's rights leader who retained her own name at marriage" (Walsh vi). This liberal atmosphere associated with Blackwell is Walsh's way of implying that Blackwell may have been interested in breaking social norms. Furthermore, Walsh doesn't go into much depth about her skills or life as a medical professional. Walsh writes, "But it is Blackwell's career as a pioneer which would be remembered long after whatever failings she had as a medical professional" (Walsh xiv). The failings Walsh mentions may be referring to Blackwell's loss of vision in one eye and how that made her incapable of being a surgeon. Belittling her medical career achievements, yet defining her as a pioneer in her field suggests that Walsh was mainly interested in constructing Blackwell as a groundbreaking worker for women's rights. Her audience would have been the followers of the revived feminist movement of the 1960-70s. In fact, Millicent G. Fawcett praises the book by saying, "Every student of the women's movement should add this book to his or her library" (Walsh v). This implies that the intent of reprinting this book in 1977 was to act as an educational and motivational tool of the women's movement. This contrasts with Dr. Amy Sue Bix's introduction of the 2005 reprint of Blackwell's book, which doesn't detail the specifics of Blackwell's life, but rather generalized women's position in the medical field over the course of the past two hundred years. As a part of the Classics in Women's Studies series, the purpose of this more recent reprint was to note Blackwell's achievements among the achievements of other important women of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This series' recognition of groundbreaking women reflects today's appreciation of them while also still trying to learn from them.
- Blackwell herself wasn't an activist for the women's rights movement in her time, so would she have appreciated this 1977 construction as a prop for the women's rights movement of the twentieth century?
- The most recent reprint of Blackwell's autobiography includes the term "pioneer work" in the title Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. Why is this term, also used in the 1977 reprint introduction, included on the most recent cover, but not on the 1977 cover?
- Besides Blackwell and Whittier's accounts of Blackwell's more vulnerable years, specifically the injury to her eye, what other accounts addressing this exist? And how do those construct Blackwell during those years?
By Alyssa David '13 and Laura Harrington-Knopf '10
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
In order to truly understand and encompass the times and events occurring during the early nineteen-seventies (specifically highlighting 1974) surrounding Elizabeth Blackwell and the creation of her commemorative stamp, we chose to analyze the following pieces: a sermon of remembrance of Elizabeth Blackwell, entitled "Elizabeth Blackwell in Geneva," given by J. Richard Hart, S.T.D, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Geneva NY; a background pamphlet advertising Elizabeth Blackwell's lifetime successes; a program of the day's events at the Commemoration of Elizabeth Blackwell Stamp at First Presbyterian Church in Geneva, NY; and the Post Master General's announcement of the 18-cent Elizabeth Blackwell stamp entering circulation. The early nineteen- seventies were an extremely pivotal time in women's rights, racial equality, and political activism in the United States. In 1974, the following major events occurred: the Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibited discrimination in consumer credit practices on the basis of sex, race, marital status, religion, national origin, age, or receipt of public assistance. In a ground-breaking court case, Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers cannot justify paying women lower wages because that is what they traditionally received under the "going market rate." A wage differential occurring "simply because men would not work at the low rates paid women" was deemed "unacceptable" (Imbornoni). With this court case win, women were on the forefront of the business and political worlds and in the wake of this revolution the Post Master General and Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee voted to create a commemorative stamp in honor of Elizabeth Blackwell—First American female doctor, a graduate of Hobart College. We found the following pieces to be extremely compelling and explanatory to understanding the actual events surrounding the creation of the Elizabeth Blackwell Stamp because of the well-rounded picture we were able to pull from the stories surrounding these pieces. While HWS (former site of Geneva Medical College) jumpstarted the idea of Blackwell being honored for her efforts and accomplishments on a stamp in 1971 by contacting the post master general, it became clear after further research that HWS/Geneva Medical College/ The United States Postal Stamp Committee may not have always have had her best interest in mind—and perhaps were using her accomplishments as a media ploy to show how pro-feminist the colleges and even the United States were.
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
In contrast to other artifacts we examined (i.e., photos, pamphlets, and letters), Pastor Hart's speech of 23 January 1974 was moving and appeared very personal. Unlike an intention-driven letter or a biased media ploy, Hart's speech seemed to portray a clear, possibly accurate, more personal remembrance of Elizabeth Blackwell as a woman and a student—especially during her time spent at Geneva Medical College. Instead of crediting HWS for jumpstarting and creating her career, he instead chose to talk of the attitudes of her fellow students toward her, the bewilderment of the Geneva community with her, and the rejection and confusion coming from the female community—and how she dealt with these issues day to day—inevitably reaching her impressive successes. We believe Pastor Hart was directing his sermon to many groups in celebration of Blackwell finally receiving nationwide recognition as an icon by receiving her own stamp—an event most would mark up to be a big joke, as Pastor Hart described the medical school's initial reaction to Blackwell: "In loud acclamation they voted to admit her. Of course, they thought this was all some kind of hoax perpetrated on them by a rival institution" (Hart, January 23rd, 1974). To speak specifically, we believe Pastor Hart's sermon was driven towards females attempting to break into the field of medicine, and possibly cynics of Blackwell's journey, determination, and ultimate success. Following Pastor Hart's description of her male peers' reaction to her acceptance to the school, immediately Pastor Hart contrastingly quoted Blackwell: "I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor's wife at the table avoided any conversation with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterward found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent" (Blackwell, [in Pioneer Work]).
The celebration of Elizabeth Blackwell's successes through the creation of her commemorative stamp, reflective sermons, and even statues were and are a tremendous honor, yet it is still unclear with which intention they were created. Through the letter from President Richard H. Hersh (25 Aug.1994), of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in which he invited Archivist Ms. Eleanore Clise, of Geneva Historical Society and Prouty Chew Museum, to join the HWS community in the commemoration of Elizabeth Blackwell's life, and the unveiling of the Elizabeth Blackwell statue we can see the Colleges' celebration of Blackwell as a pro-feminist push. The President's selection of personally inviting a female archivist to rejoice in the day's events does not go unnoticed, nor does the Colleges' choice to cap the day off with a speech from one of the Colleges' most celebrated Women's Studies professors, Professor Betty Bayer. Yet, never once in his letter does President Hersh discuss Blackwell's struggles and endeavors pre-HWS (Geneva Medical College). Even with the announcement of Blackwell's stamp (3 Jan. 1974), which declared that the United States may want to make Blackwell's stamp an international stamp, we question the motives behind these actions: was our country extremely proud and excited about Blackwell's accomplishments, or did we wish to display our country's pro-feminist views world wide? Despite our uncertainty about these institutions' intentions, we celebrate Blackwell as well—and encourage further details of her life to be explored.
- The fact that it took Americans almost 100 years to finally honor our first woman doctor, compared with Europe, which celebrated her earlier, what does this say about our country and how does it make Elizabeth Blackwell's achievements seem more praiseworthy when she was fighting for her rights every day?
- Did HWS and the US Postal Service use Blackwell as a media ploy in a time of feminist growth?
- After researching Blackwell's attitudes toward others' reception of her in medical school--did she in fact reject all of the negativity as a self-preservation tactic or was she merely so driven that she was able to tune them out? Was Blackwell for the feminist movement as her awards say she was---or just driven with a goal?
By Alyssa Turose '11 and Tairmae Kangarloo '11
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
Dean Smith's article "A Persistent Rebel" (1981) describes the years of Elizabeth Blackwell's life that are most relative to her career as a female physician. He begins the short piece with her journey toward being accepted into Geneva Medical College, and then continues with her time at the college and her struggles and successes after graduation. The piece used many of the same excerpts that Blackwell used in her own autobiography. Smith's purpose in writing this article was to describe a brief history of Blackwell's career for a general audience to read. Shorter and easier to read, it is a much more compact way than Blackwell's autobiography to view the same years in her life. One of the differences between the autobiography and Smith's article is the way in which the audience views Blackwell. Smith based his article on research and common knowledge of Blackwell and chose to portray her as a great hero and the founder of women physicians. At one point Smith states, "she was at heart a reformer, born to leave the world better than she found it" (n.p.). When compared to the autobiography, this piece leaves out anything that may negatively reflect Blackwell's character. Blackwell's own autobiography does not always portray her as a proper lady or as even a nice person, and she sometimes seems stuck up and selfish. Smith's interpretation of Blackwell is that she is always lady-like and proper, has nothing but good intentions, and may be the sole reason that women today in America are able to go to medical school. It also attempts to make the reader feel sorry for Blackwell and to make the reader be grateful for everything she did for the improvement of society. Smith offers more information about Blackwell's problems than did Blackwell herself. For example, at one point he states, "she starved herself during those early weeks at Geneva, partly because she had little money for food." Smith's emphasis on her difficulties as well as her successes may be an attempt to make her seem more heroic. By the time this piece was written in 1981, Elizabeth Blackwell was already a known figure and had long since accomplished her innovations. Equality between men and women by this time was much more established than in the time of Blackwell. This may have influenced Smith's goal: he may have portrayed Blackwell as so heroic by focusing on both accomplishments and challenges in order to show the audience how much of a struggle it was for society to reach the point at which it was in the 1980s. Because women physicians were more common in the 1980s than in the mid-1800s, many people in that time did not realize what a challenge it was for this even to be possible.
Elizabeth Blackwell, American Woman of Achievement (1989) by Jordan Brown is a very informative text that captures, in lengthy detail, the journey of Elizabeth Blackwell. This book is a reference which is a very weighty and in-depth biography that explores Blackwell from birth to death and therefore its main audience is people interested in research relating to Blackwell. This is a text one would read if they need information pertaining to sole facts. Unlike Pioneer Work, this isn't a book that would necessarily serve as a "just for fun" read because its contents are not as attention-grabbing or light as Blackwell's autobiography. Unlike Pioneer Work, it is not something about which one could have a riveting debate because it does not leave much, if any, ambiguity. All of Brown's facts are straightforward and raw and the reader misses out on firsthand accounts of Blackwell's thoughts. There isn't much emotion in this book and since the point of view is not first person, the reader might get a different view of Blackwell. The text paints her to be more modest and soft-spoken, as a lady was expected to be during that time period. Her vast struggles are much more exaggerated in this book compared with Pioneer Work, which again shows the significance of accounts of someone's life written in the first person. Perhaps in Blackwell's autobiography she wanted to make herself seem more invincible so she did not elaborate on her downfalls compared with this text. The text also stresses Blackwell's accomplishments in relation to women's rights, and how she helped to shape society. It is more in-depth about the aftermath of her achievements and is more specific about the multiple ways in which she opened doors to women seeking a higher education. Since this book is part of a collection of books about women leading the way, the author constructs Blackwell a bit more as a women's rights activist and feminist than does Balckwell herself in her autobiography.
- Did Blackwell see herself as a feminist, and after reading her autobiography would we consider her to be one? We wonder if Blackwell understood just how much of an impact she made on society and women everywhere?
- Did Blackwell not focus on some of her personal struggles in her autobiography purposely and if so why? Or did Smith exaggerate in his article in order to create more emphasis on Elizabeth Blackwell as a hero?
By Grace Hunt '12 and Nell Herberich '12
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
Representations of Elizabeth Blackwell in Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895) and in the 1989 introduction to the reprint of her book The Laws of Life (1852) could not be more different in tone, representational strategy, and intent. In Pioneer Work, Blackwell's self-representations lean toward a woman of strength and intelligence, as well as an activist and pioneer. She writes, "Ah, I am glad I, and not another, have to bear this pioneer work," as if she were the only person with the capacity to become the first female physician (Blackwell, Pioneer Work 226). In fact, Blackwell even notes her entrance into the medical profession not out of medical interest, but because it was a "great moral struggle" to gain the right for women to practice medicine (Blackwell, Pioneer Work 76). She also represents herself as somewhat of a loner, devoting her utmost attention to her studies and not to her social life. Furthermore, Blackwell rarely shares her emotions with the reader and shows a minimalist desire for motherhood even after adopting a daughter whom she scarcely mentions in Pioneer Work. We can surmise that Blackwell consciously omits personal details that would make her seem feminine or soft because she had to prove she could be as good a doctor, if not a better one, than a man. Proving oneself in the medical field as a woman in nineteenth-century America was a daring and challenging endeavor, and the so-called "manly" characteristics that Blackwell illustrates in Pioneer Work, such as devotion to profession, eloquence, and ardent determination, were attributes that needed to be taken on in order to receive any kind of recognition. One final notable distinction of Pioneer Work is that Blackwell tells the reader she grew up in a family openly opposed to the Established Church. The introduction to Blackwell's reprinted medical advice book, The Laws of Life, presents very contradictory statements.
The introduction of the reprint for The Laws of Life portrays Blackwell in a completely different light. The author paints a portrait of Blackwell as friendly, pleasant, and feminine, traits in which Blackwell never put much stock. In the introduction the authors write, "To say that she is pretty, would be a declaration for which she would not thank us. To write that she was homely, would be an insult to any woman. She is good looking---a face that wins favorably upon you; affable in her manner she pleases you; intelligent and witty she amuses you; amiable and confiding, she wins upon you" (xx). The authors also include drawings of Blackwell where she looks very girlish and youthful, quite a striking contrast to the stoic, elderly Blackwell we have come to know. In the first sentence they call her "fine" and "delicate" while Blackwell tells us that she never cared about being seen as feminine, making this portrayal of her seem false (xii). The authors write that she was excited when her fellow students "accepted her at last" and that she adopted her daughter out of a need for "companionship and motherhood" (xxiii). Finally, the introduction also portrays Blackwell's family as having strong religious connections and a deep faith. It seems as though the authors are trying to flatter her memory by making her likeable, normal, and relatable, and yet the writing is so flowery and theatrical that it seems at best insincere, at worst not valid. They are showing the reader a completely different Elizabeth Blackwell than the image she creates of herself. This image goes against everything Blackwell sought to encapsulate, and is almost insulting to her memory.
Even today on the HWS campus, the place of her legacy, interpretations and opinions of Blackwell are diverse. As humans we are inclined to create our own images of people, and when it comes to people who have accomplished great things, definitions of greatness range vastly as well. This statement is evidenced by the advertisement pamphlet for the reprint edition of The Laws of Life. The tri-fold brochure in its brevity notes Blackwell as an "example for womanhood today" who was a "courageous pioneer woman" and tells the public that by reading these lectures one "will learn to live better in today's world" (Pamphlet 2). We found it peculiar that this advertisement was from the 1980s because everything from its desire to paint Blackwell as a lovely young woman, to the outdated color and font choices and the pictures, make it look like a publication of the 1950s or 60s. We reasoned that perhaps the mainstreamed, attractive Elizabeth that this pamphlet and introduction advocate can be explained by the fact that by the late 1980s it was largely perceived that women in America had met their goals. We had the right to vote, the equal rights amendment was active in every state, and third- wave feminism was taking root. With these accomplishments under their belts, maybe women thought it safe to go back to their femininity, to embrace the things that made them feminine and not seek to downplay them in attempt at equalizing the sexes. Furthermore, this portrayal of Blackwell as good- looking and adored, while still a scholarly doctor, was likely intended to draw young girls into medicine. However, this is anachronistically problematic: the 1980s were a time in women's history where academia and pursuit of knowledge were accepted and even encouraged. The suggestion in this reprint that girls must be adored and look pretty in order to achieve things puts up walls where walls had previously been torn down. The mentality behind this was likely that were girls to read Blackwell's own accounts of social isolation and crippling setbacks coupled with a fatigue ridden portrait of an old lady, perhaps the female youth of America would not be able to look past the obstacles. It is obvious that Blackwell was a proud and maybe even ethnocentric woman. However, what Blackwell sought from the people of her time, and the people of generations to come was recognition for her work and achievements, not obsequiousness, gilding, and empty praise. Although the obvious effort that the publishers of this reprint made is perhaps gallant in its attempt to bring Blackwell into the modern American home, they clearly could not make this distinction, and in lacking to do so created an image of Blackwell that we can say with moderate certainty would not meet with her approval.
By Melanie Devuyst '12 and Liz Mills '10
Laurie Fenalson's article, "Blackwell in Residence: A Legacy Reborn" was published in the Colleges' newspaper the Pulteney Street Survey in 1994 and was probably directed toward a student-body audience. It gives an account of the sculpture of Elizabeth Blackwell that stands on the southwest corner of Hobart and William Smith's main quad. The most prominent aspect is that the "sculpture depicts a woman-- as, perhaps, fewer than 50 public monuments in this country do" (Fenalson 4). If Elizabeth Blackwell had been a man who attended the Geneva Medical College a monument would probably not exist, but because she was a female and a pioneer she was immortalized as a statue. This is symbolic for the Colleges because Hobart is the predecessor of Geneva Medical College, from which Elizabeth Blackwell graduated in 1849. She was the first female in the country to earn a medical degree. The article portrays Elizabeth Blackwell as a pioneer and a powerful woman. Hobart and William Smith Colleges regularly celebrate Elizabeth Blackwell through scholarships and national awards that are named in honor of her. Dean of Faculty and Provost Sheila Bennett said, "'I believe we celebrate Elizabeth Blackwell because she represents us at our best, as a real and tangible emblem of an institution that not only seeks to recognize and meet the needs of women, but realizes that, in doing so, we recognize the work of individuals, as individuals, and the worth of education for lives of service'" (Fenalson 5). The statue of Blackwell symbolizes Hobart and William Smith's contribution toward the greater acceptance of women. Professor Aub, the sculptor, discussed the process by which he created the statue of Elizabeth Blackwell. He decided that "'depicting her as a youthful figure might provide a common bond between this nineteenth-century woman and our students of today'" (Fenalson 6). This was an especially arduous task because very few pictures of Blackwell exist, and most of them depict her as an old woman. Another reason he chose to portray her in youth was because "'it was, perhaps, her stubborn naïveté that kept her going in the face of resistance'" (Fenalson 6). (This statement is gendered because a man would never be referred to as stubborn or naive, he would be called hardworking, persistent, or driven.) Even though the Geneva Medical College granted her a medical degree, her journey to become a doctor was difficult and opinions of the legitimacy of allowing females in the profession did not altogether change. The article was written at the end of the 20th Century, at a time when American society was thriving and civil rights goals had all but been accomplished. The statue of Elizabeth Blackwell was constructed in a way that reflects her strength and will forever symbolize her importance in opening up the medical profession to women.
After Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from the Geneva Medical College, she returned to Europe to continue her medical advancements. "A Return to England" by Jeanne M. Nagle explores the events of Blackwell's life upon the return to her native country after her "pioneer work" as a female doctor in America was complete. In the article, Blackwell is portrayed as highly ambitious and relentless in her quest to repeat her accomplishments in a different country. She returned to England in 1869, at the time the country was accepting of women in the medical field. By 1874, Blackwell had founded the National Health Society, created The London School of Medicine for Women, and headed its gynecology department. After she retired from medicine due to a personal illness, Blackwell wrote a controversial guide on sexual education for children and their parents, which initially had trouble being published, but was hugely successful when it finally was. This article was published in Cobblestone, a magazine featuring articles on historical events and figures, aimed at children around age ten. Elizabeth Blackwell understood the importance of the sexual education of children long before it was an openly discussed topic. She was proactive and believed strongly in preventative medicine. This article constructs Elizabeth Blackwell was a forward-thinking leader for having ideas that were at that time considered radical.
Elizabeth Blackwell by Jan Nader is a children's book consisting of short passages and portraits outlining Blackwell's life. The book is written for an audience of early readers, aged 9 to 12. The book portrays Blackwell as a driven woman-- the last lines of the book are notable: "Elizabeth died in 1910. She had been a doctor for 60 years. Elizabeth proved that a woman can do any job" (Nader 21). Since the intended audience is children, especially young girls, the purpose of Blackwell's representation is to educate children on the gender barriers that existed in Blackwell's time, as well as today. To some girls, the idea that women cannot hold any occupation may be foreign, so this book educates them on the past when careers were limited to men. Elizabeth Blackwell was successful in a traditionally male- dominated career. The book is inspirational in that it proves that through hard work any goal can be accomplished. Many children's stories have this theme because it encourages kids to study diligently, be driven, and dream big. Since Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female doctor in the United States, educating young girls about her could inspire them to believe that they can be the first in another professional area or that they can be successful in anything. Elizabeth Blackwell is also familiarized to young girls through the portraits of herself as a child that are included along with the narrative text. In her life Elizabeth Blackwell published articles aimed towards educating children, and after her death her intentions live on.
- How has erecting a monument in honor of Elizabeth Blackwell made her presence in Hobart history more permanent?
- Why was Elizabeth Blackwell received differently in Europe as compared to the United States?
- Why did Jan Nader think it was important to write a children's book about Elizabeth Blackwell?
By Melissa Backus '10 and Kendall Griffith '10
Courtesy of the Geneva Historical Society.
Often times, because Elizabeth Blackwell is known for her achievement in becoming the first woman to earn a medical degree, society commonly associates her with women's activist movements and feminism. However, it appears through both her autobiography and the biography Elizabeth Blackwell: America's First Female Doctor (2009) by Barbara Somerville, that Blackwell never joined any women's movements. She believed that women should persevere to achieve personal goals, rather than to work for a group (Somerville 41). Blackwell felt strongly that all women were not created equal, and because of this, not every woman deserved the right to equality and opportunity, such as the right to vote (Somerville 66). Blackwell was often angry with the general population of women, as she believed that women were "blind, indifferent, or stupid" (Blackwell 125). Blackwell worked very hard for her successes and stubbornly felt that other women should do the same; women "should not rely on activists to fight for them, or the government to provide them with certain rights" (Somerville 42). Because of this attitude, Blackwell did not believe that all women were equally as talented or worthy, and did not deserve the same opportunities that she had fought for herself (Somerville 42). Somerville emphasizes Blackwell's feelings towards other women, as Blackwell is often mistakenly portrayed as a feminist. It is clear throughout both Blackwell's autobiography and Somerville's biography that Blackwell's true viewpoint on feminism greatly differed from that which is commonly portrayed.
In spite of this opposition to organized activism, over time, it is seen that Blackwell worked to open both a hospital (The New York Infirmary for Women and Children) and two medical colleges (The Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary and The London School of Medicine for Women) specifically for women. In addition, she gave many lectures on the education of women. Both of these aspects of her life showed that, though she did not support women's rights movements, she did work to educate women so that they too may follow her path. Blackwell deeply wished to have other educated women present in the beginning of her life so that she would have support throughout her medical journey. Blackwell felt lonely throughout her life, as men did not respect her and other women, she felt, were inferior. In her autobiography she writes, "the medical solitude is really awful at times; I should thankfully turn to any educated woman if I could find one" (Blackwell, Pioneer Work 228). It was not until later in her life when she befriended other powerful women, such as Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, that she began to realize that there were others who were able to make changes and were worthy of equality and opportunity. Upon this realization, she made the effort toward the end of her life (through lecturing and opening a women's medical college) to educate women and give them the opportunity, if they had the perseverance and ability, to become equal to men in the medical field. Blackwell worked hard for her accomplishments, and believed that other women should work equally as hard (Somerville 79). Though not an activist for women, Blackwell did believe that women who possessed certain strong qualities and had the will power and strength should be able to pursue careers and have rights equal to those of men.
Depending on the social norms of the time, it has served the purpose of many historians to re-appropriate Elizabeth Blackwell as both a social activist and suffragist. Claiming Blackwell and her accomplishments as achievements of women at large bolsters the case of feminists and serves as testimony to the ability of women in professional capacities. Many website collections include a page dedicated to Blackwell, intended as a historically accurate compilation of information accessible by adolescent females, amongst others. According to the Rochester Regional Library, Blackwell's notable contribution was her graduation from medical school, after which "she spent her life opening doors for women in the medical profession." She is further identified as an advocate for women's rights, temperance, and abolition ("Western NY Suffragists"). These entries detail her education, the hostilities she encountered, and the laundry list of positions Blackwell held throughout her lifetime. It seems that certain accounts of her abolitionist ideals or hygiene and disease prevention work agree with her own records, while her work for women is exaggerated. The article detailing the history of Emily Blackwell, Elizabeth's sister and partner, heralds that the Blackwell sisters prepared 364 women through their institution, which was "probably the finest of its time for educating women in medicine" ("Emily Blackwell"). Elizabeth's role as a women's rights activist is further bolstered by her connections with other female pioneers. Lucy Stone married her brother Henry and maintained her maiden name. She was also the first woman from Massachusetts to speak publicly against slavery and to advocate for women's rights; she is credited with converting Susan B. Anthony to the cause at a convention in 1850 ("Lucy Stone"). Elizabeth is also legally connected to the first female minister in the United States; Antoinette Brown married her brother Samuel Blackwell. Like Stone, she spoke publicly and was involved with moderate women's rights groups, temperance supporters, and abolitionists ("Antoinette Brown Blackwell"). These educated women all held strength and ideals, proving themselves exceptional among others, as Blackwell had. Because she set a precedent for women in medicine and associated with so many reformers of the time, Elizabeth Blackwell is often claimed as an activist, despite her own opinions on the subject. While this charge may not be fair to Blackwell's outlooks on society, as Somerville attempts to point out, it is certainly telling of present suffragist ideology: it is harder to deny the accomplishments and rights of many women, rather than those of an individual whose actions stand alone.
This photograph of Elizabeth Blackwell is particularly curious; no other representations of her appear in this style (Photograph, Schlesinger Library). Oddly, in a majority of photographs, she is depicted as severe and formal. These images depicting her in such a manner are more appropriate, as she is someone who was stubborn and motivated. In this particular photograph, she is young, with wispy curls framing her decidedly feminine face. The girl's snub nose is unique among other depictions of Blackwell as well. This photograph, taken from Somerville's recent publication, serves a dual purpose. The girls in need of inspiration and a role model easily relate to this youthful countenance, while social activists use this image to color Blackwell as a warm, caring individual amongst their number. In a day when women and young girls are being encouraged to enter male-dominated fields like engineering and research, it is important that their role models are encouraging. Blackwell, who pursued her interests despite hardships and still maintained her feminine qualities, serves this role well, especially for women who desire to balance their careers and families.
- Despite Blackwell's original rejection of the feminist movement, could she have changed her position?
- Is the title of her autobiography indicative of this amendment? Just because Blackwell never claimed the title, can she still be considered a feminist today?
ENG 213 Archives Project at the Geneva Historical Society: Elizabeth Blackwell
Assistant Professor of English Sarah Berry