episode 6. Women as Medical Students: Time for a Takeover

Think about the first time you heard about a woman being a doctor? Maybe you were 4 years old and your doctor mom came home with a stethoscope around her neck or maybe you were 12 and heard about your brother’s best friend’s sister getting into medical school. Regardless, women in your life and around the world have been training to become physicians for centuries. But how has medical education for women evolved over time? In this episode, we dive into the history of women as medical students in the U.S. Along the way, we cover what 19th century medical education even involved (we’re talkin curriculum, pre-reqs, cost and more), the rise and fall of all-female medical colleges, and what social conditions finally led to women say enough is enough. Something changed to make women the majority of medical students in our country today…join us as we try to figure out what!

Feminist Corner

Hegemonic Masculinity: the idea that men have a dominant place in society and express this dominance in a stereotypically masculine way i.e. men are chivalrous, don’t show emotion, don’t cry, are always strong, etc.

Hegemonic Masculinity is a way to explain men’s power over women and also men who represent marginalized masculinities such as gay or trans men.

What are your thoughts? How do you feel about this brief history of women as medical students?

Even though we’ve come very far, since medicine like so many fields, was created and started by men, what are some hurdles that we have to overcome as women even today that are a result of our male-dominated roots? 

Do you feel like medical education, or at least what we know about medical education, has been embracing more of what they believe women can offer the field? 

What’s something that you think is important to take away from this history? What does this mean for us on the road ahead as women in medicine and how does it impact us as women (in general)?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

  • Disclaimer: We are focusing on the modern era (specifically from the 1800s to present), but we want to acknowledge that there are many ways to be a student and getting an MD has not been and is not the only way to become a physician. 
  • Even before Elizabeth Blackwell…
    • Harriet Hunt, a homeopathic healer in the mid-1800s, applied to Harvard Medical School but was rejected because she was a woman
    • She petitioned on the basis that Elizabeth Blackwell was a woman who was admitted to Geneva Medical College in NY state
    • They admitted her but the male students petitioned against it and she was forced out
  • But what were women missing out on? 
    • Curriculum: needed to be at least 21, take 2 years of classes and 3 years of preceptorship (rotations in the hospital as a student), no exams
    • However these requirements are honestly quite iffy and became less strict over time
    • Prerequisites: knowledge of Greek and Latin, graduating high school, some schools required that you finish college 
    • Cost: $90-120 in tuition with a few extra fees (in 2020, the total cost would be about $3500) 
  • Rise of Women in Medicine–late 1800s
    • Increased number of female medical colleges like the  Female Medical College of Philadelphia, New England Female Medical College and New York Infirmary for Women and Children
    • By 1861, at least 200 women had gotten medical degrees and by 1866, so 5 years later, there were about 54,000 doctors in the US total, of which only 300 were women. And I think it’s also important to mention that of those 300 only 1 was Black. 
    • European medical schools took longer to take women but once they did, the women were protected by law and the number of female physicians in Europe surpassed the US by the early 1900s
    • Coeducation begins in some medical schools, but causes women physician numbers to drop because many all female medical schools close
    • Flexner Report: by Alfred Flexner, a prominent educator, believed female physician numbers declined because they either didn’t have a desire to be physicians or there was a lack of demand for them. He said nothing about how there were fewer opportunities for women.
  • Golden Age of Medicine
    • 1930s-1960s is the “Golden Age of Medicine”
    • This is because there were just a bunch of major advancements in medicine, things like better surgical techniques, immunizations, drug discovery and better control of infectious disease
    • From 1930 to 1970, so in 40 years, only about 14,000 women graduated from medical school compared to from 1970 to 1980, a 10 year span, when over 20,000 women graduated. 
  •  Women take the medical field by storm
    • During the 1970s, the second-wave feminist movement and rise of affirmative action led to some major social changes 
    • The Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments Act, both passed in 1972, were major factors in this change
    • These opened up many opportunities for women’s education, including medical education. And actually, within two years of Title IX’s passage, women jumped to 22.4% of students entering medical school!
    • By 1990, the number of female physicians in the US increased 310% from where it was in 1970 and according to 2019 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, the majority (50.5%) of students enrolled in medical school are women


“Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 .” Encyclopedia of Business and Finance, 2nd ed.. . Retrieved July 02, 2020 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/finance/finance-and-accounting-magazines/equal-employment-opportunity-act-1972

Fee, E., Brown, T. M., Lazarus, J., & Theerman, P. (2002). Medical education for women, 1870. American journal of public health, 92(3), 363. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.92.3.363 

Golden Age of Medicine – Experiences. (n.d.). Retrieved July 23, 2020, from http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/goldenage/exp/exp.htm

Heiser, S. (2019, December 10). The Majority of U.S. Medical Students Are Women, New Data Show. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/press-releases/majority-us-medical-students-are-women-new-data-show

Inflation Rate between 1880-2020 | Inflation Calculator. (n.d.). Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1880?amount=3500

Jones VA. Why Aren’t There More Women Surgeons? JAMA. 2000;283(5):670. doi:10.1001/jama.283.5.670-JMS0202-5-1

Ludmerer, Kenneth M. “Medical Education .” Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved July 14, 2020 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/medical-education

“Medical Education for Women during the Nineteenth Century .” Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. . Retrieved July 14, 2020 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/medical-education-women-during-nineteenth-century

Paludi, Michele A. and Gertrude A. Streuernage, ed., Foundations for a Feminist Restructuring of the Academic Disciplines (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1990), 236. 

Perry, S. (2017, January 23). How Title IX helped make women’s dreams of becoming doctors a reality. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2017/01/how-title-ix-helped-make-womens-dreams-becoming-doctors-reality/

Slawson, R. G. (2012). Medical Training in the United States Prior to the Civil War*. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 17(1), 11–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/2156587211427404

Sympathy & science : women physicians in American medicine … Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell.

Wynn R. Saints and Sinners: Women and the Practice of Medicine Throughout the Ages. JAMA. 2000;283(5):668–669. doi:10.1001/jama.283.5.668-JMS0202-4-1 

Like the episode? Send us your thoughts and questions!

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