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IWD 2019: Suffragettes and medical women - examining the 'jealous mistress'

As part of a week-long focus on women in medicine for International Women's Day, medical historian Dr Kristin Hussey asks whether it was possible to be a suffragette and pursue a medical career.

'Medicine is a jealous mistress and those who would win her favours must not worship at any other shrine’. This was the advice that a staff member at the London School of Medicine for Women gave her female students in the early twentieth century. The shrine she referred to was the movement for women’s suffrage – a battle which was then being bought by moderate suffragists and militant suffragettes alike. But where were women doctors in fighting for what Elizabeth Garrett Anderson called ‘the cause’? Could you be a suffragette and pursue a medical career?

WSPU procession From Prison to Citizenship on 18 June 1910. The Womens Library collection at the London School of Economics.

2018 marks 100 years since some women were granted to right to vote in the UK. From Parliament to the National Archives, organisations around the country have been reflecting on this monumental moment in our history and the women who fought to make it possible. From smashing windows at Harrod’s to peaceful protests – the suffrage movement took many forms. How did women doctors and surgeons enter into this equation? It was a question we were keen to explore in our current exhibition ‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine.

While the women’s suffrage movement had begun earlier in the nineteenth century, the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 marked the beginning of the suffragette movement. Led by figures like Emmeline Pankhurst, the militant suffragette movement used law-breaking actions which often resulted in imprisonment to gain great attention for their campaign. More moderate organisations like the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett, focused more closely on legal and constitutional change.

Medicine banner designed by Mary Lowndes for NUWSS march 13 June 1908. The Women’s Library collection at the London School of Economics.

By the year 1900, women had only recently gained a foothold in medicine. While nearly three decades had passed since Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first British woman to qualify in 1865, many barriers still existed to women joining the medical profession. The London School of Medicine for Women, the first of its kind in the UK, was founded in 1874 although it wasn’t until 1877 that its students could actually obtain any kind of clinical training.

Even once qualified, many women found it impossible to pursue postgraduate training in the specialties – which were based on a carefully guarded system of patronage. Jobs were scarce and poorly paid. Women graduates were restricted to hospitals for women and children, with many choosing to move abroad to India and elsewhere in the British Empire to pursue their careers. In the exhibition, we featured the story of Ellen Farrer who relocated to India in 1891, where she spent 40 years as a surgeon to the local community.

Dr Ellen Farrer (1865-1959) with patients at her surgery in India. © The Angus Library and Archive, Regent’s Park College.

Many early medical women were known to support the suffrage cause but were unwilling or felt unable to publicly support a movement which might compromise their still tenuous position in the profession. Sophia Jex-Blake, a very outspoken proponent of women in medicine recalled feeling unsure about speaking at suffrage meetings, wondering whether becoming involved in another feminist cause was wise. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century only a few medical women vocally supported suffrage – the most famous being Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Garrett Anderson used her relatively secure and high-profile position as the country’s first woman doctor to campaign for suffrage, eventually joining the Pankhurst’s more extreme political party at the age of 72 in 1908.

For anyone less established, it was widely recognized by women to the time that to join a suffragette society was to severely damage already slim professional prospects. As historian Jennian Geddes has observed ‘instances of an individual doctor being prepared to put her head above the parapet for the cause were rare’.[1] The most common way women doctors supported the suffrage movement was through discrete financial donations.

By about the year 1910, a new generation of younger women doctors had become qualified. With a more established path into medicine achieved by their forerunners, they were much more willing to participate in ‘the cause’. Most famous among them was Louisa Garrett Anderson, Elizabeth’s daughter, who participated in militant suffragette activities. The exhibition features a fascinating survival in the archives of University College Hospital – a 1910 letter from Louisa to the chairman of the New Hospital for Women, where she worked as a surgeon. In the letter, she warned Mr Pollock of her intention to join an upcoming deputation to the Prime Minister and the potential for her imprisonment. However, she assured him that should the worst happen, she had arranged cover for her patients’ care. It proved to be a valid worry as the march turned violent, becoming known later as ‘Black Friday’. Although she avoided prison on this occasion, Louisa was imprisoned in Holloway Prison two years later for smashing a window with a brick.

Elizabeth and Louisa Garrett Anderson on their way to meet the Prime Minister in 1910, Wikicommons.

Holloway Prison became notorious in this period for force feeding its suffragette prisons when they went on hunger strike. Using stomach pumps, gags and nose tubes, suffragettes described the pain and horror of being forcibly fed by prison doctors or attendants. We have included an example of one of the instruments which would have been used on loan to us from the Science Museum in the exhibition. This dangerous practice brought greater public awareness to the suffragette cause – with the Royal College of Physician’s president Sir Thomas Barlow being asked to provide his opinion in 1913. In a statement in the Times (London), Barlow stated that he believed force feeding was not ‘punitive’ or ‘disciplinary’. Suffragette doctors like Louisa Garrett Anderson vehemently disagreed. She wrote, ‘The reason they do not take their food is political, not pathological, and the appropriate treatment is statesmanship, not a stomach tube.’

Handkerchief embroidered by suffragette inmates at Holloway Prison 1912. Sussex Archaeology Society

We are especially thrilled to be able to feature in the exhibition the ‘Suffragette Handkerchief’, lent to us by Priest’s House, part of the Sussex Archaeological Society. This handkerchief has been signed and embroidered by survivors of suffragette hunger strikes at Holloway in 1912, including a Liverpool GP named Alice Ker. Dr Ker has participated in window-smashing protests in alongside Louisa Garrett Anderson and was imprisoned for 3 months. As a result of her suffragette activity, Ker was dismissed from one of her hospital posts.

In order to bring life to this complicated subject, on the 12th of November the Royal College of Physicians will be hosting an ‘In conversation’ evening on the subject of activism, women doctors and the fight for equality featuring two experts in the field: Dr Claire Brock and Dr Lesley A. Hall. Brock, author of the book British Women Surgeons and their Patients (CUP, 2017), will consider how early women doctors negotiated professional obligations with political convictions – asking whether by the end of the First World War medical women were fighting together or against each other. Hall will explore the tumultuous interwar years and their effects on women’s status in the medical profession – many women finding themselves worse off after the First World War then they had been before.

Dr Kristin Hussey is a historian of medicine and the head curator at the Royal College of Physicians. Follow her on Twitter: @kristin_hussey.

This blog is part of a week-long series celebrating women in medicine and their inspirations, as part of International Women's Day. 

Notes to editors

[1] J.F. Geddes (2009) ‘The doctors dilemma: medical women and the British suffrage movement’, Women’s History Review 18:2, pp.203-218