3 “Doctresses” and the Deeply-Rooted Sexual Harassment Within Our Culture

Alexandra Wamsley

Women in the Medical Field

The reaction to women going to medical school differed throughout regions. A lot of newspapers reported on these women, including articles mocking them or supporting them. The ideas behind being supportive or against them were pretty consistent, however. The people that supported women doctors felt that women would be better able to treat other women or children than men were. On the other hand, people that were against women doctors felt that it was inappropriate for women to be studying anatomy alongside men. They also believe that women should not have careers outside of being a mother and housewife.[1]  One article in particular seemed relatively positive in the beginning, but then led to a more mocking tone. The article is shown and transcribed below:


Image Source: The First Female Medical College: Will you accept or reject them?. Doctor or Doctress?: Explore American history through the eyes of women physicians. The Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine Archives & Special Collections. Philadelphia, PA. Accessed November 19, 2020. http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1496

Transcription of The Observer Newspaper Clipping

“We have been favored with a copy of the ‘Fifth Annual Announcement of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania,’ located at Philadelphia. From this document we learn that the degree of Doctor of Medicine was conferred on four ladies, who, we presume, intend to ‘set up’ somewhere for the practice of their profession. We respectfully petition that some one of them should locate in our village. The doctors we have here at present, (especially one of them,) being very gallant men, certainly would not object to such competition. We give our vote for a lady physician here—especially if a single lady, and therefore capable of administering a remedy for any disease of the heart that may occur.”

It is important to note that the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania was first founded in 1850.[2] This article was released nearly four years later. The newspaper clipping starts off as supportive. The author states that their village is wanting one of the female physicians to work there. While this seems like a great thing, the mockery begins soon after. They state that the current male physicians would not oppose the competition. The author also makes it sound like they are mainly wanting a woman doctor to date one of the single men. They stated that they preferred a single woman who is capable of helping a disease of the heart. The way the article talks about the situation makes it seem like they view the women doctors as a joke and as an object of affection.


Image Source: Class of 1891…, 1893, Photograph, 35.5x26cm, 1893, ACC, Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania Photograph Collection, https://idea.library.drexel.edu/islandora/object/lca%3A2297#page/1/mode/1up.

Relation to Sexual Assault in the Workplace

The way this article referred to these women aligns with the issues with sexual harassment in the workplace. The #MeToo movement that has been happening in recent years has been primarily focused on the entertainment industry. Slowly there has been more recognition with other fields, including the medical field. Studies have shown that women in the medical field have a high chance of experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace by either coworkers, superiors, or patients themselves.[3]

The current movement against sexual harassment in the workplace is much more progressive than the prevention used much earlier in history. In the 1800s, Florence Nightingale recognized that sexual harassment was an issue with the nurses. In order to prevent these situations, she adopted a preventative approach. However, her means of doing this implied that the nurses were to blame. She only hired nurses she believed to be of high moral character and also put rules in place such as curfew, dress codes, and standards of behavior. She viewed these rules to be helpful to prevent the harassment as well as be some sort of coping mechanism for the nurses.

For many years, women were unlikely to report any instances of mistreatment in the workplace. The women that spoke up and complained were dismissed and told her problems were trivial.  This began to change in the mid-1970s. Women began to challenge the judicial system that ignored the concept of consent. It was around 1975 when the term “sexual harassment” became more widely used. A woman previously employed at Cornell University filed for unemployment benefits after she resigned because of a supervisor touching her without consent. The university denied her request and stated she resigned due to “personal reasons.”[4] This story became widespread and more women began to speak out about their experiences.

One event that is considered a turning point in the U.S. is the Anita Hill case. In 1991, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings that dealt with sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court nominee. Anita Hill spoke out against Thomas and an investigation was launched. The hearings were rough, and Hill was accused of lying multiple times. While Thomas still won the vote to become a Supreme Court Justice, this was one of the first national news stories on sexual harassment. The following year became known as “The Year of The Woman” because there were four new female members of the Senate elected when female voters rebelled against the Thomas and Hill outcome.[5]

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine lists five situations where sexual harassment might become more common.[6] These are listed below:

  1. Perceived tolerance for misconduct
  2. Environments in which men outnumber women, the leadership is dominated by males, or the jobs are atypical for women
  3. Hierarchical power structures
  4. “Symbolic” compliance with Title VII or Title IX
  5. Lack of leadership to address sexual harassment

Studies have shown that over half of female nurses, physicians, and students have reported sexual harassment situations, and even more have experienced these situations.[7] Sexual harassment results in a hindrance of performance, which is unwelcome in any job but especially so in healthcare.

While sexual harassment seems to have deep roots in history, there are improvements being made over the years. Women are less likely to be publicly mocked, like the Fentonville Newspaper clipping showed.


Lex Wamsley is a fourth-year student at Wake Forest University majoring in Psychology.

  1. Morantz, Regina Markell. "Women in the Medical Profession: Why Were There so Few?" Reviews in American History 6, no. 2 (1978): 163-70. Accessed November 19, 2020. doi:10.2307/2701292.
  2. Elizabeth Fee and Theodore M. Brown, “‘An Eventful Epoch in the History of Your Lives,’” American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 3 (March 2004): 367.
  3. Emily A. Vargas et al., “#MedToo: A Large-Scale Examination of the Incidence and Impact of Sexual Harassment of Physicians and Other Faculty at an Academic Medical Center,” Journal of Women’s Health 29, no. 1 (September 12, 2019): 13–20, https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2019.7766.
  4. Sascha Cohen, “A Brief History of Sexual Harassment in America Before Anita Hill,” Time, April 11, 2016, https://time.com/4286575/sexual-harassment-before-anita-hill/.
  5. Spencer, Camille. "The Chronology of the Clarence Thomas Confirmation." The  Black Scholar 22, no. 1/2 (1991): 1-3. Accessed November 19, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41067724.
  6. Engineering National Academies of Sciences and Medicine, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018), https://doi.org/10.17226/24994.
  7. Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia et al., Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, ed. Paula A. Johnson, Sheila E. Widnall, and Frazier F. Benya (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2018), https://doi.org/10.17226/24994.


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Gender and Sexuality Throughout World History Copyright © 2020 by Alexandra Wamsley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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