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Women Physicians and Professional Ethos in Nineteenth-Century America

Carolyn Skinner

Publication Year: 2014

Women physicians in nineteenth-century America faced a unique challenge in gaining acceptance to the medical field as it began its transformation into a professional institution. The profession had begun to increasingly insist on masculine traits as signs of competency. Not only were these traits inaccessible to women according to nineteenth-century gender ideology, but showing competence as a medical professional was not enough. Whether women could or should be physicians hinged mostly on maintaining their femininity while displaying the newly established standard traits of successful practitioners of medicine.

Women Physicians and Professional Ethos provides a unique example of how women influenced both popular and medical discourse. This volume is especially notable because it considers the work of African American and American Indian women professionals. Drawing on a range of books, articles, and speeches, Carolyn Skinner analyzes the rhetorical practices of nineteenth-century American women physicians. She redefines ethos in a way that reflects the persuasive efforts of women who claimed the authority and expertise of the physician with great difficulty.

Descriptions of ethos have traditionally been based on masculine communication and behavior, leaving women’s rhetorical situations largely unaccounted for. Skinner’s feminist model considers the constraints imposed by material resources and social position, the reciprocity between speaker and audience, the effect of one rhetor’s choices on the options available to others, the connections between ethos and genre, the potential for ethos to be developed and used collectively by similarly situated people, and the role ethos plays in promoting social change. Extending recent theorizations of ethos as a spatial, ecological, and potentially communal concept, Skinner identifies nineteenth-century women physicians’ rhetorical strategies and outlines a feminist model of ethos that gives readers a more nuanced understanding of how this mode of persuasion operates for all speakers and writers.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Series: Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

I am grateful for the support of many colleagues and friends who helped me in a variety of intellectual, emotional, and material ways. I am fortunate to count among my mentors Carol Mattingly and Nan Johnson, both of whom read drafts and talked me through the revision, restructuring, and rethinking necessary to bring this project into its current form. My writing...

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Introduction: The Ethos of the Feminine Professional

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pp. 1-6

On March 12, 1870, Ann Preston, dean and professor of physiology and hygiene at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, advised the graduating class on the role of women in medicine. Like many proponents of the nineteenth-century American woman-doctor movement, Preston maintained that women would bring an important feminine perspective to...

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1. Debating the Character of the Woman Physician

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pp. 7-40

In 1860, Harriot Hunt, one of the earliest and most prominent participants in the nineteenth-century woman-doctor movement, marked twenty-five years of medical practice with a silver anniversary celebration. One reporter drew attention to the novelty of Hunt’s role as a woman professional by noting that the celebration “was called the Silver Wedding of Miss Harriot K. Hunt....

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2. Prescribing for Society: Women Physicians’ Reform Rhetoric

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pp. 41-68

In Hit (1871), a book addressing all the major reform issues of the day, Mary Edwards Walker1 strategically reminded her readers of her professional status. She used medical terminology, including diagnose, prognosis, dose, and convalescence in her call for women’s votes (122). In positioning herself, ...

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3. Educating the Public: Women Physicians’ Popular Health Advice

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pp. 69-96

As soon as nineteenth-century women physicians began learning anatomy and physiology, they felt it was their duty to share that information with the public, particularly with other women. Health lectures by women physicians were very popular in the mid- and late 1800s, so popular that...

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4. Teaching Women to Talk about Sex

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pp. 97-121

Nineteenth-century Americans, and women in particular, were eager for scientific information about sexuality and reproduction, information that would affect the moral tone and the physical health of the nation. The vulgar connotations surrounding these subjects near the end of the century,...

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5. Developing Collective Ethos in Medical Editorial Writing

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pp. 122-145

Recognizing the importance of professional rhetorical activity for women’s success in medicine, in 1897 the editor of the Woman’s Medical Journal (WMJ) expressed concern at the absence of women’s names from medical conference programs and urged women not “to withhold the smallest ray” of their experience (“An Epidemic of Aphasia” 280). By this time, several women...

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6. Revising the Physician’s Ethos: Women Physicians’ Medical Research

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pp. 146-170

One of the criticisms leveled against American women physicians in the nineteenth century was the argument that since women were responsible for no significant advancements in medical knowledge, they were either poorly educated or intellectually incapable of scientific research. For example, in 1870 a speaker at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Medical Society based ...

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Conclusion: Toward Feminist Ethos

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pp. 171-186

The previous chapters have identified several strategies used by nineteenth- century American women physicians to respond to the ethos problem posed by the mismatch between the characteristics associated with woman and those associated with physician. Neither the challenges women ...


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pp. 187-196

Works Cited

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pp. 197-210


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pp. 211-219

About the Author, About the Series, Other Works in the Series, Back Cover

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pp. 220-223

E-ISBN-13: 9780809333011
E-ISBN-10: 0809333015
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809333004
Print-ISBN-10: 0809333007

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 13
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms