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  • Adding Women to the Ranks, 1860–1890: A New View with a Homeopathic Lens
  • Anne Taylor Kirschmann* (bio)

At the 1869 annual meeting of the American Institute of Homeopathy (AIH), George W. Swazey opened discussion of “the woman question” with a formal motion. Two years before, a woman’s application for membership had been denied by a close vote; now, he said, with no “particular lady” in the equation, his colleagues should decide the “abstract question” rather than have it “hang over us year after year.” 1 And in his opinion, the question of women’s rights had nothing to do with it: “The question is whether, after having encouraged women to enter the profession, educated them, taken their money, permitted them to practice, and fraternized with them, we shall now debar them from the privilege of our larger Institutions.” 2 [End Page 429]

Like Swazey, most homeopathic physicians acknowledged women’s important role in the growth of homeopathic medicine and its appeal among middle- and upper-class patients by the last third of the century. The president of the AIH, Ruben Ludlam, dedicated his keynote speech to the “mutual relations” between women and the homeopathic system of medicine, countering the claims of some health reformers that the entire male sex had trampled the rights of women under their feet. Ludlam asserted that homeopathic physicians should be exempted from the wholesale denunciation because they had been the “servants” of women and had “labored mightily” for their well-being by turning the tide of popular opinion against the “pernicious habit of overdosing and maltreating female patients”; in return, “many a woman, armed with her little stock of remedies, has converted an entire community.” 3 As Ludlam put it, all the opposition and ridicule of regular physicians amounted to nothing against the “settled reliance of the women of this and other countries upon the merits of homoeopathy.” 4 Driving the point home, he claimed: “And if they are for us, who can be against us?” 5

Along with hydropathy and the botanical systems of Thomsonianism and eclecticism, homeopathy’s benign therapeutics appealed to a populace increasingly repelled by the heroic therapeutics of bleeding, purging, puking, and large doses of noxious drugs. However, in contrast to the antiprofessional ethos of hydropaths and Thomsonians, homeopaths developed an occupational and institutional structure analogous to that of the regular profession. Eclectics established a similar professional culture, but homeopaths were greater in number and institutional strength, occupied higher socioeconomic positions in many locales, and attracted more affluent patients (especially in urban areas of the Northeast). 6 Homeopathy also appeared more scientific than other systems. [End Page 430] According to one historian, regular physicians’ efforts to achieve orderliness and numerical precision in choosing drugs and predicting their physiological effects seemed “bumbling and feeble” compared with homeopathy’s “scientific” methodology and experimental pharmacology. 7 For most of the century, furthermore, the goal of the homeopathic profession was not simply to provide therapeutic alternatives, but to completely revolutionize American medicine—an ideology of reform linking it to radical political, religious, and social change more broadly.

As Naomi Rogers argues, homeopathy’s association with progressive social reform, especially women’s rights, was an important source of its popularity among women. 8 Perhaps the ideological and numerical minority status of homeopaths made them more sensitive to the struggles of other marginal groups. The early acceptance of women by certain homeopathic medical societies and colleges, as opposed to their more difficult entry into “regular” medicine, does, indeed, suggest an ideological commitment to women’s rights. But the apparent liberality of homeopaths also served the needs of the profession. As I will show, local political, social, and professional factors were powerful influences on decisions to admit women to homeopathic as well as regular medical societies. A comparison of the controversies over women’s admission to the American Medical Association and the American Institute of Homoeopathy, in addition to regular and homeopathic medical societies in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, will reveal that—more than reform ideology—competitive and antagonistic relations between homeopaths [End Page 431] and regulars, as well as divisiveness within the homeopathic profession itself, affected debates and decisions on women’s admission.

Women physicians...

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pp. 429-446
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