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  • Rebecca Harding Davis' Kitty's Choice and the Disabled Woman Physician
  • Sharon Harris

The momentum for women's admittance to medical colleges had begun in earnest in the 1850s. While women's professional advancement may have been stymied to an extent by the outbreak of war in 1861, the need for medical assistance on the battlefield and the extraordinary loss of men's lives during the war years resulted in a paradoxical attitude toward women physicians in the postwar years. On the one hand, women had demonstrated their abilities to face the most arduous aspects of existence during the war; on the other, the tradition of women as domestic helpmates was revitalized so that men could return to the jobs and public status they had held before the war. Even more complexly affecting women's advancement in medicine was the fact that the aftermath revealed a generation of men whose bodies had been ravaged by their war experiences: their bodies were maimed, their physiques were emaciated, and for some veterans a limb had been amputated. 1

The cultural response to the refigured vision of masculinity as the disabled but stoically surviving warrior was a resurgent emphasis on women's femininity and the purity of their bodies. Concurrent with the elevation of the war veteran was the professionalization of physicians; in the prewar years, a primary goal of the newly formed American Medical Association had been to restore a sense of veneration to the profession and that goal was achieved after the war. As Stephanie Browner has detailed, the AMA faced a long battle for dominance against charges of elitism and monopoly. 2 The AMA was equally immersed in a vision of masculinity, refusing admittance to women over the next several decades. Integral to challenging or abetting [End Page 23] this cultural reinstatement of masculinity was the fictional depiction of the woman physician.

Recent studies of medical issues in literature have expanded our understanding of the pervasive attention given to medicine in nineteenth-century fiction and the complex ways in which medicine was complicit in constructing cultural norms. Cynthia J. Davis' Bodily and Narrative Forms (2000), for instance, traces the means by which identity became increasingly defined in biological terms between 1845 and 1915 and the aesthetic impact of using literature to engage this struggle for the power to determine what constituted embodied identity. And Browner's Profound Science and Elegant Literature examines the medical profession's struggle for status as well as how literature by well-known authors from Hawthorne to Jewett critiqued medical science's attempts to standardize bodily knowledge. Joining medical historians of medicine, feminist critiques of early texts such as Edward Clarke's Sex in Education (1872) and its respondents, which included Julia Ward Howe and others, these studies implicate the importance of the medical discipline in categorizing normative models of behavior and physicality in the nineteenth century.

Yet less advancement has been made in studies of the woman physician in fiction. Typically, scholars argue that the representation of the woman physician arose in the 1880s with Howells' Dr. Breen's Practice (1881), Phelps' Doctor Zay (1882), Jewett's A Country Doctor (1884), and James' The Bostonians (1886) as harbingers of the characterizations that proliferated in later years. 3 In reality, by the time these authors were penning their stories, the woman physician had appeared in novels and periodical literature for at least twenty-five years and the support or opposition to women's advancement in the medical profession was well-traveled fictional territory. Some of the earliest representations were to oppose the emerging women's rights movement, such as Sarah Harper Monmouth's male-hating Dr. Sarah Simcoe in Wimbledon (1854), although Mary Gove Nichols' autobiographical novel, Mary Lyndon (1855) offered a more positive portrayal. 4 Most fiction that included a woman physician from the mid-1850s through the early-twentieth century framed its arguments—whether pro or con, by male or female author—around a story of romantic complications. The abiding question throughout these decades remained whether or not a woman physician could do justice to her professional life if she were married or, if she did not marry, was she abandoning her "birthright." Early...


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