This March, Emergency One celebrates both the historic and contemporary achievements of women in honor of Women’s History Month.
The long road to 1987, when Women’s History Month was first officially observed, began with National Woman’s Day in New York City in 1909. The event was held at the end of February and was spearheaded by Theresa Malkiel, a labor activist and the head of the Woman’s National Committee of the Socialist Party of America. The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had not yet been ratified (and when it was, in 1919, it only protected voting rights on the basis of sex and not of race – that amendment did not come until much later). Two years after the first National Woman’s Day, the holiday expanded on a global level. The reason behind the decision to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th is not known; however, explanations have been fabricated over the years. It is sometimes said to have been inspired by a female led mid-19th century garment strike in New York City, but researchers agree that this notion was intended to erase the celebration’s socialist beginnings.
International Women’s Day was soon forgotten in the United States until it remerged in 1969 for a women’s march held in Berkeley, California – organized by an activist called Laura X, along with other second-wave feminists. The march was successful, leading to the rediscovery of International Women’s Day in the United States, the establishment of The Women’s History Research Center, and enthusiasm for a month-long dedication to women. Nearly twenty years later, Congress passed a joint resolution to designate March 1987 as Women’s History Month. Every March in every year that has since followed, the sitting President has issued a proclamation in honor of Women’s History Month. The National Women’s History Project also declares a theme; 2023’s is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.”
In honor of Women’s History Month, we would like to highlight the life and work of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Dr. Blackwell has the special distinction of being both the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States and the first woman on the Medical Register of the United Kingdom’s General Medical Council.
Born in England but raised in the United States, Dr. Blackwell’s adolescence took place prior to the Civil War, and she grew up in a household that believed in abolition as well as a woman’s right to a well-rounded education. Her ambitions first led her to being a schoolteacher and later to medical school, which was met with much resistance due to her gender. After numerous rejections, she was ultimately accepted by Geneva Medical College after a vote was held by the 150 male students of the class; they unanimously voted in favor of her acceptance into the program. She graduated with a medical degree in 1849.
Following her graduation, Dr. Blackwell continued her studies in Europe, where she faced further gender discrimination in Parisian hospitals. Upon applying, she was either rejected or not permitted to be treated as a physician but rather as a student midwife. When she returned to the States, she was met with false accusations that all women doctors were abortion care providers, and her practice initially struggled. She opened a small dispensary, which later expanded and became the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. We now know it as New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital.
Dr. Blackwell spent her life and career expanding the medical profession for women in both the US and the UK. Working alongside several other healthcare professionals (including Florence Nightingale), Dr. Blackwell opened the London School of Medicine for Women and acted as their Chair of Hygiene. She personally influenced countless women to become physicians, including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was a co-founder of the London School of Medicine for Women and the first woman in England to earn a medical degree.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell teaches us not only to break boundaries, but to also uplift those around us in our moments of success. The best and most competent community leaders share their knowledge and triumphs with their peers.