Elizabeth Blackwell was born on February 3, 1821, to Samuel and Hannah Blackwell. For the first eleven years of her life, Elizabeth lived in England where she was treated to a private education replete with tutors and a governess.
After her family’s move to America, Elizabeth became more interested in social issues, especially the suffragette movement. It was this movement (combined with the disrespect in which women doctors were held) which influenced Elizabeth to join the medical field. But it was not an easy battle. For years Elizabeth would work to be admitted into a medical college.
Finally, when Elizabeth was twenty-six, she was accepted into Geneva Medical College. There she studied for two years before earning her degree. For the next two years she worked in different dispensaries before establishing her own practice in America. Five years later, in 1857, she and two colleagues opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. During the War Between the States she practiced nursing on the field, then moved to England where she was heavily involved in the establishment of the London School of Medicine for Women. After her retirement from active practice, Elizabeth travelled Europe lecturing on different topics, mainly social reform. She died after suffering a stroke which paralyzed half of her body. She is considered the pioneer in women’s medicine.
When her sister, Anna hurts herself, little Bessie offers to help with Anna instead of running off to play.
Ms. Henry writes of how much Bessie enjoyed listening to the stories told by Scottish and Irish missionaries.
As you may have noticed from the biographical section, Elizabeth Blackwell was not merely a pioneer in women’s practice of medicine, but was also a staunch feminist. However, the actual amount of feminism presented in Elizabeth Blackwell was small. Here is the most obtrusive reference to feminism. It occurs after Elizabeth and her two sisters attend a suffragette meeting.
With a bounce, Anna sat down beside Bessie on the bed. “Miss Wright’s talk was so inspiring!” she said enthusiastically. “It made my head whirl with excitement!” She hesitated, then added, “How can you be so calm, Bessie, after tonight?”
Bessie glanced at her oldest sister. Father called Anna the “family firebrand.” She was dark, thin, excitable. “How different we are!” Bessie said to herself.
“I do think Miss Wright is a very unusual woman,” she replied aloud.
“Oh, yes, indeed!” Marian interrupted as she joined her two sisters. She tilted her pretty head and looked up at the ceiling. “When I get married, I’m going to have all daughters. And I’m going to teach them to believe in equal rights for women. That will help Miss Wright’s cause!” she added proudly.
Anna’s eyes flashed as she looked at her warm-hearted sister. “Well, I’m going to do something right away,” she snapped. “I don’t want to live a sheltered life – to depend on someone else to take care of me. I want the freedoms Miss Wright said we women deserve.”
Bessie listened closely as Anna spoke. Her sister, she knew, was sometimes moody and hard to get along with. But she was almost grown up, and she was very smart.
Marian looked hurt. “But what else can we do, Anna?”
Anna’s eyes glittered with purpose. “I’ll do something – like write a famous book. Or maybe I’ll become a famous musician. If women can prove that they’re just as smart as men, they’ll earn their equal rights.” She paused and glanced at Bessie. “Perhaps I should concentrate on writing. Bessie plays the piano better than any of us – she could be the famous musician.”
Bessie looked down at her hands. The fingers were strong. When she played, they flew over the keys of the piano – fast and sure of each note.
She smiled to herself and shook her head. No – she loved to play the piano, but she didn’t want to be a musician.
“What do you want to do, Bessie?” Marian asked eagerly.
Bessie looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure,” she answered. “I’d like to do something really hard – something that’s never been done before.” [pgs. 142-144]
I was interested to note that this feminism is not something that Elizabeth or her sisters came by on their own. It was something her parents believed as well.
Mother said Father was a reformer. He believed in equality for everyone – rich men, poor men, black or white.
“Even children have their rights!” Father would thunder. “Girls should have the same education as boys. [pg. 13]
The Blackwell children occasionally tease one another.
Conclusion. As interesting and informative a biography as the others in the Childhood of Famous Americans series, but one which addresses a feministic, transcendentalist figure from history. Your choice!
Review © 2013 Laura Verret