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Elizabeth Blackwell

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Elizabeth Blackwell

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in America, struggled with sexual prejudice to earn her place in history. She was born in Bristol, England on February 3, 1821 to a liberal and wealthy family. She was the third daughter in a family of nine children. Her father, Samuel Blackwell, believed in the value of education and knowledge and hired a governess for the girls, even though many girls were not educated in those days. In 1832, the family sugar cane plantation went bankrupt, forcing the family to move to America.

As a young lady, Elizabeth Blackwell was similar to other women her age. She had an emotional and passionate nature and had many romantic pursuits. However, in 1838, she moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio to escape the charged atmosphere of New York City, New York because of her father's very vocal abolitionist standing. Later that same year, Samuel Blackwell died, leaving the three older Blackwell girls to take care of the family, which was traditionally a male role. When she was seventeen years old, Elizabeth began a boarding school for ladies with her two older sisters despite society's opinion of what young ladies should and should not do. Once her brothers were old enough to support the family, Elizabeth refused to give up her teaching career. She went to Kentucky, a South state where she was forced to deal with many prejudices. Upon her arrival, she discovered that the slow-moving Kentuckians were not yet ready for her. In a letter to her sister, she wrote:

The schoolhouse was hardly selected, the windows were broken, the floor and wall filthy, the plaster falling off, and the scholars unnotified of my arrival.

After beginning her teaching job there, she was shocked by the ignorance of the locals. As a young lady, she was not supposed to be intelligent, but her father had taught her well. She was utterly appalled at the lack of educational exposure in Kentucky. She wrote in a letter to her sister, Emily, that:

Carlyle's name has never even been distantly echoed here; Emerson is a perfect stranger; and Channing, I presume, would produce a universal fainting fit.

Another issue that presented her with difficulties in her teaching job was that of slavery and abolitionism. She had been raised a block away from Harriet Beecher Stowe and had heard stories from Harriet Tubman...

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...were supposed to be mothers. In a journal entry, Elizabeth recorded the importance of Kitty by saying "I have recognized the truth of this part of my nature, and the necessity of satisfying its wants that I may be calm and free for wider work." In 1856, Emily Blackwell graduated from Case Western University, and on May 7, 1857, the two sisters, with the help of Dr. Marie Zackrzewska, founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

Elizabeth Blackwell continued to buck societal restraints during the Civil War, when she founded the United States Sanitary Commission. Later, she moved to England and wrote Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of Their Children in Relation to Sex, which was met with widespread disapproval. After its publication, she wrote "Looking now at the very reticent way in which the subject is treated in this little book, it is difficult to believe such an episode could have occurred." Upon her death in Hastings, England on May 31, 1910, there were 7,399 women physicians in the United States alone. Throughout her life, Elizabeth Blackwell fought sexual prejudices in her attempt to improve the condition of women and the world in which she lived.
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