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August 4th marks the day when Britain entered the First World War. Many sacrificed their lives in an effort to make a contribution during the war. Among those who were giving vital care were British women surgeons. Ironically before the war, it was considered taboo for women to practice medicine. Some had to wear a disguise as men for years until speculations of homosexuality arose or discovered to be the other gender in their death bed. It was the era that women were allowed to take up posts in hospitals, which were obviously meant for men. Although despite their competencies, females in the medical field still faced challenges such as discrimination, and they still fought over the need to fit in amidst the war period. Quite mesmerizing, it is that at present, the number of female medical students has outnumbered the males. However, senior specialties in medicine such as surgery are still dominated by men.
It took too much struggle for women to be allowed in the medical industry as it was considered a male “profession” until the onset of the First World War. This is the period when women decided to make use of the opportunity. It would be almost impossible to proceed straight to the war office to offer help due to a lack of recognition by the military and society. It was assumed that medicine was a male field, and there was no chance women could participate or contribute (Murray, 2014).
In the early days, even before WW1, an exceptional number of women interested in medicine were forced to present themselves in men disguise to fit in. Some even changed their names to that of men to the end of their lives. A good instance was Margaret Ann Bulkley, who changed her name to James Barry. Even though her identity was later unveiled when she died, she was an incredible surgeon. She worked as James for 56 years of her life. She sacrificed her womanhood for medicine. During her time, she was even made Britain’s Inspector General. Even though she played a sizeable role in improving health for the British soldiers and other civilians, she is mostly remembered for the longest gender identity deception. This confirms that the society’s mind-set on embracing women based on their capabilities and not their gender still has not been made clear (Bickel & Povar, 2004).
There were women out of fear of discrimination, yet they had a passion for medicine and needed to help treat soldiers during the war. They decided to proceed straight to the French Red Cross. They were welcomed and given a brand new hotel to convert into a hospital to assist the wounded during the war to their shock. The creation of this platform helped them recruit more women in the hospital. Women boldly, and for the first time, practiced medicine without having to disguise themselves as men. Later on, as the demand for medical assistance arose since the war took longer than anticipated, a second hospital was established near Boulogne (Geddes, 2006).
It did not take long after its establishment when the British Army analyzed the female doctors’ work. They expected to find below the standard kind of services, but they got shocked by the ladies’ amount of skills. They ended up asking them to consider running a certain military hospital along Endell Street in London. This hospital had more than 500-bed capacity and eventually ended up creating more than 24,000 very badly injured soldiers over the next couple of years. It triggered recognition of some of the most talented and tactful female surgeons, such as Dr. Garrett Anderson, famously known as a “very delicate and skilled surgeon” (Bickel & Povar, 2004).
To fit in the industry and prove a point, most staff in the hospitals, as mentioned above, were women. These women maintained a high degree of discipline in running military hospitals. They made sure to bit the odds of any male-chauvinistic judgment of women being easy-going. They set their aim clear that they were not practicing medicine for individuals to like them but to prove a point. Such was the only difference between a hospital run by men, and that which is run by women is just the building? This driving force to beat men in the field they wanted to dominate also impacted these women as they were forced to harden up and not to condone any form of masculinity oppression. It leads to the recognition of Endell Street as one of the best hospitals in the list of other hospitals run by men (Bellini et al., 2019).
Throughout this period, they made sure they did a good job saving the lives of wounded men, and indeed they helped prevent a lot of disabilities and deaths. After the war, they remained open for another year to assist in treating Spanish Flu outbreak victims. It was when they faced many challenges compared to dealing with wounded men, fighting with an unseen enemy. They ended up losing quite a number of their staff and many more patients as weeks went by. It was a very disheartening moment considering how they had saved lots of lives while working together and building each other in the past years.
Men slowly started intimidating the women as being incompetent, and they wanted their jobs back. It did not demoralize them but instead motivated them to keep pushing. Endell Street hospital closed later in more than a century, but its remarkable story remained that to be admired (Skinner et al., 2019).
This war story inspired women to venture into the medical industry. It was not an easy approach, as men still wanted to dominate the industry. Even though some institutions started embracing co-education of the different gender, there were still some areas that the female gender was not allowed to access. The community was not fully convinced that both males and females could fit in the medical industry. As time went by in the 1915s, a decline in male applicants in the field was noted (Geddes, 2006).
As challenging as it was, treating men surgically for the very first time while the country was at war, there was a time when whatever they were indulging in was considered a male job. This involved lots of courage to the point of even risking their own lives during the Spanish flu outbreak in the name of saving humanity. It is through these struggles that medicine is where it is today (Bickel & Povar, 2004). Such is despite the profession not being considered entirely as a woman’s world. As of today, female surgeons still report experiencing discrimination in their workplace from their colleagues. The orthopaedic surgical department, especially, is the most male chauvinistic of all. Despite all that, women still make more than half of medical school admissions in the UK (Skinner et al., 2019).
Most surgeon women agreed that some of the main barriers spurring up the level of discrimination were childcare commitments and motherhood. During the pregnancy period, women are considered a liability to the department since they are presumed not to be in a position to fulfil most tasks as they should be. Additionally, patients representing society perception could not imagine that women can qualify to be surgeons as well. Based on the complaints raised, most patients would refer to all females in the medical industry as nurses or lady doctors (Skinner et al., 2019; Geddes, 2006).
It is, therefore, evident that the women had not seized the opportunities that came with the medical industry. As evidenced by statistics carried out on a Facebook group which recorded 88% still perceive surgery as a male-dominated field. Also, they agreed that there was still a need for proper mentorship, community sensitization on updating gender-based stereotypes discouraging women, and the perception of women as weaker sex simply because of their biological features (Bellini et al., 2019).
Bellini, M., Graham, Y., Hayes, C., Zakeri, R., Parks, R., & Papalois, V. (2019). A woman’s place is in theatre: women’s perceptions and experiences of working in surgery from the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland women in surgery working group. BMJ Open, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2018-024349
Bickel, J., & Povar, G. J. (2004). Women as Health Professionals, Contemporary Issues of. In S. G. Post (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Bioethics (3rd ed., Vol. 5, pp. 2577-2584). Macmillan Reference USA. https://link-gale-com.proxy.library.umkc.edu/apps/doc/CX3402500523/GVRL?u=univmomiller&sid=GVRL&xid=e771b87b
Geddes, J. (2006). The Women’s Hospital Corps: forgotten surgeons of the First World War. Journal Of Medical Biography, 14(2), 109-117. https://doi.org/10.1258/j.jmb.2006.05-24
Leneman, L. (1993). Medical women in the first world war–ranking nowhere. BMJ, 307(6919), 1592-1594. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.307.6919.1592
Murray, F. (2014). Women as Army Surgeons (pp. 160-177, 230-245). Cambridge University Press.
Skinner, H., Burke, J., Young, A., Adair, R., & Smith, A. (2019). Gender representation in leadership roles in UK surgical societies. International Journal Of Surgery, 67, 32-36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijsu.2019.05.007
Watson, J. (2002). Wars in the Wards: The Social Construction of Medical Work in First World War Britain. The Journal Of British Studies, 41(4), 484-510. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/341439
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