Monday, March 19, 2012

Women's History Month - Elizabeth Blackwell - early life and education

But a strong idea, long cherished till it has taken deep root in the soul and become an all-absorbing duty, cannot thus be laid aside. I must accomplish my end.

When I selected Elizabeth Blackwell as my next biography for Women's History Month, I did some preliminary research and found some good material already on the web about her life, education, and career. But, I also found the digitized copy of her book Pioneer work in opening the medical professional to women on Google Books, and found myself skipping my readings for my own college education in order to read her tales about her own life and education, and later career. It's a quick read, and while I quote some of her writings on this blog, it is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the 19th century and the life of a strong-willed woman unwilling to take "no" as an answer.

Once I was done collecting and researching as much information as I could find about her life and her career, I realized the post was entirely too long for a blog. This was a very pleasant surprise compared to the limited information that is usually available for women in history. It's like she lived three lifetimes. Each of the three main periods of her life -- her childhood and early education, her time in medical school and early career, and her professional life and efforts to improve educational opportunities for women -- taken alone would have been impressive and inspirational. The fact that she was able to do all three in her life is remarkable. And makes her worthy of at least three blog posts. Which is what I've done. Stay tuned this week while I post each installment.

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Elizabeth Blackwell was born in 1821, in Bristol, England in 1821. She grew up in a large house filled with siblings and maiden aunts. Her father was unusually lax in his attitudes towards child-rearing and social ideologies. The children were never beaten for their bad behavior, though they might miss dinner.

But while the children may have gotten off easily on behavioral expectations, they were expected to study a wide range of subjects. And every effort was made to give all the children, including the girls, a complete education. He believed that each child should be given the opportunity for unlimited development of his/her talents and abilities. Elizabeth had a governess, private tutors, and plenty of stimulating conversation at home.
My eldest sister had become possessed of a small telescope, and gazing through one of the garret windows, we thought we could spy the Duchess of Beaufort's woods over the tops of the houses. There was a parapet running along the front of the house, and we were seized with a desire for a more extensive view through the precious telescope than the garret window afforded, so a petition for liberty to go on to the roof was sent to papa in our named by my lively eldest sister. The disappointing answer soon came:

Anna, Bessie, and Polly, Your request is mere folly,
The leads are too high For those who can't fly.
If I let you go there, I suppose your next prayer
Will be for a hop To the chimney top!
So I charge you three misses, Not to show your phizes
On parapet wall, Or chimney so tall,
But to keep on the earth, The place of your birth.
'Even so,' says papa. 'Amen,' says mama.
'Be it so,' says Aunt Bar.
In the early 1830s, Bristol was the center of political unrest in the country. Riots in response to the failure to gain more representation in Parliament ran for more than three days, and burned down the palace of the bishop. The leader of military response led a charge through the crowd with swords drawn in an attempt to control the rioters. In the end, shockingly, he was court-martialled for leniency for refusing to open fire. He shot himself during his trial, although 100 other people were tried in January of 1832, four of whom were hanged in spite of the fact that over 10,000 residents of Bristol had signed a petition which was given to the king.

In this time of instability, Samuel Blackwell decided to move his family and his business to America. Elizabeth was eleven years old at the time the family sailed for New York in August 1832.
In the month of August 1832, the family party of eight children and seven adults sailed from Bristol in the merchant ship 'Cosmo,' reaching New York in about seven weeks.

The cholera was raging in England when we left; we found New York comparatively deserted, from the same cause, when we arrived, and several steerage passengers died during the voyage; but the family party remained in good health, and the ocean life furnished delightful experiences to the younger travellers.
All of the children, including Elizabeth, adopted their father’s political and social views and even went so far as to voluntarily give up sugar in protest of the slave trade, which is ironic considering the family business was running a sugar refinery. As she had lived a rather sheltered life until now, this was probably her first exposure to social reform, but she clearly grew to love it – attending antislavery fairs and abolitionist meetings.

In 1836, the refinery burned down in a fire. It was rebuilt, but ran into business problems only a year later. The family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1838 to try to take the business in a different direction, cultivating sugar beets as an alternative to the slave-labor intensive sugar cane being produced elsewhere. Sadly, only three weeks after their move, Elizabeth’s father died unexpectedly from biliary fever, leaving behind a widow, nine children, and a great deal of debt.

To help the family, Elizabeth and two of her sisters started a school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies. The school was not especially innovative in its education methods, but it was a source of income for the sisters. As one would expect, Elizabeth’s abolition work was put on hold during this time, likely due to the relatively conservative pro-slavery attitudes in Cincinnati.

It was during this time that Elizabeth began exploring her own religious beliefs. At one point, she joined the Episcopal church. But in 1839, she began attending the Unitarian Church, which caused a backlash from the conservative community, and the school suffered a drop in enrollment. Fortunately, the Blackwell brothers had started their own business, and in 1842 the school was closed.

Elizabeth then took a position running a girl's school in Henderson, Kentucky, a tobacco-growing region. It was here she experienced the institution of slavery first-hand.
The people of Henderson were all very friendly to me personally, and my relations always pleasant with them; but the injustice of the state of society made a gradually deepening impression on my mind.
Kind as the people were to me personally, the sense of justice was continually outraged; and at the end of the first term of engagement I resigned the situation.
Elizabeth’s interests in education and reform were renewed. She embarked on a regimen of  intellectual self-improvement, studying art, attending various lectures, writing short stories, and attending various religious services in all denominations. It was around this same time she began to articulate thoughts about women’s rights in her diaries and letters. In fact, her brother had just married abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone, whom Elizabeth refers to as a "noble-hearted woman."


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