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.
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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 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.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.
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.
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.
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.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."
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.