Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pioneering Doctor and Kickass Woman You Need to Know: Charlotte Baker

Charlotte Johnson Baker (March 30, 1855 - October 31, 1937) is the Kickass Woman of the Month for March, and with good reason! Like other pioneering women of the era, she set her sights quite a bit higher than what society deemed appropriate for a young lady. She devoted her life to improving the lives of women and children, first as a doctor, and then as an activist.

Charlotte grew up in a somewhat unconventional family in Massachusetts, where she was allowed to indulge her tomboy tendencies. It's likely this influenced her decision to teach the  new sporting fad for young women -- gymnastics -- after graduating from Vassar College.

Soon after, though, she took a position as assistant to Dr. Eliza M. Mosher at the Woman's Reformatory Prison in Sherbourne, Massachusetts, where she witnessed the hardships faced by far less privileged women and girls. Her experiences from the two years she worked with Dr. Mosher set the course for the rest of her life. She devoted herself to advancing conditions for women and girls, and often broke social convention to do so.

First, she dedicated herself to earning a medical degree, specializing in obstetrics. Which she did in 1881 when she graduated from the University of Michigan, the only college offering co-ed classes at the time. She married her classmate, Fred Baker, and they moved to Akron to set up practice. But Charlotte contracted malaria, and the couple quickly moved to the New Mexico, hoping a drier climate would speed her recovery. Santa Fe at the time was still the frontier, and she and Fred built their own house in the desert, and treated local ranch families. In 1888 they moved again to San Diego, at the time still a small port town, in search of better schools for their children. The Drs. Baker set up practice again, making Dr. Charlotte (as she was known) the first female physician in the area.

San Diego also offered more conventional social opportunities, and Charlotte took full advantage of them. Like many middle class women of her era, she was active in a variety of women's clubs, each dedicated to a progressive ideal -- temperance, education, labor reform. She also continued to work as an obstetrician. Over the course of her career, she delivered over 1000 babies, and was exceedingly proud that she never lost a mother in labor.

Her dedication to assisting women and children never faltered, and she spent much of her life split between her medical career and her political activism -- and she was a pioneer in both of these pursuits. She was the first woman elected president of the San Diego County Medical Society, and she and Fred continued to attend medical conventions around the country, where she regularly present papers sharing her contributions to the advancement of medicine.

And she also served on the boards of numerous organizations like the YWCA, the Temperance League, and the San Diego Equal Suffrage Association. In 1911, when California was considering giving women the vote, she traveled the backroads of San Diego with three other women, speaking to the locals about the importance of women's suffrage. Her efforts had a huge impact on the final vote, where San Diego led the state in approving the measure.

The hallmark of a self-rescuing princess is, of course, that she is her own hero. But after they've saved themselves, so to speak, they also work to rescue others. Charlotte was a woman who was born to a reasonably wealthy family, and raised with privileges so many other girls in the mid-1800s couldn't even imagine. And yet, instead of assuming the life of leisure expected of women of her social standing, she spent her life serving her passion: improving the lives of women and children both in the intimate one-on-one experiences as a doctor treating her patients, as well as in the larger political realm where she worked tirelessly to address the specific concerns of all women, and especially those without the privileges she enjoyed.

Learn more about her induction into the San Diego Women's Hall of Fame in 2009
Read about her and other San Diego women in Remarkable Women of San Diego: Pioneers, Visionaries and Innovators, by Hannah S. Cohen and Gloria G. Harris

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