Analyzing Male Dominance in the Medical Field

By analyzing the digital archive entitled, “Remarks on the Employment of Females as Practitioners in Midwifery. By a Physician” by Walter Channing, I hope to highlight the prejudice surrounding women practitioners and analyze the problematic issues of male dominance in the medical field.


Women have always been known as healers. Before they were granted admittance into proper medical schools, they travelled home to home as midwives, nurses, counsellors, and pharmacists— all unlicensed. Forbidden from traditional schooling until the late 1800’s, American women learned the trade from one another, passing down their knowledge from mother to daughter, generation to generation. In 1870, there were only 544 women practitioners in America; by 1900, the number increased drastically to 7,382 (“The Early Plight of Women in the Medical Field”). Although women have fought for their right to practice in the medical field, it is still inherently male dominant, even today. White, middle-class men have become prevalent medical professionals, casting women as nurses or into other health-related professions by default. While women have made considerable gains over time, their fight continues. The core of this fight begins with women’s predecessors who have defied traditional gender roles, despite the discrimination ridding them from having their own place as medical professionals.

Digital archives have given insight into these gendered issues involved in the medical field. Unlike traditional, canonical readings, digital archives paint a well-rounded picture of the past, particularly in regards to daily life. While browsing around the webpage, “DoHistory” I found numerous documents related to midwifery and herbal medicine fields of the period. I then came across a document entitled, “Remarks on the Employment of Females as Practitioners in Midwifery. By a Physician” written by Walter Channing. By analyzing this digital archive, I hope to highlight the prejudice surrounding women practitioners and analyze the problematic issues of male dominance in the medical field.

My choice to analyze a document about midwifery stems from my interest in the novel, My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. This brilliant historical tale follows Mary Sutter, a midwife who dreams of becoming a surgeon during the time of the Civil War. Determined to defy the prejudices against women practitioners, Mary travels to Washington where she begins her career serving the war-wounded soldiers. This novel genuinely resonated with me, as the tragedies and triumphs Mary undergoes in a male dominant society make her story truly unforgettable. After reading this novel, I began watching the PBS drama, Call the Midwife. This series follows a group of midwives working in London during the 1950’s and depicts the world of midwives in a powerful way. The novel, My Name is Mary Sutter, as well as the show, Call the Midwife initially sparked my interest in the field of midwifery, while Walter Channing’s writings against women drew me to this particular document.

The document, “Remarks on the Employment of Females as Practitioners in Midwifery. By a Physician” is written by Walter Channing, who was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1786. Growing up in a prestigious family, Channing was destined for success, as his father served as an Attorney General, while his grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Lavan and Kass). Walter Channing soon became the first “Professor of Midwifery at Harvard Medical School, [as well as] the first American physician to advocate the use of anesthesia in childbirth” (Lavan and Kass). He published many lectures, essays, and case notes, with “Remarks on the Employment of Females as Practitioners in Midwifery. By a Physician” written at the peak of his medical career. The document itself is neatly typed and bound on yellow-stained paper. The cover page is arranged pleasingly, with the words, “Remarks” and “Midwifery” in large, outlined print. The remaining twenty-page document is numbered and typed in a clear font. The fact that this document is typed and published by a reputable agency suggests the author’s high status not only in the society he lived in, but also within the medical field.

In the document, Walter Channing addresses the issues he has with females entering the medical field, particularly as midwives. He begins by questioning if females are as enabled to carry out the practice of midwifery as male practitioners are. As a highly regarded male practitioner in the medical field, Channing evidently argues that women are not qualified to practice midwifery based on their naturally passive character, their limited access to education, and their lack of medical experience. Channing articulates his argument in an organized and well-thought manner, which only makes his argument seem more sound. Although he may seem just on the surface, Channing constructs women as inadequate practitioners not because they inherently are, but because he wants to sustain the male dominance in the medical field.

Channing begins by making a sweeping generalization about women’s passive character and the issues they bring to the medical field. He argues that women, “have not that power of action, or that active power of mind, which is essential to the practice of the surgeon. They have less power of restraining and governing the natural tendency to sympathy, and more disposed to yield to the expressions of acute sensibility” (Channing 4-5). Channing stands as a biological determinist; he believes that women are “naturally” docile and submissive. It is this inherent character, he believes, that prohibits women from making assertive decisions when they need to be made. Channing then argues that women cannot control their empathetic tendencies, and would, as a result, be too emotionally distraught to be able to think in a rational, decisive manner. Although some women may behave this way, for Channing to generalize these statements about all women is quite problematic. As a biological determinist, Channing fails to see that gender should be considered a social construct. There are not any natural “tendencies” for either sex; society has constructed these gender binaries in a way that blurs the lines between what is “biological” and what is not. Although Channing may be claiming women are naturally sympathetic and sensitive, there is nothing in their biology that validates this reasoning.

Channing goes on to argue that women will never succeed as midwives because they are not as easily accessible to as many educational opportunities as men are. He believes that, “this is perhaps the strongest objection to the employment of female accoucheurs, that we cannot expect them to be possessed of this essential part of their education. It is needless to go on to prove this; it is obvious that we cannot instruct women as we do men in the science of medicine” (Channing 7). Historically, Channing does have a point— women had a severely limited access to education. Many medical schools during the early 1800’s prohibited women from attending, for it was not until 1847 that the first woman, Elizabeth Blackwell, was admitted (“The Early Plight of Women in the Medical Field”). Although Channing does touch on this fact, he seems to, instead, be arguing that women do not have the mental capacity to be educated in the field of medicine. He states that we simply “cannot instruct” women as we do with men, but he fails to explain why.Channing expects his readers to see what is “obvious” about this statement, which signals a major fault in his argument. He has no valid evidence to back up his reasoning against a woman’s capability to understand the medical field. If his argument stands on the lack of women’s schooling alone, it is flawed, for several decades later, womenwere granted access to medical schools. These shortfalls in Channing’s argument further imply that women could be adequate midwives, but Channing refuses to accept that. He wants to keep the field male dominated.

Channing attempts to redeem himself be reinstating that women’s lack of medical experience further hinders their abilities to practice midwifery. Although Channing does not outrightly state that women have no experience in the medical field, he, in turn, raises a problematic issue in terms of women and class. He writes: “Heretofore, where midwifery has been in the hands of women, they have only practised among the poorer and lower classes of people; the richer and better informed preferring to employ physicians, and this has been the reason why it has not become universal” (Channing 12). In this passage, Channing questions women’s abilities to practice midwifery, as they have only gained experience working with the lower class. Unlike women, Channing and other men in the medical field are more “worthy” and, therefore, able to practice on the upper class. The upper class, Channing argues, are more educated and able to make “informed” decisions about who to employ. Channing is then insinuating that those in the lower class are less educated, are unable to make proper medical decisions, and, as a result, have no choice but to employ women as their caregivers. Channing’s statement becomes even more questionable here, as he seems to be feminizing the lower class. The systematic devaluing of both women and the poor ultimately feminizes poverty, while, at the same time, relegates women to the lower class.

As the essay comes to a close, Channing’s intentions of eliminating women from the medical field become even more controversial. While his arguments thus far have attacked women’s character, their educational abilities, and their medical experience, Channing then goes on to suggest that women would ruin the “intimate” relationship that male practitioners form with their female patients. This argument only further calls into question Channing’s desire to sustain male dominance in the medical field, particularly in midwifery. Here, Channing defends this practitioner-patient relationship he so strongly wishes to retain:

Nothing contributes more than the attendance of physicians in cases of midwifery… Women seldom forget a practitioner who has conducted them tenderly and safely through parturition— they feel a familiarity with him, a confidence and reliance upon him, which are of the most essential mutual advantage in all their subsequent intercourse as a physician and patient… The physician takes a deeper interest and feels a more intimate and personal connexion with those, whom he has attended in this scene of suffering and danger (Channing 19).

Evidently, Channing, and arguably all male physicians, feel a strong connection towards their female patients. What is most notable about this passage is the sexual, lustful language he uses to describe this relationship. Channing uses words such as “intercourse,” “deeper,” and “intimate” to solidify the connection he shares with his patients. Perhaps even more problematically, Channing’s tone suggests that because women are more prone to “suffering” and “danger,” only a man’s confidence and sense of control can soothe them. The evidence he uses against women as midwives comes full circle at this point: Channing does not want women to destroy the heteronormative relationship he and other male physicians have fostered so closely with their female patients. He uses hyper-masculinity as a reason to exclude women practitioners, which, in turn, sexualizes the doctor-patient relationship. Ultimately, Channing suggests that having women treat patients would be perverse and ineffective.

In relation to the time period in which this document was written, canonical writings by Thomas Jefferson provide a similar insight into Walter Channing’s rational. The core of Jefferson’s pieces were written in the late 1700’s during the Enlightenment literary era. In one particular piece entitled, “Letter to Nathaniel Burwell [A Young Women’s Education]” written in 1818, Jefferson believes women are not suited for “traditional” male roles, and are, instead, more prone to mundane, thoughtless activities such as “dancing, drawing, and music” (Jefferson 1056). The word choice and authoritative tone he uses to describe women participating in these activities further gives into the societal expectations women were assumed to follow. When Jefferson describes how women should be obligated to dance, he writes: “[It] is a healthy exercise, elegant and very attractive for young people. Every affectionate parent would be pleased to see his daughter qualified with her companions, and without awkwardness at least, in the circle of festivity, of which she occasionally becomes a part” (Jefferson 1056). Jefferson uses words such as “attractive” and “elegant” to imply how women are expected to behave, while he uses “awkwardness” to propose that women who do not behave in a respectable, poised manner will be seen in a negatively. Jefferson’s statement plays into the societal notion that women “naturally” behave in this manner, which only further causes them to believe they are predisposed to this way of life. Similar to Channing’s remarks, Jefferson wants to sustain a woman’s place: not in the workforce, but in the home as a caregiver to her children and her man.

In addition, Judith Sargent Murray’s (1751-1820) became an integral revolutionary figure during this time. As an early American advocate for women’s rights, Murray’s writings both relate to and challenge both Channing and Jefferson. Murray centers most of her arguments around the value of education for women. As a woman who was highly educated herself, Murray realizes how vitally important this is and does not believe men should be the only ones entitled to this luxury. What is most admirable about Judith Sargent Murray, though, is the fact that she recognizes that men are granted more societal power, and instead of ignoring that fact, discusses the ways in which it becomes problematic. Murray questions this gendered power imbalance in her essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes.” She contrasts a male and female, wondering:

How is one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limitted. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flower paths of science (Murray 1255).

Murray is evidently commenting on the fact that men are often held in high regard, while women are kept in the background. While men are taught to “aspire” and put forth their knowledge into the world, women are taught to live in confinement. Murray uses words such as “depressed,” “confined,” and “limitted” to describe women, which denotes a negative, restricting tone. Girls are taught to be lady-like and proper as soon as they’re born, while boys are taught to be bold and daring. Murray notes how this becomes even more problematic as women become “domesticated” and men are pushed towards education and careers. Ultimately, Murray calls into question what the male authors have counter-argued: how can women escape the gender roles that have become so embedded in a male dominant society?

As women still struggle to solidify their place in the workforce today, perhaps we will never come to know the answer to this question. Although the movement towards gender equality has improved with time, it is still not where it needs to be. Walter Channing’s writings of the early 1800’s speak not only to a woman’s place in the medical field, but also, more importantly, to the male power that has hindered women’s progress for centuries. It is the Walter Channing’s of the world that have deterred women, but have also prolonged their fight.


Works Cited

Channing, Walter. “Remarks on the Employment of Females as Practitioners in Midwifery. By A Physician.” Remarks on the Employment of Females as Practitioners in Midwifery. By A Physician. Cummings & Hilliard, Boston. 1820. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <http://dohistory.org/archive/doc034/>

Jefferson, Thomas. “Letter to Nathaniel Burwell [A Young Woman’s Education].”The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. 6th ed. Vol. A. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. 1055-1057. Print.

Lavan, Spencer, and Amalie M. Kass. “Walter Channing.” Walter Channing. Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society, 15 Dec. 2005. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <http://uudb.org/articles/walterchanning.html>.

Murray, Sargent Judith. “On the Equality of the Sexes.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. 6th ed. Vol. A. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. 1253-1259. Print.

“The Early Plight of Women in the Medical Field.” History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes. University of Richmond, 2008. Web. 15 Feb. 2015. <http://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/5150>.