Saturday, July 27, 2013

"Doctress" Hawks? I don't think so

As I write this, I am sitting just a few miles from Newport, N.H. Newport is an inland town – not a port at all. It is a former mill town on the Sugar River with a lively downtown, a lovely common, a fine public library and beautiful old churches, large and small.

Newport reveres its native daughter, Sarah Josepha Hale. For 40 years beginning in 1837, Hale edited Godey’s Lady’s Book, making it the most popular magazine in the country. She accepted stories, articles and poems only from American writers. Under her editorship circulation of Godey’s quadrupled to 40,000 in two years and to 150,000 by the coming of the Civil War. Hale also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and, in 1863, persuaded Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Since 1856, Newport has honored her each year by presenting the Hale Medal to an author or poet with New England connections. Robert Frost was the first winner, and the list of Hale medalists remains impressive 57 years later.

The other day I happened upon an item in an 1864 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book that piqued my interest. It related to Doctor Esther Hill Hawks, a character in Our War. Hawks graduated in 1857 in a class of seven from New England Female Medical College in Boston. An abolitionist whose husband, Milton, was also a doctor, Hawks served freed slaves and black soldiers as a nurse, surgeon and teacher. 

The magazine article in question gave a brief rundown on the progress of the three women’s medical schools in the country, including Hawks’s alma mater. The 14-year-old Female Medical College of Pennsylvania and its New England counterpart, just eight years old, had each graduated about 50 doctors by 1863. The New York Medical College for Women had just opened.

Sarah Josepha Hale of Newport, N.H.
The writer of the article in Godey's, possibly Hale, also weighed in about the terminology being used in this emerging profession for women. She favored “doctress of medicine” for graduates and objected to “female” in the names of the institutions. She approved of the name of the New York school, a college for “women” – “not Females, which may mean animals, as all living creatures that bring forth young are females. Therefore, as the term does not certainly signify the human feminine, by using it, the directness of language is marred, and the dignity of the woman or lady is degraded. It seems to signify the lowest type of womanhood, as it refers only to the animal.”

The writer went on to suggest that it would be even better to call the schools “ladies’ medical colleges,” adding: “Had ‘The Lady’s Book’ been styled ‘The Female’s Book,’ would it ever have become the leading organ of magazine literature?

As a newspaper editor a century and more after this item appeared, I survived the feminist language wars and have a few scars to show for it. These battles were important. What we call things and how we say them matter. I’m glad I finally came to see that “his” shouldn’t stand for his or her. On the other hand, calling the head of a committee a “chair” still hurts my teeth.

And I'm pretty sure that had “doctress” survived in popular usage, as the Godey's writer hoped it would, it would have gone the way of stewardess and actress.

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