Friday, October 31, 2014

More Thoughts on Gender Issues in "The Courtship of Two Doctors"

Roosevelt discussing healthcare issues.

I have had an enjoyable time reflecting on the book The Courtship of Two Doctors: A 1930s Love Story of Letters, Hope & Healing in two previous posts. I have a few final thoughts about the issue of women in medical education, a theme that runs quietly throughout the book.

Joe Holoubeck tells of an early conversation with Alice Baker, to whom he would soon be married, coming immediately after a fleeting encounter with Eleanor Roosevelt. It is fitting that he would meet a feminist icon like Roosevelt before a significant moment early in his relationship with Baker because Baker was also a feminist, even if she would not have identified herself as such. In her medical career, she would quietly make small inroads for other female physicians.

Clearly gender roles were much more rigid in the 1930s than they are today. Becoming a physician was a career path that was laid for men only. Many believed that females were the lesser sex not possessing the skills necessary for success in the profession. Many women who first broke that barrier also broke the societal expectation of what it meant to be a “woman;” they “sported short hair and slacks,” as Holoubek writes of the typical female medical student. Perhaps some of these women were naturally inclined to break these established boundaries. Many also may have adopted these traditionally masculine traits because they could more easily navigate a man’s world by acting more like a man or, as Holoubek phrases it, because “they wanted to be one of the guys.”

Baker, though, is not one of the guys. Rather she conforms to a more typical ideal of femininity. She may be conventional in her gender presentation, but she brings it into a decidedly masculine world that did not welcome “feminine” traits such as emotionalism. Holoubeck writes that he thought his blushing “was just a womanly attribute.” Another doctor remarked that Baker did not “look like the type of girl who would study medicine.” While the letters suggest Baker did not see herself as trailblazer, she was one simply because of the choices she made. She was probably just following her own desires by pursuing a career as a physician and in her presentation of femininity. Still, she had entered a world where people like her were few, which certainly took courage.

While instances of discrimination are not dwelled upon in the letters, they are mentioned. Baker is asked by another physician if she plans “to practice or get married,” as though she could not do both.  Before World War II, few women were employed. In 1940 only 28 percent of women were members of the workforce. The expectation was for them to find a husband and become a housewife. Baker defied those expectations by aspiring to be a practicing physician.

Baker found assistance on her educational journey from the mentorship of other female physicians. Dr. Olga F. Sadilek Stastny is mentioned in several letters as being supportive of Baker and other female medical students. Stastny and other female physicians clearly helped Baker throughout her education by providing both practical advice and emotional support.

Fishbein was important enough to
make the cover of Time.
Seeing someone of her same gender who had achieved success must have surely been important, especially when she could see instances large and small telling her she had no place in the profession. She recalls a talk given by Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is which he stated that women were not intelligent and that they “wasted money on cosmetics.” Witnessing these beliefs being spoken by such a high-powered individual certainly must have had a negative effect on many by reinforcing societal misogynist views.

Later, Holoubeck is interrupted from composing a letter to Baker by a dean who asked him, “What do you think of women in medicine?” not knowing that Holoubeck would soon be marrying one. Thankfully, today most people would find such a question completely without merit. Women like Baker helped society reach that point by entering the profession. While she did not smash barriers to women in medicine, by simply following her desire to become a physician she certainly added cracks to those barriers.


Acemoglu, Daron, David H. Autor, and David Lyle. “Women, War and Wages: The Effect of Female Labor Supply on the Wage Structure at Mid-Century.” NBER Working Paper Series. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2002.

Fitzgerald, Martha Holoubek, ed. The Courtship of Two Doctors: A 1930s Love Story of Letters, Hope & Healing. Shreveport: Little Dove, 2012.

Justin, Meryl S. “The Entry of Women into Medicine in America: Education and Obstacles 1847-1910.” Synthesis 4, no. 3 (1978): 31-44.

Pigeard-Micault, Natalie. “A History of Women’s Entrance into Medicine,” translated by KarineDebbasch. Bibliotheque Numerique Medic.

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