Friday, 3 June 2016

Edinburgh's medical women...

Outreach at LHSA recently has centred on the significant contribution of women to Edinburgh's medical life. In the first of two blogs on women and medical work, Louise looks at the history of the Medical Women's Federation in our region:

Last month, we were invited to take along a small archive display to the Spring Conference of the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF) in Edinburgh. MWF developed from the Association of Medical Women, a group of nine female physicians set up in 1879, which in fact comprised most qualified women at that time. As provincial associations were set up, it became clear that a Federation was needed to represent both female doctors and their patients, particularly following prejudices against qualified women who had offered their services during the First World War. Articles of Association for MWF were drawn up in 1917.

The archive of the Scottish Eastern Association (SEA) of the MWF was donated to LHSA in 2012 and has been recently catalogued. As we near the 2017 centenary of MWF’s foundation, our display reflected how the Federation functioned at a local level in a historic medical city: from interaction with clinical debates, to supporting doctors in education and practice, forming social and professional communities, and fighting for workplace equality for female physicians.

The concerns of the national Federation through the years are reflected by the SEA archive at a local level, including contributions to often-controversial debates affecting women’s health, such as birth control. This is the first page of the earliest SEA committee minutes that we have, from 1928. MWF’s active roles in women’s health and education are reflected here, from arranging teaching on birth control practices to organising study groups to mark the centenary of prominent health and social reformer Josephine Butler (1828 - 1906). Butler was primarily known for her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which permitted forced examination of sex workers in an attempt to control venereal disease:

Scottish Eastern Association Committee Meeting, 13 February 1928 (GD51/1/1/1)
Issues around equal pay and opportunity are also strongly represented in SEA papers, along with members’ leading role in campaigns around staffing in, and against the closure of, Edinburgh’s two women’s hospitals (Bruntsfield Hospital and Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital). For example, MWF campaigned against the ‘marriage bar’ in the 1930s, which required the resignation of working women upon marriage:

Central MWF position on the ‘marriage bar’, 1934 (GD51/1/2/1)
Campaigns for equality and opportunity went on into the second half of the twentieth century. In 1972, a ‘retainer scheme’ was introduced for female doctors who could not work a full-time week due to family commitments. Professional subscriptions were subsidised by the scheme, in return for a commitment from participants to keep abreast of current practice with continual professional development. From 1976, the SEA supported women on the Retainer Scheme attending morning medical lectures with a crèche staffed by volunteers:

Programmes for morning lectures for doctors on the 'Retainer Scheme', supported by MWF creche, 1990s (GD51/8/1)
However, it wasn’t all work and no play for MWF members. One thing that really stands out from the SEA archive is that members were so organised that even their social events were recorded and archived in detail! This is one of the most popular items from the display - an invitation to a party with a rather strange blend of entertainment:
Invitation to 'At Home' for female medical students, 1932 (GD51/1/2/1).
We also brought along some material from our women’s hospitals collections to the display, bringing home the connections between MWF and the women who were instrumental in shaping hospital care in our region, such as Gertrude Herzfeld, the first practising female surgeon in Scotland:

Gertrude Herzfeld in 1924 at Bruntsfield Hospital. She was a member of the SEA from 1920s and served nationally as MWF President from 1948 to 1950 (LHB8/17/1).

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