The blog is part of a series paying tribute to pioneers in dentistry. Celebrate changemaking women in dentistry at the 7th annual Lucy Hobbs Project Celebration, set for October 3-5 at The Blackstone in Chicago. Register today: https://www.regmadeeasy.com/benco/the-lucy-hobbs-project/2019/
I am writing this post on August 26, #WomensEqualityDay. It’s the 99th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, that gave women the right to vote. Today, I’m focusing on a few voices that advocated for and against allowing women to practice dentistry. There were many against, but only a few brave souls who felt women were equal to men and that dentistry was a place where women could excel.
I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask our brethren is that they will take their feet off our necks. – Sarah Grimke, early suffragette.
The Dental Times Dispute
If you follow The Lucy Hobbs Project, you’re familiar with the story of Lucy Hobbs, the young woman who sought a career as a dentist, but was constantly denied entrance to dental school based solely on her gender. This was common across a range of educational institutes; law schools, medical schools, and dental schools, among others, frequently denied women admittance to their programs.
Around the same time Lucy Hobbs was finishing up her dental studies in Ohio, a dispute was brewing in Pennsylvania between the pages of The Dental Times, featuring arguments both for and against allowing women to be dentists.
The 1866, Volume III, Number 4 issue of The Dental Times featured two articles, one advocating for women in dentistry, and the other arguing they are “not fitted physically for such taxing work”.
The first article is the Valedictory address of James Truman, DDS, dean of the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery from 1865-1876. In it, he states:
The recognition of the right of every human being to an equal share in the privileges that we enjoy, has not yet become a principle of faith and practice, as I think it should. We say to one-half of the human family, stitch, stitch, darn stockings, make shoes for a shilling, stand behind counters for two or three dollars per week, do anything, but don’t enter the sacred precincts that we have marked out for our peculiar benefit…Talent is of no sex, color or clime…
This thought was revolutionary for the time and Dr. Truman knew it.
…It may be that I stand alone in these views, both with the Faculty of this College and the audience; but I trust not, as in my judgement, the advancement of the world depends, to a large extent, upon their adoption.
The Opposing View
Within the same scientific journal, there came the opposing view, with the glaring title, “Dental Surgery – Should Females Practice It?” Its author, Dr. George T. Barker, editor of The Dental Times, emphatically believed women were not suited for the physical rigors of dentistry.
Dr. Barker states, in part:
Should females be encouraged to enter the dental profession? I contend they should not, and it is with no disrespect that the assertion is made. The same reason holds good against females practicing dentistry that it does against a feeble male, for the reasons as previously stated. The very form and structure of a woman unfit her for its duties…
By 1872, three women were admitted to the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery; however, after completing the first year, they were not allowed to return because they were women. When that occurred, there was a dissenting vote by a member of the faculty. The matter then was brought to a committee of members of the board, who rendered the decision that “a student could not be cast out without due cause.” In 1874, two of the three women graduated from the college. Obviously some agreed with Dean Truman, regarding women in dentistry.
On this #WomensEqualityDay, we are glad that more and more people are of the mind of Dr. Truman rather than Dr. Barker. Here’s to more women in dentistry and to the pioneers, like Lucy Hobbs Taylor, Henriette Hirschfeld, and others who defied convention to become dentists.
Next year, the 19th Amendment turns 100! Here’s to more “firsts” for women!