This 19th-century image of a lone female physician making a heroic midnight visit seems out of context for a time in which the majority of women worked inside the home cooking, cleaning, and raising children. However, it illustrated a book by a male writer who supported traditional conceptions of gender. In his 1870 publication, Woman: Her Rights, Wrongs, Privileges, and Responsibilities, Linus P. Brockett argues that despite dangers like “midnight rides in dark nights and over rough roads,” the more delicate and nurturing qualities of women, especially their “tact…skill…[and]…knowledge how to manage…a child, which seems almost intuitive [to them],” gave women the potential to be excellent physicians (160-165).
For one of my two projects at the Library Company of Philadelphia this summer, I’m looking for images of 19th-century American women that could be used as tools for teaching students American history. I’ve learned that even when women did venture outside of their homes, they could not escape the conceptions of domesticity and sentimentality that characterized them in their private lives. These conceptions shape both Linus P. Brockett’s arguments for and reservations against female physicians. Brockett explains that women’s domestic experience and sentimental capabilities would give them a leg up providing comfort to the sick and undertaking pediatric care. At the same time, he expresses the fear that female physicians might neglect their own motherly duties and that their sentimentality might make them ill-equipped to handle the harsh realities traveling physicians would face (Brockett 158-166). From the debate over their role in temperance movements to the debate over their work with benevolent organizations like orphan asylums, the conversation by male writers about women’s role outside of the home often involved arguments formulated around women’s domestic qualities.
My work selecting images is the first step in creating the Making, Maintaining, and Mending: Women’s Work in Early American Homes project. With the project, Connie King, the curator of Women’s History at the Library Company, hopes to give students a different starting point for thinking about the themes taught in American history courses. In addition to the Women’s History project, my primary project is to continue cataloging the Library Company’s Raymond J. Holstein stereograph collection. This collection consists of approximately 2,000 stereographs, late 19th-century and early 20th-century photographs compatible with a 3D viewing system, mainly of buildings, events, and organizations from the Philadelphia area. As I discover modern Philadelphia through my first experience working in the city this summer, I’m also discovering the history of the city through working with the Holstein Stereographs. Stay tuned for a post on stereographs!