Nearly all of the medical sects that emerged in the 19th century gave unprecedented professional and leadership opportunities to women. Women had long been responsible for their family’s health, growing medicinal plants in kitchen gardens, tending to the sick, and serving as midwives for family and neighbors. Home healing was part of her domestic responsibilities: caring and tending being largely female character traits.

But for the most part, women couldn’t be doctors. That was a role for men who could enroll in medical schools or apprentice with trained doctors. For various reasons, it wasn’t deemed suitable for women, and women were mostly kept out of mainstream medicine until the 20th century.

Medical reformers had a different view of women, though. Most not only welcomed female practitioners, they allowed them to attend their medical schools and training programs. Women became leaders of alternative medicine associations and opened their own private medical offices. Mary Gove Nichols opened her own water cure, and Lydia Folger Fowler, only the second woman to graduate with a medical degree in the United States, had a private medical office in New York City.

Hydropathy, or the water cure, took a particularly liberating view of women. Contemporary medical theory viewed being female as a disease in of itself. Women were irrational and ruled by their wombs. The natural processes of a woman’s life–menstruation, pregnancy–were seen as diseases that needed to be controlled, usually by men. To be female was to be a problem in need of a solution. Hydropaths took a different path, choosing not to medicalize women. They instead viewed women’s life events as natural and normal, and argued that hydropathy gave women control over their bodies; something they rarely had in any part of their lives. This was an empowering and radical idea that attracted a large number of women eager to exert control over their own bodies and their own lives.

Hydropath Mary Gove Nichols

Homeopathy, osteopathy, Thomsonism, and phrenology were among the many others that welcomed women into their fields. And doing so, allowed their movements to grow exponentially.

Many women wouldn’t talk about health issues with a male doctor. Women in alternative medicine discussed topics and introduced health concepts that many women would never have learned about otherwise. These women doctors gave lectures on women’s and children’s health, and wrote books geared specifically toward women. At water cures, women were needed to serve as attendants and doctors to female visitors.

This more open attitude toward women was, in part, a reflection of the times. Middle class reformers of all kinds worked to make the world a better, cleaner, safer, free-er, happier place in the 19th century. Women played a particularly active role in reform efforts, as they were one way that women could be politically active and still maintain their womanly “virtue.” Many of the same people that were attracted to abolition and woman’s rights were also attracted to medical reform. The lines between all these reformers blurred and overlapped in innumerable ways, so it wasn’t too surprising that women would become such prominent players in alternative medicine.

Perhaps it’s just more surprising, and disappointing, that it took so long for mainstream medicine to come around.

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