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Monday, April 15, 2013

Guest Post by Zachary Jones

Exclusionary Tactics and the Masculine Codes of Honor: An Examination of Robert A. Nye’s Analysis of Women’s Admission to the Medical Profession in the Nineteenth Century

Robert A. Nye’s chapter titled: “The Legacy of Masculine Codes of Honor and the Admission of Women to the Medical Profession in the Nineteenth Century,” is an excellent synthesis of recent scholarship in the field of the history of women in medicine. Nye has noted that the historiography of women’s exclusion from these professions has often been interpreted through the lens of the “pipeline” metaphor. Drawing on this metaphor, (the idea that at all stages of a woman’s education, training, and practice, women have been forced to cope with obstacles that have put them at a “cumulative” career disadvantage). Nye argues that this interpretation lacks solid footing because it has the potential to reintroduce a “friendly version of essential gender difference.” Thus, because of this interpretation, scholars do not consider the culture of work practices within male-dominated professions and their effects on the inclusion of women into their ranks. It is with this brief synthesis that Nye asserts in his thesis that the exclusionary “masculinization” of the nineteenth century medical profession was a consequence of the social practices that were not originally intended to exclude women, but were set in place to prevent the admission of a “certain kind of man.” (Robert A. Nye, “The Legacy of Masculine Codes of Honor and the Admission of Women to the Medical Profession in the Nineteenth Century,” in Women Physicians and the Cultures of Medicine, eds. Ellen S. More, Elizabeth Fee, and Manon Parry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 141-159).  

            Within the body of Nye’s work, he asserts that aristocratic man’s historical independence within civilized society, a class based phenomenon, allowed for the exclusion of men that could not emulate the independence that upper class men asserted in the secret societies that proliferated throughout the nineteenth century. As Nye notes, such organizations as the General Medical Council, (created in 1858) were formed for the purpose of professionalizing the field.  However, they also functioned both informally and surreptitiously as they kept members accountable through “intraprofessional” regulation. Writes Nye: “There was no written code that might serve as a statutory benchmark;” moreover, men who had no knowledge of the codes were unable to be admitted, a telling insight into why women were unable to be admitted as well (Nye 145). 

            With the advent of the twentieth century, the informal organization within medical societies proliferated. Though women could now gain admission to formerly all-male state schools, they were often discouraged from participating in the non-educational facets of the profession, particularly the social networking aspect. Nye notes that women’s entrance into the medical profession during the twentieth century was followed by a “hierarchy of disincentives ranging from brutal to subtle” that were informally instituted within the masculine sociability of the profession.  In Victorian terminology, the vices of alcohol, smoking and profanity were seen as essential to male solidarity, excluding women through the traditional rhetoric of difference (Nye, 148).  As a letter to the editor by the medical practitioner J.H. Crane demonstrates, Crane and a host of other practitioners deemed women to be unfit for the rigors of the medical profession. “I allow no man to go further than I do in admiration, love and esteem for female modesty…but when she steps aside and attempts a role that she is by nature physically and mentally disqualified for, she forfeits the claims of a modest woman” (J.H. Crane, “Protest Against Receiving Females as Members of the State Medical Society,” Pacific Medical and Surgical Journal 19, no. 1 (June 1876), 22). The central theme of Crane’s analysis, that female modesty is of the highest virtue for women to attain contradicts the fraternizing that comprises the core solidarity of the medical profession. Moreover, as women attempted to participate in these social functions, they often ran the risk of being subjected by their male peers to the perception of being “desexed” (Nye 149).  

            The contribution of Nye’s work to the abounding scholarship on women and medicine is crucial in that it broadens our understanding of the patterns of male modes of sociability within the medical profession. By understanding these modes of masculinity and their dominance within the medical profession, we now have a more definitive context by which to understand the causes of women’s exclusion from its ranks.