ENG 213 Archives Project at the Geneva Historical Society

"160 Years of Public Ambiguity: Inquiring into the Reception History of
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Social and Medical Pioneer"

Elizabeth Blackwell: A Poster-Girl for Any Cause
Although Blackwell worked towards equity between women and men, she did not align herself with the extreme, "man-hating" feminists. Because she didn't associate herself with radical feminism, we see her today as a much more liberal and intelligent person. Radical ideals are often perceived as negative; Blackwell was smart to steer clear of anything that would belittle her success and influence as the first female doctor. Although Blackwell did not intentionally work for any particular cause, she has been used as the poster-girl for many--including the feminist movement, medical advancement groups, and even the US government's idea of a driven citizen. --Nell Herberich

Elizabeth Blackwell: Misfit and Rebel turned Revered Pioneer after 160 Years
Progress by breaking gender barriers meets resistance from both men and women.  Pioneers in all professional fields- medical, military, sports, etc.- attracts a great deal of attention.  It seems that the individual's willingness to bear both negative and positive attention- as Blackwell did- paves the path for the rest of humanity no matter how slow or difficult the change can be. --Jamie Rasmussen

Misinterpreting Elizabeth Blackwell's Motives for the Greater Good?
When the time is taken to analyze Blackwell's viewpoint on the feminist movements of her time, it is seen that she is very adamant that women should strive to reach their goals as individuals rather than as a group. Blackwell did not believe that all women deserved equal opportunity, yet because she was the first woman to break barriers and earn a medical degree, she is often associated with feminism and women's rights. Presently, Blackwell's work is construed to have been acting on the behalf of women. Though she may not have supported radical female activists at the time, Blackwell's work is still inspiring for young women today, as she opened the doors for women in medicine. --Kendall Griffith

Elizabeth Blackwell: A Public Commodity
At a time when women had no collective representation, Blackwell's advances as an individual were momentous. By claiming her achievements for the good of the group, other ambitious women could follow her precedent and assert themselves, standing stronger with the support of others. From this perspective, Blackwell seems to be much more of a pioneer than an individualist: at least, it softens our impression of her more selfish intentions. Blackwell's accomplishments are really only noteworthy because of the minority group of which she is a part, whether she asserts her work on the behalf of other women or not. It seems Blackwell was aware of this when she entitled her autobiography "Pioneer Work," for it is impossible to be a trailblazer if there is someone else to follow. --Melissa Backus

Ignoring Elizabeth Blackwell: Misinterpretations of Elizabeth Blackwell over 160 Years
The peculiarity of Blackwell's perspective on the Women's Movement remains.  Throughout the years since Blackwell first began her medical journey, we rarely find accounts of her personal feelings toward the women's movement, and take into account mostly the feminist perspective of the writer that tells her story from varying view points.  Perhaps there should be more emphasis on her own opinion, as her success is a true account of the effectiveness of her outlook, as opposed to the writer's perspective. --Elizabeth Perry

160 Years of Public Ambiguity: Uncovering Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the Woman Behind the Pioneer
Constructions of Elizabeth Blackwell over the past 160 years have been highly reflective of changing times, attitudes and various cultural events. Although the significance of Blackwell's  achievements have been universally recognized and generally put in a positive light, representations of her as an individual, including her personality, upbringing, social life, and personal preferences, are highly diverse across the various representations we have examined. This is due to a variety of factors including constantly fluctuating American public sentiment, gender divisions, and also self- versus second-hand representation. These different portrayals over the span of her legacy are responsible for the elusive, questionable gray area surrounding Blackwell that despite a century and a half of studies has still not found total clarity.  --Grace B. Hunt

Intra-gender Women's Discrimination
On various occasions, Elizabeth Blackwell's struggles amid her medical success were generally thought to be associated with the dominant male population. However, the issue of women accepting and promoting their gender's occupational opportunities seemed to be an even more prevalent issue. Blackwell's dedication to improving women's career statuses began to diffuse throughout society, causing the awareness of the inequality of women. Blackwell's accomplishments were essential because she proved to the general public that women should not be "molded" into the stereotypical domesticated role and that they could contribute their intelligence in bettering humanity. Her initiative may not have been favored at first, but it took many years for men and women to accept the idea of reforming society and for women to be accepted socially into the medical field. Even if Blackwell had not intentionally pursued her career for the benefits of other women, she represented the female population by proving that women's success was absolutely obtainable and not impossible. --Bernadette Wormuth

Yesterday's Rebel is Today's Role Model
Since Elizabeth Blackwell earned her medical degree in 1849, her alma mater has celebrated her name. Hobart and William Smith Colleges, which trace their founding to Geneva College, recognized that having had the first female doctor graduate from their institution was a major historical contribution. An award, given to a woman who exemplifies outstanding service to humanity, was first issued in 1958 in honor of Blackwell. A statue of Elizabeth Blackwell was erected in 1994 by professor Ted Aub, which represents her as a student at Geneva Medical College and is currently displayed on the southwest corner of Hobart and William Smith's main quad. Society has become very accepting of rebellion, and Elizabeth Blackwell has certainly been immortalized for her rebel ways.

In more recent writings on Blackwell, she has been portrayed as a persistent player in the struggle for women's rights.  While Blackwell did play some part in the Women's movement during her retirement, medicine was essentially her life. She valued her accomplishments for American females in the medical field so much that she moved to England just to repeat the process.  But quite often her persistence is mistaken as blatant feminism. --Melanie Devuyst

The 160 Years of Mystery Surrounding Elizabeth Blackwell
The construction of Blackwell's identity reflects the history of the time during which an article was written.  She started off being ridiculed by other women during her time at Geneva Medical College.  Women would stare when she came down the street.  However, she slowly became a public icon and household name-- but not until around 100 years later when she received recognition for her tremendous struggles. Blackwell was used as an inspiration during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  This is when she was shaped into a public icon and poster girl.  It seems that the feminist movement was largely responsible for this shift in the construction of Blackwell as a pioneer, as well as emphasizing her journey to obtain an M.D. She was then adopted by feminist movements as a rebel, and a legend.  However, an emphasis was placed on her ability to maintain her femininity.  Her iron-willed personality was accompanied by a charm and poise, as authors of the 1960-1970s constructed her.  In more recent times, Blackwell's supposedly true colors are coming out.  Authors today are arguing that she was not a women's rights figure and that she did not believe in equal opportunity, but rather she was just used as an icon.  Overall, there is no way to know which time period constructed the true Elizabeth Blackwell.  Even glimpses of her diary do not convey the full extent of who she was.  Apparently, she is always going to remain a mystery. --Megan Kuechle

The Two Sides of Elizabeth Blackwell: Pioneer or Rebel?
Blackwell's contemporaries had contradicting views of her persistent actions, possibly due to uncertainty of what results they would produce.  In the mid-1800s, women were placed into feminine roles and were judged based on how they conformed to these roles.  Because Blackwell altered her role as a woman in pursuing a career as a physician, some viewed her as abnormal and unnecessarily rebellious, while others admired her strength and courage and saw what her accomplishments could lead to in the future.  Blackwell inspired those of the latter viewpoint, and many of them began to take risks themselves in order to cross the social barriers. --Alyssa Turose

160 Years of Mystery, Accomplishments and Countless Questions-Attempting to Decode the Truth: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Blackwell
In the drive to place a name, face, and specific person as a pioneer blazing to forward a movement and to set an example for others, the personal interests and identity of that individual can sometimes be left in the dust. After researching many perspectives in the stories written about Elizabeth Blackwell's life, very rarely (with the exception of  her own biography and a church sermon we came upon by Pastor Hart) is one able to hear her own personal stories and experiences surrounding her medical career and life. In most literature, Blackwell was painted in an extreme feminist perspective--as a female pioneer with the one wish to break through the boundaries of the male brotherhood of medicine. Rather than applauding her work as an individual attempting to reach her greatest potential, possibly simply for her own gratification, Blackwell's individuality and life experiences seem to have been washed aside in order to fulfill this prescribed role. Whether it be feminists looking for a female figurehead to publicly honor, a college looking for publicity, or media in need of a story, it has become clear to me that by attempting to portray an individual as a "pioneer" who spearheaded a movement, their individual merits and life experiences eventually get pushed aside by most, and in the end they become recognized solely for their prescribed description which society has created in order to fit them neatly into the role of "pioneer". --Laura Harrington-Knopf

160th Anniversary of Elizabeth Blackwell: The Woman Behind the Social and Medical Pioneer
The portrayal of Elizabeth Blackwell in literature of the past 160 years has been centered on her achievements as a woman breaking barriers in both society and the medical field.  Over the years, the portrayal of her character has been somewhat neglected, and often times skewed.  In the attempt to decode the true character of Elizabeth Blackwell, which is arguably the most important factor in her achievements and the inspiration for women ever since, controversy abounds.  Writers, including Elizabeth Blackwell herself, have adapted their portrayal of her to fit the time period and purpose to which they are writing.  Through our collaborative assessment of the available literature, we have identified the commonalities and differences between the portrayals of Elizabeth Blackwell in order to understand the true individual. --Kelsey McLaughlin

The Two Elizabeth Blackwells
To oversimplify Blackwell one could see her in two different lights: either as a tumultuous rebel or as a pioneer of advances in medicine and humanity.  While it can be argued that nothing is this black and white, it is important to notice the circumstances in which Blackwell is referred to as either of the above constructions.  It seems to follow that Blackwell is noted as a pioneer (with positive connotations, as the word pioneer suggests) when removed from the context of her personal biography in the later stages of her life and posthumously, such as in the cases of the medical advances to which she contributed, the Blackwell Award, and her relationship to women in society.  It is on the subject of Blackwell herself (her background and biographical life) that assumptions and judgments are passed - both positive and negative - as to her actual character and behavior.  This is seen with the way in which Margaret Munro DeLancey, quite negatively, responded to Blackwell's graduation from Geneva Medical College.  A possible explanation for this could be that different people react differently to change, which causes turmoil in a society.  Thus negative constructions are made during the time of Blackwell's life and in reflection of her personal biography.  As time passes and "the change" has already occurred, negative constructions are overshadowed by the glory of such actions/achievements. --Isabella Comstock

Does History Portray the True Elizabeth Blackwell?: 160 Years of Being Used for Publicity and Support
  In the years since Blackwell's success activists such as those for women's rights as well as institutions such as the Colleges and even the U.S have used Blackwell as a tool for gaining attention, publicity and/or support for their cause. They do this first by portraying characteristics about Blackwell that make her likeable, normal, and relatable, all, of course, within the framework of the times.
      During the WWII era and the years following this meant being independent but still domesticated. Many authors of this time period emphasized in their writing the hardships Blackwell faced, seemingly for the purpose of creating sympathy for her as if she were in need of support. Blackwell was recognized as a role model for her achievements but was not recognized as an empowered strong woman. This portrayal changed in the second half of the 20th century when the second wave of feminism began. Second wave feminists thought it necessary to portray Blackwell as strong and confident, implying that all women could be successful like Blackwell. Some second-wave feminists also wrote about Blackwell's struggles, however, they did so for the purpose of encouraging persistence in the fight for equality for women despite hardships. By the late1970s the second wave of feminism was over. Along with its many accomplishments, it had generated a stigma for radical feminists who were stereotypically strong and masculine. During this time the portrayal of Blackwell seems to shift more towards a traditional, feminine lady-like persona. The portrayal of Blackwell today hasn't changed much since the 1970s: she is portrayed often as young and beautiful. When linked to her determination and success, this portrayal makes her a typical role model for girls and young women today living in our highly superficial society. --Aubrie Augustine

Elizabeth Blackwell's Experience
Elizabeth Blackwell was a woman working to become a doctor in a male world. In many accounts of writings on Elizabeth Blackwell and in her own autobiography one wonders what she really felt like going through an oppressive society that didn't welcome women's success whatsoever. I believe that Blackwell chose not to focus on the difficulties and prejudices because it was a defensive mechanism for herself. She chose to write on the positive aspects of pursuing her M.D and she rarely discussed how people truly treated her or how she felt. I think she was utterly alone and although she had support amongst her family and friends, no one knew how she felt nor could they relate, and the only way to survive was to remain completely positive through a lonely and hard road toward becoming a woman doctor in an all male occupation world. --Alyssa David

Interpretations of Elizabeth Blackwell
Over the course of the last one hundred-sixty years Elizabeth Blackwell has been represented through literature in different ways and through different perspectives.  Generally we've seen the social atmosphere of the time period and its gender norms to be the factors that influence writers' perspectives and determine writers' uses for her in literature.  Traveling through the timeline since her death, we've seen her constructed as a pioneer in the later part of the nineteenth century, a strong-willed female in the mid-twentieth century, and today as a suffragist for women's rights.  The noticeable theme is that she's become more recognized for her achievements for women's rights rather than for her medical accomplishments.  --Sarah Gall

Celebrating Elizabeth Blackwell: A Heroine in a Medical Revolution
Elizabeth Blackwell overcame monumental adversities when she was accepted into Geneva Medical College to achieve her goal in becoming a physician. Disapproval came during that time not only from men but also from women in the community. Women judged her for trying to take on a role which was at that time solely meant for men and socially unacceptable for a woman. It wasn't until some years later that the women's rights movement really began to explode and Blackwell's accomplishments were truly celebrated. She was certainly ahead of her time and paved the way for other women. Even now, 160 years later, we are still admiring her work and the ways in which she helped to revolutionize the role of women. --Tairmae Kangarloo

Bragging about Blackwell
Through reading all the different perspectives over time, we can see that Elizabeth Blackwell will always be a woman who became a doctor. But it seems unlikely that she will ever be talked about as just a doctor. Though Blackwell is highly recognized, I do not think she would be happy with how she is associated with medicine. She saw herself as a hardworking individual, not as a hardworking woman. Also the general pattern of works about her is that they use her as a promotion. What Blackwell did was an amazing thing and people can't help but brag about it and take advantage of her success. Each time period examined at had a purpose to exploit her and each time it involved her gender. --Tallarie Thurgood

The Dynamic Portrayal of Elizabeth Blackwell Over the Last 160 Years
Despite the extensive collaborative research our class has done, each person still has a very unique interpretation of who Elizabeth Blackwell is. This correlates with the different ways in which various literature throughout the last one hundred and sixty years has portrayed Blackwell. Each literary construction of Blackwell's medical career provides rich evidence of the social and political views of the time period it which it was produced. While many are inspired by her life, each person's admiration for Blackwell stems from distinct qualities of Blackwell and assorted aspects of her journey. Blackwell's life seems to be open for interpretation, whether it be positive or negative, and is reflective of the time period she in which she is analyzed. --Abi Wikoff

Medicine over Feminism
In more recent writings on Blackwell, she has been portrayed as a persistent player in the struggle for women's rights.  While Blackwell did play some part in the Women's movement during her retirement; medicine was essentially her life. She valued her accomplishments for American females in the medical field so much that she moved to England just to repeat the process.  But quite often her persistence is mistaken as blatant feminism. --Liz Mills



ENG 213 Archives Project at the Geneva Historical Society: Elizabeth Blackwell

Assistant Professor of English Sarah Russo
Fall 2009

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