Sunday, September 19, 2010

Misogyny and Medicine 1906 Montreal

I hardly know where to begin with this one: in 1906 a prominent Montreal and professor of the History of Medicine at McGill, published a rant against the American Woman in the Spectator, which was, I have discovered, 'an insurance weekly'. This rant, however, was picked up by both the New York Times and The Montreal Gazette.

This is the same man author Frances Fenwick WIlliams made fun of in her 1910 era novel, A Soul on Fire. She has her character write a book called "Women Explained" and participate in a lively dinner time discussion of Suffrage and Suffragettes. Fenwick Williams had worked as a secretary for MacPhail and apparently told him bluntly that she was making fun of him in her novel.

I downloaded this article while looking for Canadian views of the US in the period and vice versa, but upon reading the article about the MacPhail article, it becomes obvious that MacPhail isn't criticizing the American Woman. He is criticizing the New Woman of the Era. The new woman is too idle, he says. And too vain. Technology has taken away her work in the home so now she wants to do what men do.

Oddly, he looks to nature to support his claim that women are vain and unnaturally so. In the animal world, he writes, it is the male who struts his stuff.

He blames American fiction for creating a world where women aspire to a life of leisure and indulgence. "For reasons largely beyond her control, the primitive function (sic) of women such as preparing food and clothing, have become less incumbent upon her.(Tell that to Margaret of Flo in the City.) With one exception, that of maternity, they have been usurped by the male or replaced by hirelings. Every advance in industrial development, continually makes for the destruction of the family."

Now, for all MacPhail's erudition, there are many holes in this argument, an argument which still was used in the 1960's (in my history class when I debated 'women's lib' with the guys without ever having learned about the suffrage movement or the era of the 'new woman' so I was seriously handicapped) and, even today, by some tea party types (who are sometimes photogenic women). For instance, why is this man writing rants instead of out hunting for boar? And are the rich class the ONLY class? I mean, artistocratic women had always been relatively idle and they had one purpose, to procreate. One of the most silly things this man says, is that poor women have 'the refuge' of the factory to save them from a life of idleness. Some refuge, eh? ah, he's being tongue in cheek as he is a J W Robertson style back to the land (and back in time) advocate.

And yet there are truths to what he writes. Indeed, Miss Carrie Derick used this same argument, that the home has evolved from a center of production into a center of consumption, in a 1900 speech, to support feminist goals. And modern feminist scholar, Nan Enstad claims that working women in NY were inspired to act 'above their station' by the dime store novels they read that, I guess, supplied lower-brow Pride and Prejudice style fantasies to them.

Now, Derick, who was also a scientist, a botanist, and the first female full professor at McGill (1912) might have laughed at the idea that it is males who should dress up to attract females. She was homely in the extreme and I'm sure she had learned early that it is the pretty flower that attracts the men.And she probably knew from reading news reports on suffrage in the papers that it is the pretty suffragette who gets all the respect. My God, is Mrs. Wylie GOOD LOOKING!

Anyway, I have to digest this article, which is important for one reason. Dr. MacPhail was a prominent citizen, a man people listened to, a man of science who also had a way with words.

According to his obit in the Gazette, in 1938 at age 72, Andrew MacPhail was a prominent Montreal physician, professor of medicine, author and critic who achieved fame 'within and without' his profession, at home and across the sea. At one time he had been principal of a grammar school and on the editorial staff of the Gazette. He was a fellow of McGill and of the Royal Society of Canada and first Editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. He even wrote a bio of John McCrae, the doctor and poet who wrote In Flander's Field. He was 'a familiar figure on the Streets of Montreal and a staunch Britisher'. (He was knighted, eventually.)

Maybe he was sorry, eventually, for this essay. Maybe his ideas evolved. Or maybe he was just typical of his age and class of man, or maybe he was worse, being (I assume) a Puritan. (Norman Nicholson, my husband's great grandfather, and husband of Margaret and father of Marion, Edith and Flo, was not such a man. ) So just as you can't paint all women with one brush, you can't paint all men.

And if this man had been principal of a grammar school (and the principals were usually men, but not of the intellectual quality of this man) then no wonder Marion had such a hard time with her principals. They assumed she was inferior.

Is it also no wonder some people of the era wanted hospitals built that hired only women doctors and treated only women. Really, they did.

PS. There's no mention of a wife in his obit, so maybe all he needed was a good woman to set him straight. Actually, I just checked, this man is celebrated in PEI. It seems he had a family and that he came from the same Hebrides origins (SKYE) as the Nicholsons. Scotch, Protestant. And, yet, his ideas about women were quite the opposite of the Nicholson's. Edith may have known him. She worked in the Registrar's office at McGill.

Here's the article