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Women Healers: Always Essential Medical Workers

Women Healers

In honor of Women’s History Month, Penn Press is excited to share a new blog post from Susan Brandt, author of Women Healers: Gender, Authority, and Medicine in Early Philadelphia. Coming this spring, this new book explores the stories of women of European, African, and Native American descent who provided the bulk of health care in the greater Philadelphia area for centuries.

The COVID-19 pandemic has focused our attention on frontline health care workers. As Campbell Robertson and Robert Gebeloff point out in a recent New York Times article, “From the cashier to the emergency room nurse to the drugstore pharmacist to the home health aide taking the bus to check on her older client, the soldier on the front lines of the current national emergency is most likely a woman.” The newspaper’s data analysis found that one in three jobs held by women has been designated essential and the workers who populate this unseen labor force are often underpaid and undervalued.

Moreover, women hold seventy-six percent of all healthcare jobs in the United States. Nurses comprise the largest segment of healthcare professionals and over ninety percent are women.

Unfortunately, women health practitioners have also been underrepresented in the historiography of early America, and their essential medical work has been obscured by narratives that focus on male physicians and scientists. Standard historical narratives often depict these women as “amateurs” and emphasize their declining influence. By contrast, in Women Healers: Gender, Authority and Medicine in Early Philadelphia, I recover case studies from the greater Philadelphia area to demonstrate that Euro-American, Native American, and African American women played a central role in health care that continued into the nineteenth century.

Women healers served as essential medical workers long before Philadelphia was founded in 1682. Hannah Freeman, a Lenape (Delaware) healer, represents Indigenous women who garnered healing authority based on their knowledge of local botanicals and reputations for successful cures. Euro-American women settlers in Pennsylvania sought Lenape women’s acknowledged expertise. They also built on the legacies of their European foremothers. Gulielma Springett Penn, the wife of Pennsylvania’s Quaker founder, William Penn, was recognized for her proficiency in medicine, surgery, ophthalmology, pharmacy, and nursing. In addition to medical skills, English Quaker women healers conveyed to Pennsylvania radical ideas about equality, female education, and public activism.

Elizabeth Coates Paschall, a widowed Philadelphia Quaker merchant, exemplifies women who learned healing skills from their first-generation settler mothers. Paschall kept a detailed medical recipe manuscript that describes her remedy ingredients, patient consultations, medical experiments, and extensive health information networks that bolstered her healing authority. The rise of Enlightenment science offered women such as Paschall new opportunities. Undeterred by male natural philosophers’ contentions that women were innately too “irrational” to contribute to the sciences, Paschall read medical texts, engaged in experimentation, and participated in scientific societies. Her healing remedies demonstrate women’s contributions to medical knowledge production. Paschall’s self-confidence is reflected in the phrase “cured when the doctors failed,” which repeats like a refrain in her medical manuscript.

In an unregulated medical marketplace, women of various classes and ethnicities practiced healing unimpeded by governmental restrictions. Black women retained African healing knowledge and practices despite the brutal forced migrations of the Atlantic slave trade. The freedwoman healer Anna Dalemoa Bellamy, who specialized in bone setting, dentistry, and wound care in mid-eighteenth-century Philadelphia, was described as “a woman of education” and “the black doctor.” Her contemporary, Margaret Hill Morris, a white Quaker healer, also developed a thriving medical and apothecary practice in her home.

In the 1820s and 1830s, an emphasis on women’s education along with a popular health movement opened new opportunities for women. Their work as public health educators and practitioners in novel medical movements posed a challenge to physicians who had graduated from traditional medical schools. Women practiced as hydropaths, Thomsonian herbalists, Eclectic doctors, and homeopaths. It was no accident that the first women’s medical school was founded in Philadelphia in 1850 by homeopathic doctors and the Quaker health educator, Hannah Longshore. Rather, it was the result of unique circumstances that supported a robust culture of women’s health care work in the region for almost two hundred years.

Women healers were not inflexible traditional practitioners destined to fall victim to Enlightenment science, capitalism, and medical professionalization. Instead, women adapted their practices as they found new sources of health care authority through medical information networks, manuscript authorship, female education, health reform, and access to medical print media. Female doctors, herbalists, and apothecaries also participated in an unregulated health care marketplace and created new arenas to assert their expertise. Professional women physicians, pharmacists, and nurses would later build on this foundation. The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that women healers and their longstanding essential medical work deserve recognition.