Many films during Hollywood's Golden Age (the 1930s, '40s, and '50s) presented competent career women who, by the end of the movie, turned their backs on their successful careers to become happy homemakers, wives and mothers. The exception? Women physicians. Yes, there was marriage and motherhood, but the work continued, with the husband becoming a partner in the marriage, the parenting, and the work.
So, why was a doctor different from a lawyer, reporter, or businesswoman?
With few women physicians in practice, most filmgoers would never have met a woman doctor, making her a rare and exotic creature. Hollywood liked to show audiences lives that they would never live or people they would never meet. This made the woman doctor an attractive subject.
Here are some films worth watching:
Mary Stevens, MD is an early 1930s melodrama about a woman physician who has an affair with a colleague, resulting in an out-of-wedlock child. The beginning of the film illustrates the problems of setting up a practice for a woman doctor, from the moment of her graduation through the opening of a practice with a male colleague. By film's end, she is a successful, married pediatrician.
You Belong to Me, a prewar film from 1941, is a comedy-romance about a rich man, (played by Henry Fonda), who weds a general practitioner, Helen Hunt, M.D. (played by Barbara Stanwyck) with a thriving practice. Along with the romance and the comedy, the prefilm portrays this competent professional continuing on with her career.
The Girl in White, which came out in 1952, is based on the autobiography of distinguished physician Emily Dunning Barringer. The real Dr. Barringer, a former president of the American Medical Women's Association and vocal supporter of efforts to get women doctors military rank in the Armed Services during the Second World War, wrote about her difficulties getting hospital training. The film portrays this, along with challenges throughout her professional life.
To learn more about women physicians in history and film, visit the National Library of Medicine's searchable database, Celebrating America's Women Physicians.
Patricia Gallagher is a librarian at the National Information Center on Health Services Research and Health Care Technology at the National Library of Medicine. Come see her Thursday night, March 19, at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. She will be giving the Kate Hurd-Mead Lecture at 6:30 p.m.