Event Recap: From Farmer’s Daughter to Physician

By , May 23, 2017
Dr. Gesa Kirsch at Countway Library, 25 April 2017

Dr. Gesa Kirsch at Countway Library, 25 April 2017

On April 25th, Dr. Gesa E. Kirsch, Professor of English at Bentley University, presented on her research about Dr. Mary Bennett Ritter, an early 20th century California physician, civic leader, and women’s rights’ activist, and read from her recently published edition of Dr. Ritter’s memoir More than Gold in California: The Life and Work of Dr. Mary Bennett Ritter.

During her talk, Dr. Kirsch detailed Dr. Ritter’s life as a physician. Born in 1860, Dr. Ritter earned her MD at Cooper Medical College in San Francisco in 1886, now the Stanford University School of Medicine. In addition to practicing medicine, Dr. Ritter taught at UC Berkeley and worked as an advocate for women students. In particular, Dr. Kirsch highlighted the story of how Dr. Ritter worked with women students to get around inequalities in facilities on campus:

For example, the men had had a gymnasium and instruction in gymnastics for years. It was assumed to be beneficial to their health and therefore a necessity. But this argument did not apply to the girls. The idea seemed rather to be that regular gymnastic exercise would be detrimental to their well-being. I sometimes felt as if the masculine powers-that-be thought that women were made of glass and might break to pieces if they fell down. But the girls did not think that way.

In the passing years old Harmon Gymnasium had been enlarged to nearly treble the original size, with offices appended in the rear. This made the girls ambitious, until finally a group visited the instructor of gymnastics beseeching the privilege of using the “gym” part of the time. Reluctantly the instructor said, “Of course you have a right to part time in the gymnasium and I would be willing to give you instruction, but the boys use the gym for dressing for track practice – and – and – the only time possible for your use would be after they go home at five o’clock. I would be willing to give you one hour a week at that time.” After the girls had expressed their gratitude for that crumb, he added, “But I could not possibly admit anyone to the class without a medical examination and there is no money for that.”

Alas for his foxy loop-hole! He had not counted on feminine determination. When a woman wants a thing, she wants it. The girls talked matters over and a day or two later the same group called on me and told me their story, asking if I would be willing to make the medical examinations without pay. I readily consented. This was in 1891. The instructor gallantly allowed me to use the gymnasium examining room with its apparatus for the medical tests. Thus the entering wedge was made for the vast amount of fine training of many sorts which the women students have enjoyed these later years in the beautiful Hearst Gymnasium. Until this present year I have never passed the palatial women’s building and then old Harmon Gymnasium without a broad and somewhat sardonic grin.

Mary Bennett Ritter, More Than Gold in California, 201-203.

Dr. Ritter is known as the first unofficial dean for women at UC Berkeley, and was awarded an honorary PhD by UC Berkeley for her work. She published her autobiography More than Gold in California in 1933 and died in 1949. Dr. Kirsch’s current research explores the rhetorical strategies, professional networks, and social activism of a group of late nineteenth-century women physicians through the Women’s Medical Journal. She was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend to continue this research.

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