Women have fought to secure a place in male-dominated professions for decades. But is modern feminism really the best way for women to thrive in a career?
When women first began working in jobs previously dominated by men, they needed to quickly adapt to the office environment, which included male co-workers, with their practices and expectations. On top of all the challenges these pioneers faced, they had to answer the question, “What is my place in this career as a female?” Even now, and in occupations that have more equitable numbers of men and women, we still need to answer that question. But how?
The Dilemma of British Female Doctors
In World War I era Britain, female doctors wanted to serve their country in military hospitals along the front. They were denied. At the same time, female nurses were deployed all over Europe and publicly praised for their heroism. The reason for this disparity? Nurses were seen as completing “what has always been women’s mission” instead of deviating from it. One popular magazine of the day actually said, “the patriarchal establishment need have nothing to fear. . .this nurse runs no risk of losing her femininity.”
On the other hand, the physician was seen as an exclusively male role, which meant it needed to be assumed either by men or by women who conformed to the image of men. Female first-year medical students were told that they “had to learn to not just be doctors, but to be just like male doctors; they needed to conform to the norm rather than redefine the profession.”
Nurses were seen as completing a “woman’s mission,” while female doctors were deviating from it.
There are two ways to solve this problem. The first is to agree that men make better doctors and to urge women to either pursue nursing if they want to keep their femininity intact, or to lose their lipstick, friendly smiles, and gentle natures and become some sort of pseudo-male physician. This pressure still exists today, in a host of different fields of work. Consider one of the most pervasive lies in modern feminism: womanly qualities are weak and undesirable, exchange them for those that are more masculine and you will succeed.
Florence Nightingale, the trailblazer of nursing herself, would disagree with this approach. In a personal letter, she wrote that she was tired of seeing female doctors at all. For “the women have made no improvement – they have only tried to be 'men' and they have only succeeded in being third-rate men.” As Nightingale could see, even in a time when female doctors were legally discriminated against, exchanging your personal identity for another’s solves nothing. A woman tasked with being a man will always fail, and so any system, antique or modern, that tries to stamp out true femininity in this way will provide no sustainable change, no world where men and women are valued for being different yet equal.
The Other Solution
What’s the other way to solve this problem? Instead of trying to change women to become like men, change the role itself to incorporate masculinity and femininity. Redefining the profession itself to accommodate the strengths of both genders will alone provide lasting change.
Elle Woods Maintains Her Femininity
That’s the beauty of Elle Woods’ character in Legally Blonde, played by the delightful Reese Witherspoon. When her ex-boyfriend Warner tells her that she will never succeed, “You’re not smart enough, sweetie,” she throws herself into her studies, at first to prove him wrong, but really to prove something to herself.
Fast forward, and she is now a “serious law student” (to quote the movie) who pours over case studies, spends a lot of time in the library, and has excellent things to say in class. You’d think that part of this transformation would naturally include her losing her old fashionista friends, ignoring the hair salon, and just telling her professor the suspect’s alibi, never mind that she promised not to. Uh, wrong!
When Elle walks into court that last day, she doesn’t come in as something she’s not. She walks in wearing pink from head to toe. She doesn’t apologize for being feminine, for showing kindness to Brooke, or even for enjoying doing her hair. In fact, it’s because she enjoys going to the hair salon that she solves the case in the end.
Because of the unique skills and experiences that Elle brought to the table, she was the only one on that legal team who could have figured how to prove their client’s innocence. It turns out that her “blonde-ness” was needed in that courtroom. Think of what a shame it would have been if she threw all that away to become what a law student “should” be like?
Okay, so maybe Elle Woods isn’t a real person. But there are other historical examples we can look to, including those British female doctors who were denied the privilege of caring for their country’s wounded in World War I through the Royal Army Medical Corps. Undaunted, many of them chose to go to the war anyway, working with civilian hospitals.
The Scottish Women's Hospital
The most well-known of these was the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH), medical centers for the wounded that were staffed entirely by female doctors and nurses, with only a few male orderlies. The SWH spread to half a dozen countries during the war and treated soldiers and civilians from several Allied countries. Among those near the front was a woman named Dr. Alice Hutchinson. As a physician, she excelled in her work, provided great care, marched bravely into war zones, and paved the way for generations of women physicians.
After running a SWH in France, Hutchinson moved to Serbia to help with a typhoid outbreak. When the Austrian military overran the country, many doctors and nurses decided to stay to help the wounded instead of retreating with the Serbian army, Hutchinson being one of them. She was captured by the invaders and eventually released.
How did she do all those amazing things? Not by rejecting the unique strengths that women possess, but by embracing them and carrying them with her into work. One younger doctor especially looked up to Hutchinson as “a model for all I wished to be myself. She was a wise and observant physician. . .tiny and pretty, she dared to be feminine.” Hutchinson not only survived in an intense, dangerous environment, but she also thrived, and she did so without ignoring some of her most fundamental qualities, strengths, and personality traits.
Alice Hutchinson “was a wise and observant physician. . .tiny and pretty, she dared to be feminine.”
Because of the physical and cultural bravery of these extraordinary women, the ideas surrounding who one had to be to be a doctor were completely transformed, even to the extent that by the end of the war, the British government actively recruited women in medicine.
Instead of following a culture that demands to become more like men in order to have more value in the workplace, we need to celebrate and lift up femininity. What will you, as a woman, bring to the table in your marriage or career that those around you can’t?