Women Physicians In China
In the late nineteenth century, the need for women physicians in missionary hospitals in Canton, China, led to expanded opportunities for both Western women and Chinese women. The presence of Western women as medical missionaries in China was made possible by certain changes within the Western missionary movement. Beginning in the 1870s, increasingly large numbers of women were forming women’s foreign mission societies dedicated to the support of women’s foreign mission work. Beyond giving the women who organized the societies a formal activity outside their home circles, these organizations enabled an increasing number of single women missionaries (as opposed to women who were part of the more typical husband-wife missionary teams) to work abroad. Before the formation of these women’s organizations, mission funds had been collected by ministers and other church leaders, most of whom emphasized local parish work. What money was spent on foreign missions was under the control of exclusively male foreign mission boards whose members were uniformly uneasy about the new idea of sending single women out into the mission field. But as women’s groups began raising impressive amounts of money donated specifically in support of single women missionaries, the home churches bowed both to women’s changing roles at home and to increasing numbers of single professional missionary women abroad.
Although the idea of employing a woman physician was a daring one for most Western missionaries in China, the advantages of a well-trained Western woman physician could not be ignored by Canton mission hospital administrators. A woman physician could attend women patients without offending any of the accepted conventions of female modesty. Eventually, some of these women were able to found and head separate women’ medical institutions, thereby gaining access to professional responsibilities far beyond those available to them at home.
These developments also led to the attainment of valuable training and status by a significant number of Chinese women. The presence of women physicians in Canton mission hospitals led many Chinese women to avail themselves of Western medicine who might otherwise have failed to do so because of their culture’s emphasis on physical modesty. In order to provide enough women physicians for these patients, growing numbers of young Chinese women were given instruction in medicine. This enabled them to earn an independent income, something that was then largely unavailable to women within traditional Chinese society. Many women graduates were eventually able to go out on their own into private practice, freeing themselves of dependence upon the mission community.
The most important result of these opportunities was the establishment of clear evidence of women’s abilities and strengths, clear reasons for affording women expanded opportunities, and clear role models for how these abilities and responsibilities might be exercised.