She’s Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ most famous alumna. Her name can be found on street signs, study rooms, and scholarships. Students touring HWS make a stop at the statue of her looking out on the quad. Since 1958, Hobart and WIlliam Smith Colleges have honored her with an award in her name to be presented to “a woman whose life exemplifies outstanding service to humanity”.
So what did Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell really stand for?
To many, she’s known as the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. The story of her being accepted into Geneva Medical College as a joke, only to graduate at the top of her class is well-known amongst HWS students. She went on to author numerous books on medical care, establish the Women’s Central Association of Relief to organize women for the treatment of soldiers in the Civil War, and founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
It cannot be denied that Dr. Blackwell helped to open the door for women’s rights in the United States and earned a legacy of accomplishment in the field of medicine. However, it should not be ignored that that legacy is complicated by her convictions and objectives of racial purity.
Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University, Kyla Schuller wrote in The Biopolitics of Feeling, “Elizabeth Blackwell explained that the “medical profession” has a “special and weighty responsibility . . . to watch over the cradle of the race; to see that human beings are well born, well nourished, and well educated.”
Blackwell was a prominent figure in the social hygiene movement and a major proponent of Christian Physiology. It was her view that sex and reproduction must occur in a very limited and deliberate manner for the preservation of “civilized races”.
Schuller describes how Blackwell “joined feminists objecting to the [British Contagious Diseases Act] on the grounds that Britain’s continued sponsorship of prostitution in its colonies, particularly India, was resulting in the “gravest form of racial injury”—disease spread as the result of interracial sex.”
In Blackwell’s view, “the special danger of specific diseases also arriving from the congress of different races, is a well-known fact.”
In fact, Blackwell would argue that any disease resulting from sex or being present at birth was a moral injury. She cautioned “that it is a cruelty and a crime to bring sickly children into the world.” Schuller describes the detail Blackwell went into “[i]n outlining these eugenic goals” explaining that “[d]isease disqualified an individual from matrimony; a couple in which both possess the risk of consumption or insanity ‘should be forbidden by law to intermarry, for the offspring are certain to be either idiots, cripples, or defective.’”
Still, Blackwell’s ideals of racial purity extended beyond preventing interracial coupling or the birth of children with disabilities. It was her view that poor and working-class women also had little to contribute to the health of the nation. “The greatest good that working women can now do to their country, is to leave it.”
Even aside from her classist, ableist and racist convictions, Dr. Blackwell remains a complicated figure in regards to women’s rights. Schuller discusses Dr. Blackwell’s “uneasy relationship to women’s rights and her strident moralism: she dismissed the campaign for woman suffrage (in which many of her family members were very much involved) as ‘an antiman movement’.”
Elizabeth Blackwell is one of the most famous and consequential people to have passed through Geneva, but it may be time to seriously consider how HWS looks back on that legacy. Currently, the HWS website announces that “Hobart and William Smith Colleges take special pride in claiming Dr. Blackwell as an alumna.”