The Personal in the Professional: a 19th-Century Hangover

By Amanda Barnett

“Mother. Neuroscientist. Researcher.” These words begin the profile of Dr. Diane Snow, the Honors College’s new dean, featured in my institution’s newspaper. The dean has a PhD in neuroscience, although she is never given the title of Dr. in the article. She taught the subject and studied spinal cord injuries before making the move to dean. And yet, the first word of her profile has nothing to do with the reason she is being profiled. It is instead a nod to her personal life, a fact that would for a man likely be omitted or at least relegated to the last few sentences. I am neither suggesting that a woman cannot be both neuroscientist and mother, nor that the latter is not important to the dean’s identity; I am merely noting that in a profile focused on the professional but beginning with the personal is something that occurs more often for women than for men.

This kind of gender bias is incredibly common. Another profile of this sort, a 2013 New York Times obituary, praised rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’s cooking talents and parenting skills over her discoveries in jet and rocket propulsion technologies. In response, Rachel Swaby wrote Headstrong, a book of profiles that focuses exclusively on the professional lives of women scientists throughout history. In the introduction to her book, Swaby lists a number of moments in which scientific achievement was obscured by marital status or parental prowess.

Science is not the only realm where this issue exists. When Corey Cogdell-Unrein won her second Olympic medal at the 2016 Games she was rewarded by the Chicago Tribune with the tweet “wife of a Bears lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” Such gendered reporting inspired the Washington Post to run a story about the inequalities in Olympic reporting and The Tab published a satirical piece titled “Congrats Girl! Fiancé of former Miss California scoops his 25th medal: AKA – if we talked about male Olympians the way we talk about female athletes.” The seeming ridiculousness of the latter article points clearly to the gendered disconnect in the ways we talk about the accomplishments of women and men.

Although the student paper did eventually focus on Snow’s professional achievements until the last section of the article, that first word cannot be forgotten. It colors everything that comes after. As Swaby’s book makes clear, the tendency to highlight the personal before the professional in writing about women is not new nor is it going away—this problem has deep roots in history. This negotiation between a woman’s personal life, which was inseparable from the home, and her public persona is a holdover from a time when women were just beginning to be noticed as actors in the professional world. Unquestioned sexism that has been carried over from the past is harmful and insidious, and it continues to keep the identities of professional women linked inextricably to wifehood and motherhood.

For 19th century women, the personal was more public than it was for men. Unlike men, women’s personal lives were often seen as inseparable from their public lives. While this link between women and the domestic was a byproduct of patriarchal constructions of labor, women also strengthened this bond. Not only were women challenged in the press for trying to break into the professional world, but many women who wrote autobiographies in the 19th century, especially doctors and social reformers, also made moves that demonstrated that their public lives were sidelined in favor of their family lives. Despite the appearance of more flexible gender roles, these moves have carried over to the 21st century.

Newspaper and magazine articles in the 19th century were likely to link women to the men in their lives, and often referred to them as Ms., even in cases, where they had official medical degrees, like Elizabeth Blackwell. Although many professional women, especially doctors, did not marry, those who did were often discussed as wifely helpers to their husbands instead of equal partners. In an 1869 American Phrenological Journal article praising Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the author chiefly relates the story of her life through the relationships with her father and brother. The writer concludes by making it clear that despite her work on reforms she “has by no means neglected her own domestic affairs.” Much of her positive press coverage calls her “womanly,” “motherly,” and “honorable” before “intelligent,” while the men in her circles are labeled “industrious” and “able.” Many articles emphasize the femininity of professional women as a counter to the popular 19th century argument that such work made them too masculine to be women.

Women writing their own lives at this time also upheld their feminine status in order to disprove this notion and strive for acceptance into the contemporary social strictures. In the preface to her 1898 autobiography, Stanton claims she will provide the reader with “the story of [her] private life as the wife of an earnest reformer, as an enthusiastic housekeeper,…and as the mother of seven children.” While she begins by claiming that the text will be full of domestic bliss, she uses personal details as segues to her reform work, and the bulk of her text deals with her most active years of leadership.

Women in medicine have long written in similar ways, crafting the representations of their lives to reassure society that they were not abandoning their family or femininity. Harriet Hunt, for instance, titled her 1856 autobiography, Glances and Glimpses; or Fifty Years Social Including Twenty Years Professional Life. As with Stanton, Hunt sets the reader up to expect her social life with a bit of the professional thrown in. However, it quickly becomes evident that she makes little distinction between the personal and professional. She uses moments from her own childhood to give parents medical advice derived from her years of treating children. The two pieces of her life continue to be inextricably linked throughout the book.

Of course, autobiography today is a genre that for both men and women intertwines personal and professional details. However, autobiographies written by male physicians in the 19th century, including those of Samuel Gross and Benjamin Rush, usually stop adding abundant personal details after the childhood section. While they may mention a wife or children, they rarely focus on them or make moves to convince the reader they are only doing professional work as an extension of their private lives. There was a gendered delineation of this genre in the 19th century; in writing their lives in ways men did not, women reaffirmed the importance of the personal in their professional lives. It appears that this link has continued into the present, and professional women are still often talked about—and sometimes talk about themselves—according to this tradition.

In the profile, Dean Snow is quoted saying that she is a “mom first.” This may be true, but I contend that feeling the need to link oneself to family first and career second is gendered, just as an author is more likely to begin a professional article with a personal fact if the subject is a woman. The two representations are not equal, of course. When a woman speaks about herself she has the agency to demonstrate her identity as she sees fit, and when someone else writes about her they have the power to sublimate professional identity to personal identity with or without the consent of the subject. However, the culturally embedded beliefs about women’s roles affect both situations; in Western culture a woman seeking professional power must demonstrate that she is still a woman, and for many that means being a wife and mother. Despite the opportunities that now exist for women, they are still frequently tied first to their husbands and families and then to their skills and achievements in the public world.

What can be done to rectify these issues? Perhaps we should push to include personal details in accounts of men’s professional lives. This may be the truest way to represent a life regardless of sex or gender. Adding identity markers such as race and class further complicates the issue and their effects should be explored. Since people are often comfortable pointing out sexist behavior in the past, but have trouble seeing current issues, it is important to provide historical context for problems women are currently facing. Establishing a direct comparison between 19th and 21st century behaviors makes it more difficult to dismiss the insidious and unquestioned unintentional sexism women encounter today.

Further Reading

Carolyn Skinner, Women Physicians and Professional Ethos in Nineteenth-Century America (Carbondale, Illinois: Southering Illinois University Press, 2014).

Christine Leiren Mower and Susanne Weil, eds., Women and Work: The Labors of Self-Fashioning (Cambridge Scholars Pub, 2011).

Amanda is a PhD candidate in Literature at Texas Christian University. She studies long 19th-century American Literature with a focus on women in science and medicine. Currently she is writing a dissertation that examines the strategies women in health fields employed in their autobiographical literature to navigate the shifting social and medical norms of the 19th century.

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