Breaking Down The Barriers: The First 100 Years Of Women In Veterinary Medicine
When I entered veterinary college in the fall of 2009, I took for granted my right, as a woman, to study veterinary medicine. After I began researching the history of women in veterinary medicine, I was struck by how little I knew about the subject. I stand on the shoulders of women who were giants in this field, and now I know some of their names and stories. I am also more aware of the obstacles that remain and prevent women from achieving full equality. Although much progress has been made, there are still areas which will challenge my generation.
The first female veterinarians in the United States whose history is known were Florence Kimball and Elinor McGrath; they both graduated in 1910, from Cornell and Chicago Veterinary College, respectively. Kimball left veterinary medicine shortly thereafter to become a nurse; however, McGrath practiced veterinary medicine for 37 years.3
Following these pioneers, a small number of women entered the field of veterinary medicine. By 1938, there were 21 female veterinarian graduates, and in 1939 another 10 joined their ranks.2,10 However, given that there were approximately 5,000 male veterinarians belonging to the AVMA in 1939,4 these women represented a miniscule fraction of the total number of veterinarians.
The early pioneer women faced a daunting task gaining entrance to veterinary school because of the prevailing attitude against women having veterinary careers, and as a result their qualifications had to be better than the average man. Margaret Sloss, a 1938 Iowa State University graduate concluded that, “If there are any discriminating characteristics which they possess in common, they are only a more than average endowment of determination, courage, perseverance, tenacity, and yes-- brains.”10 The intense determination that characterized these early women is perhaps best illustrated by Patricia O'Connor Halloran, a 1933 Cornell graduate and the first female zoo veterinarian. She recalls, “I started writing to Cornell Veterinary College when I was in high school so that they would know I was serious.”2
Two main objections to allowing women to enter veterinary school were voiced repeatedly in these early years. The first was the belief that women were likely to leave the profession after marrying and having children, thus wasting a place given to a woman.10 The second objection was that women were simply not strong enough to perform the necessary work required when handling large animals.8 Despite societal pressure on women to stay home, the first fear proved unfounded. In a 1939 survey of the first 21 pioneer women, Sloss discovered that the majority were employed in the veterinary field, “eleven are in the small animal practice, three are in the general practice, [...] one is in the Live Stock Sanitary Association laboratory [... and] one is in the Bureau of Animal Industry.”10
Of the 11 Cornell graduates who were among the 31 female veterinarians in 1939, the majority remained in practice for many decades though several married and had children.1 Marie Koenig Olson's story is particularly remarkable. Olson graduated from Cornell in 1937, and later, while putting her husband through veterinary school at Cornell, she also “shouldered the entire responsibility for her family, tending to two children and her father, who had congestive heart failure, while fighting her own battle with Parkinson's disease, running the practice [and] doing state regulatory work.”1 In spite of these women's career longevity and their amazing ability to juggle multiple responsibilities, the belief that women admitted to veterinary school were wrongfully taking men's spots persisted for many years.2
The barriers keeping women out of large animal medicine were also not easily overcome. Sloss reports that, “two schools prohibit the taking of ambulatory clinic [and] two rule out the large animal clinic and surgery.”10 Patricia O'Connor Halloran recounts that oddly she was allowed to perform rectal exams on cows but was prohibited from participating in the horseshoeing labs.2 At Cornell, it was the persuasion of the veterinary sorority Gamma Phi Iota, formed in 1944, that gained the right for female students to go on ambulatory rotation.5 With time, attitudes began to change and the later advent of new techniques and drugs made brute strength less relevant in large animal medicine.2,9
In 1964, there were still only 277 female veterinary graduates in the United States.2 However, the number of female veterinarians accelerated dramatically from that point onward due to new laws preventing discrimination based on sex and the increasing acceptance of women having careers outside the home thanks to the women's movement.2,9 The Federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred job discrimination based on sex. Of special importance, the Educational Amendment of 1972 and the 1974 Women's Education Act prohibited sex discrimination at schools that received federal funds, which included veterinary schools. These laws successfully sealed the fate of women in veterinary medicine and significantly sped their advancement-- in 1975 the number of women matriculating at veterinary schools doubled!2 The speed at which women entered the veterinary profession is unprecedented and occurred more rapidly than shifts in gender balance in other professions.2, 9
One might imagine that with these changes all barriers to full equality would crumble overnight, but such is not the case. Both the fears and reality of how women's family life affects commitment to their careers continue to hinder women's advancement in the profession, albeit in more subtle forms. The last remaining challenges for women in the veterinary profession are gaining leadership positions and the problem of unequal pay. 2, 7, 9, 11
Very few women moved into positions of power in the years following the dramatic gender shift of the 1970s.2,7This is a complex problem that is deeper than a single issue, such as lack of mentoring of women (although this certainly contributes to the glass ceiling effect).9 One of the large obstacles preventing women from gaining leadership positions is the continuing disparity in the division of household labor. Since men, on average, do not perform an equal portion of the household work or childcare, women typically have less free time than men available to pursue positions of leadership or the types of jobs that would lead to them.11 Slater and Slater also note that “society provides few structural supports for combining work and family,” such as on-site child care facilities.9
The late 1900s and early 2000s marked a turning point for women's leadership in veterinary medicine with the selection of the first six female deans of North American veterinary schools and the election of the first two female presidents of the AVMA.12 The recent admittance of women to the highest positions of leadership in veterinary medicine is a promising development, as these early female deans and AVMA presidents will hopefully serve both as role models and mentors for future women. However, the advancement of women into positions of power is likely to continue to be slow because of the gradual nature of changes in gender roles. Carin Smith observes, “Women need both more business knowledge and the ability and skills to negotiate for equity in their home lives.”11
Like the lack of women in positions of leadership, the problem of unequal wages for women in the veterinary profession has its roots in societal issues. Women routinely undervalue their work.2,11 Smith notes that research shows, “People who feel entitled to less ask for less and receive less. Expectations create reality. People asked to assign a salary will assign a higher salary to applicants who expect more money.”11 However, not all the blame lies with women's low expectations. The Slater article points out that “Women are still often seen as inferior prospects [for employment] or, at least, problematic ones, particularly for leadership positions, because of concerns that women will want to marry and have families. Surprisingly, concerns about personal decisions do not usually work against male graduates.” 9
When I graduate from veterinary school, more than 100 years after Kimball and McGrath, the role of women in the veterinary profession will be so vastly different that today's world would be unrecognizable to them. Women are not an anomaly, on the contrary, they represent the majority of American veterinarians.6 My generation is deeply indebted to the early pioneers who helped bring about these changes. Now it is our turn to advocate for full equality. The history of women in veterinary medicine teaches us that with courage and determination, the seemingly impossible can be achieved in a short period of time. We must continue to support societal changes that will benefit women as well as exerting our influence within the field to gain equal representation in leadership positions and equal compensation. Although there are positive signs that gradual changes are occurring, now is not the time to become complacent. Rather we should increase our efforts so that women in the future can enjoy full participation in the profession and a fair say in the issues of the day.
1. Cornell University Library. “Cornell's Legacy of Women In Veterinary Medicine: The Best of Story.” Cornell University Library. Cornell University, 2002. Web. 24 Jan 2010. 2. Drum, Sue and Whiteley, Ellen, Ed. Women In Veterinary Medicine: Profiles Of Success. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991. 150, 152, 102, 153, xiii, 150, xii-xiii, xiii, xiii, xii, 95-96, 95-96, xiv-xv. Print.
3. “Early Women Veterinarians In The Western Hemisphere.” Our History Of Women In Veterinary Medicine: Gumption, Grit, Grace and Good Humor. Ed. Larsen, Phyliss Hickney. Madison: Omnipress, 1997. 3. Print.
4. Fagen, Diane. Personal communication. Jan 27, 2010.
5. Geller, Estelle Hecht. “Veterinary Fraternities and Sororities.” Our History Of Women In Veterinary Medicine: Gumption, Grit, Grace and Good Humor. Ed. Larsen, Phyliss Hickney. Madison: Omnipress, 1997. 13-14. Print.
6. JAVMA. “2007 is DVM Year Of The Woman.” JAVMA. JAVMA, 2007. Web. 27 Jan 2010. 7. Johnston, Shirley D. and Olson, Patricia N.S. “Women Faculty Members and Leaders In Colleges Of Veterinary Medicine. Our History Of Women In Veterinary Medicine: Gumption, Grit, Grace and Good Humor. Ed. Larsen, Phyliss Hickney. Madison: Omnipress, 1997. 91-93. Print.
8. Logue, Jeanne. “Preface.” Our History Of Women In Veterinary Medicine: Gumption, Grit, Grace and Good Humor. Ed. Larsen, Phyliss Hickney. Madison: Omnipress, 1997. vii-viii. Print.
9. Slater, Margaret R. and Slater, Miriam. “Women In Veterinary Medicine.” JAVMA 217.4 (2000): 473, 472, 472, 474-476, 475, 475, 474. Print.
10. Sloss, Margaret W. “American Women In Veterinary Medicine.” Rpt in Our History Of Women In Veterinary Medicine: Gumption, Grit, Grace and Good Humor. Ed. Larsen, Phyliss Hickney. Madison: Omnipress, 1997. 5, 6, 11, 11, 7. Print.
11. Smith, Carin A. “The Gender Shift In Veterinary Medicine: Cause and Effect.” Vet Clin North Small Anim Pract 36.2 (2006): 331, 331, 331, 336, 336. Print.
12. Smith, Donald. F. Personal communication. Jan 27, 2010.