Bill Bennett’s imaginary feminist hero: Elizabeth Blackwell

elizabeth blackwellBill Bennett always seemed like a kind, jovial man, who gives off the impression of a caring grandfather-type whose wisdom is to be trusted. No more. Not after the January 23rd entry of his American Patriot’s Almanac on female icon Elizabeth Blackwell, where he has revealed himself as a teller of tall tales. A fabulist. Or just a liar. He begins:

On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree when she graduated from New York’s Geneva Medical College.

There’s gotta be a first for everything (except women on the front line of combat, that’ll never happen in any decent, chivalrous nation), so Elizabeth Blackwell filling that role is nothing remarkable. My skepticism was sparked, however, when Bennett started describing how she got there.

Blackwell had emigrated with her family from England to the U.S. at age eleven after her father’s sugar refinery business failed. A few years later her father died, and she took up teaching to help support the family.

Working to support the family? Had she never heard of welfare? The story continues to get more absurd:

More than two dozen medical schools rejected Blackwell before she was finally accepted by Geneva Medical College. She arrived on campus to discover that her admission had been something of a jest. Evidently the faculty had allowed the all-male student body to vote on her application, thinking they would never accept her. Many students thought it was a practical joke, and voted yes.

Once enrolled, Blackwell earned the admiration of her professors and classmates. She ended up graduating with top honors.

She only gets her chance through mockery… and actually takes advantage of it by proving everyone wrong? Why didn’t she sue for discrimination or just feel helpless the rest of her life as she complained that it was impossible for her to function in such an oppressive environment? Surely no one would’ve blamed her. But it’s not clear if she even took the time to write a letter to her Congressmen.

Bennett then continues by insinuating that Blackwell was legitimately nuts:

In 1851, Blackwell opened her own practice in New York City.

Who would be crazy enough to open their own practice? Any sane doctor joins a group. The crippling paperwork burden, stress of electronic health records compliance, and cost of malpractice insurance make the overhead too great of a risk for one person to burden themselves with. Instead of opening her own medical office, she should’ve checked herself into a psychiatric one.

Next Bennett deceives the reader with what he doesn’t say:

A few years later, her sister and another female friend, who had also become doctors, joined her to open the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (now the New York Downtown Hospital). The institution served the poor and established a medical school that graduated hundreds of female doctors and nurses.

How can Bennett just ignore the legislative action that must have been necessary to make this all possible? I mean, there must have been some type of stimulus funding to build the hospital, or special treatment because it was woman owned, or Pell Grants for the medical school students, right? And surely the needs of the poor weren’t met by a non-government institution! Right???

The shocking truth (I checked Wikipedia) is that Elizabeth Blackwell’s story is true. The sad truth is that it could never happen in today’s America, for all the reasons listed above.

Elizabeth Blackwell epitomized American greatness through her rejection of class structure limitations and spirit of entrepreneurial self-reliance. Nowadays, we elect leaders who say that no one should have to struggle as much as she did, or take the types of risks she did, or even independently provide for the poor as she did. Dr. Blackwell’s life was hard, but as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.” 

When you remove all adversity in a person’s life, or tell them to demand political recourse for their difficulties, you remove the expectation or even possibility of greatness. It’s a numbing message for the potential Elizabeth Blackwells of this generation to hear.  They’d do better to listen to Tom Hanks, or the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort; you were made for greatness.”

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