lj idol season nine | week 29 | 777 words
While I never wanted to follow in my mother's footsteps of becoming a doctor, I always admired her strength and grit in achieving that for herself. My mother was part of only the second generation of female doctors in the United States, and it was an uphill battle all the way.
There were only a few respectable careers for women in that era: teaching, secretarial work, and nursing were the professional options. My mother knew she wanted to be a doctor rather than a nurse, and timing was the only bit of luck she had: it was a few years after the end of World War II, and so many men had detoured through military service and delayed getting their undergraduate degrees, that the medical school had spots available.
Still, there would always be those among the faculty and other students who firmly believed that women did not belong in medicine.
There was the anatomy professor who announced in front of the whole class that he would give my mother an 'A' if she slept with him, and flunk her if she didn't. She said he'd have to flunk her then, and while he didn't, he marked all her work for 70%, the lowest passing grade. One of her classmates used to gleefully compare her answers to his, which were often identical – except that her paper had a nonspecific "-5" written on it every time. She wondered if the classmate was checking to see if she'd started sleeping with the professor, but regardless, it was a spiteful thing to do. He certainly didn't defend her. She couldn't go to the Dean, who worked off-campus and was never in his office—and had she tried, would it even have helped? Women were considered trouble, if for no other reason than that they "caused" men to misbehave, and the safest option was usually to just keep quiet.
Web research (because yes, I am Google-spying on my mother) tells me that she received a small women's scholarship throughout her undergrad work, which was fortunate. The Depression hit her family hard enough that she began picking beans at age ten to help pay for food and rent. She kept that up through college, along with working as a carhop (roller skates and all) to earn money for medical school. There really was no part of becoming a doctor that was easy for her.
My mother has a much thicker skin than I, and a knack for decoding passive-aggressive hostility disguised as camaraderie. It's hard to know whether the classmates (all men) who brought her a birthday cake in the middle of cadaver lab were testing her, or whether the prank was a sign of acceptance. Either way, she managed to eat it, although she never touched spice cake again after that.
I don't remember many stories about her residency (at a Catholic hospital, run by nuns who may have admired or resented her—or both). When she entered into practice as a radiologist, she found herself working long hours (with two young children) and doing double the work of the other doctors in the clinic, all of whom insisted that any complaints about her schedule meant she wasn't serious about medicine. My father's profession, psychiatry, was understandably more interesting than radiology, so she left the practice and went back into residency—in her mid-forties—to change specialties. She was the oldest student in the program, a situation possibly more awkward than before.
Two years later, the man who administered the psychiatric boards threatened to flunk her if she didn't sleep with him, a bitter echo of all those years before. That might have been the same set of boards she took while fighting off nausea that would later turn out to be hepatitis. Whether it was one attempt or two, she eventually passed and became licensed.
By the time she got her psychiatry practice underway (sharing an office with my father), it was almost the mid-1970s and the world was a little different, though there was still a long way to come. But the road to getting there was a long, hard slog that few people would be willing to undertake.
Still, if you asked her, I doubt my mother would think her story was remarkable. She had a classmate who was the daughter of migrant farm workers, and who had picked up her education a little at a time wherever she happened to be. She later put herself through medical school by working nights at a nursing home and virtually forgoing sleep.
That woman, my mother would insist, was the one whose journey was impressive enough to be worth telling.
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