One of my major focuses of Isabella’s Calico Groom, a novella within Calico Ball: A Timeless Western Collection, Book 1, is the common 19th century belief that women did not belong in dentistry. At all. Not even when properly educated.

Women Dentists “determined to destroy all that makes her lovely and lovable to a man…”

Naturally, when I came across this strongly held Victorian attitude about women and men (and their work), I felt compelled to include it. (1899 publications are in the Public Domain, so I had no qualms about quoting directly from the text.) My three “Professional Women”Naomi (MD), Sophia (lawyer), and Isabella (dentist) — respond to this, each in her own way, within the course of a conversation and following scenes.

The text Sophia read to Isabella (from their local newspaper), came directly from Items of Interest. The Dental Independent. A Monthly Record of Dental Literature, Edited by T.B. Welch, M.D., Volume XI, 1889. Given my novella is set in the spring and summer months of 1890, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

Below, I provide the text, transcribed word for word, as well as an image from the dental periodical (The Dental Independent), page 541 of volume 11 (published 1889).

WOMEN DENTISTS.

W.R. SPENCER, WEST POINT, VA.

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Among the items in the October ITEMS OF INTEREST I notice one entitled “Woman Dentist.” There seems to be a growing tendency among the women of the present day to undertake what may be called man’s work. We have women doctors of medicine, law and theology, lecturers, telegraph operators, clerks and accountants without number, and now our own profession has been invaded, and we have women dentists.

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Now it does seem to me the line ought to be drawn somewhere, and as a dentist I protest against this invasion of our right. I am a young man, doing fairly well in my profession, and hoping some day to be able to have a home of my own, with a wife to reign over it, but the Lord deliver me from one of these professional women! and I am sure this will find an echo in the heart of every true man.

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It is only when a woman has made up her mind to relinquish all hope of home, and I am tempted to say of Heaven–all desire to lean on an arm which her Creator has made stronger than her own, that it may support her in health, shield her from want and protect her in danger, that she seeks man’s work. It is only when she despises to be a help meet for man, a joy to the household; only when she has lost all maternal instincts, and determined to destroy all that tends to make her lovely and lovable to manonly when she has become a man hatershould she turn to the vocation of man for a support, and become a competitor with him in the great struggle for existence. There is also another reason why women should not be encouraged to undertake man’s work, which is intensely practical, and threatens to be serious, viz., women place too low an estimate on their labor. Man, expecting a family to support. places such value on his labor as will enable him to do so; but in nearly every instance where woman is brought into competition with man she performs the work for about one-half, or we may say just enough to keep herself in food and raiment, with no thought for the future and no provision for a family. This competition thus forcing the price of labor down to just enough to support one person, will necessarily compel men and women to live separately. None but the “born rich” will dare to marry.

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Now some may think this is straining the point a little, but the tendency is in this direction, and everything which weakens the reciprocal love and respect of a noble man and a pure woman, which finds expression in the family relation, is contrary to the will of the great Creator, and must result in moral depravity. Therefore, I would keep women out of our noble professions.

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emphasis added

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Wouldn’t you love to respond to W.R. Spencer’s comments, today?

Today, Spencer’s comments would raise an outcry of epic proportions. In 1889, he said what nearly everyone else thought (including most women). Wow, have times changed.

A woman, Jennie Kollock Hilton (1851-1912) who happened to be the first American woman to graduate from the University of Michigan’s dental program in 1881 did respond.

In a tart response to W.R. Spencer’s attack on women dentists she said, “Let us cover him with a mantle of charity, a very small one will suffice… if his effort to belittle woman should prove his death, our earnest prayer shall be that when he is “filling his last cavity,” it may be written on his tombstone, Here lies the last obstructionist to woman dentists.”

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~ University of Michigan Dentistry

I’m pleased to see Jennie Kollock Hilton wasn’t alone; several other women were 19th century pioneers in dentistry.

NOT all were “haters”

Contained in the same edition of Items of Interest. The Dental Independent, on page 470, comes one more example–quite nicely stated–about the advantages of female dentists. A transcription and a digital image are shown below:

A Woman Dentist is somewhat of an innovation, but that she is likely to make her mark in the profession is indicated by the high standing of the young woman who has just been graduated from the Boston Dental College. According to the announcement of the Dean, she stood No. 1 in a class of between thirty and forty, and in the race she has run she was so far ahead of her classmates that she could hardly hear the tread of the fellow next behind her. The dentist’s chair is not exactly a synonym for everything that is comfortable and inviting, but the presence of a gentle woman operator promises to detract something from its terrors. –Boston Herald.

emphasis added

Up Next!

Victorian Professional Women do not possess the brain power to succeed

More articles about Victorian Attitudes regarding women:

More articles about the historical setting of Isabella’s Calico Groom:

Copyright © 2018 Kristin Holt LC