The Inspiration of Writing A Female Detective
When I first started thinking about writing a mystery set in 1907 New York City, I didn’t intend to have a female psychiatrist as my amateur sleuth. In fact, if you’d asked me what the odds were of running into a female doctor back then, I would have guessed slim to none. I’d always assumed that women first entered the professions in any significant numbers as a result of the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. But as I was fascinated to discover when I started researching the era, I was wrong.
To be sure, up through the 1880s women were almost completely excluded from mainstream medical schools. A handful had managed to gain admittance by then, usually with the help of a male mentor, and a few more had attended all-woman medical colleges. But these women, despite their fierce desire and determination, had no access to the postgraduate training programs that were so critical to professional competence, and were not welcomed by professional societies or hospital and clinic staffs. As Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to obtain a medical degree, wrote to her sister Elizabeth around this time: “a blank wall of social and professional antagonism faces the woman physician that forms a situation of painful loneliness, leaving her without support, respect or professional counsel.”
A number of reasons were generally put forward as to why women should not be allowed to practice medicine. It was believed, for one thing, that the sight of unveiled bodies and the blood and gore of the operating room was naturally repugnant to the modesty and delicacy of women. Females were also claimed to be intellectually inferior to men, and too prone to impulsivity and hysteria to exercise good judgement. Dr. Edward Clarke, a respected Harvard professor, declared in a widely disseminated treatise that “higher education for women produces monstrous brains, puny bodies, abnormally weak digestion and constipated bowels”, and should therefore be avoided at all costs. This thinking kept women out of mainstream medical schools right up to the last decade of the nineteenth century. But by 1893, change was in the air.
That was the year the country went into a major depression, which made it impossible for Johns Hopkins University to find the funding it needed to finish its state-of-the-art new medical school. Sensing opportunity, four female donors stepped forward and offered to give the university $500,000 toward the school’s completion, if—and only if—it would accept women students. With no other alternative in sight, Johns Hopkins agreed. Other schools felt compelled to follow suit, and within five years women were filling more than 35% of the seats at some of the country’s most prestigious schools. They were also winning a large share of the academic honors. By 1900, over 7000 women had earned their medical degrees, and almost all of them went on to work in the field.
Unfortunately, this influx caused more competition for patients and fees, and pretty soon the American Medical Association was grumbling that the profession was overcrowded to the point of starvation. Instead of solving the problem by making entry requirements more rigorous for everyone, and letting the cream rise to the top, the schools simply, and quietly, cut or reduced their admissions of women once more. By 1903, just ten years after Johns Hopkins opened its doors to women, overall female enrollment had dropped to 3%. It would stay in the single digits for the next seventy years, except for a slight uptick around World War II, until Title IX and other anti-gender bias legislation opened the doors again in the 1970s.
Those pioneering women doctors from the turn of the twentieth century became the inspiration for my mystery’s protagonist, Dr. Genevieve Summerford, who has graduated third in her class from Johns Hopkins Medical School and has chosen to work in the brand new field of medical psychology. It was clear to me that a woman doctor at that time would have to be intelligent, resilient, open to new ideas, and more than a little stubborn—all excellent qualities for an amateur sleuth.
Occasionally, a reader will ask me, “was it really possible for a woman to pursue a career as a doctor back then?’ When that happens, I love to tell them that yes, over a hundred years ago a determined cadre of women doctors really did manage to claim their day in the sun.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: September 6, 2016
Synopsis: In 1907 New York, a psychiatrist must prove her patient's innocence...or risk being implicated in a shocking murder
As one of the first women practicing in an advanced new field of psychology, Dr. Genevieve Summerford is used to forging her own path. But when one of her patients is arrested for murder-a murder Genevieve fears she may have unwittingly provoked-she is forced to seek help from an old acquaintance.
Desperate to clear her patient's name and relieve her own guilty conscience, Genevieve finds herself breaking all the rules she's tried so hard to live by. In her search for answers, Genevieve uncovers an astonishing secret that, should she reveal it, could spell disaster for those she cares about most. But if she lets her discovery remain hidden, she will almost certainly condemn her patient to the electric chair.
About the Author:
Cuyler shares a keen interest in human motivation and behavior with her husband, a psychologist, who is still working on perfecting her. When she isn’t reading or writing she can usually be found on a bike, in the cobra pose, designing her next dream house or enjoying a good movie. For more information, visit her website.