This is another book that highlights and celebrates the strength, intelligence, and determination of a woman who broke barriers and blazed trails for all of us. Better yet, this story is true and (better still) written by her granddaughter.
After much turmoil in her life (including a divorce!) Dr. Mollie Atwater leaves everything she knows and everyone she loves behind. She moves out west to serve as the only physician in two small mining towns in Montana in the 1890s. Readers learn of the hardships faced not only by the miners but by the women who followed them to these remote communities.
As a newcomer, Dr. Atwater was warned not to order medical supplies over the phone because the local operator was a gossip. Moreover, the Temperance and Purity movements of the time made providing birth control information illegal. The restrictive Comstock Laws permitted the seizure of contraceptive devices and information from the mail under an 1873 anti-obscenity law. In the eyes of the law, there was no difference between abortion, contraception, and obscenity.
Wives without access to adequate healthcare suffered pregnancy after pregnancy. Complications, including death from self-induced abortions, were common. Ironically, “virtuous” married women were kept in the dark about birth control, while prostitutes rarely got pregnant because they had learned how to prevent it–from each other.
Dr. Atwater also became politically active in the cause of public health as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and the Spanish flu epidemics devastated the country, especially in isolated, underserved communities.
“There weren’t enough nurses for the war, and now they didn’t have enough to combat the killer destroying Americans here at home.”
Efforts to combat the Spanish flu sound all too familiar after our own recent struggles with COVID.
“Public gatherings were prohibited; schools, churches, theaters, dance halls, libraries, restaurants, and saloons were shut down.”
“The people are angry, especially the businesses, about the quarantine. And the saloons are giving us a bad time. We have the police checking up on them, making sure they’re really closed, which just adds to the anger.”
“We could better control attacks if we could get some assurance from mine owners that the sick men won’t lose their jobs if they stay away for several days…The men go back to work before they’re fully recovered and spread the germs to their co-workers. I’ve talked to the owners…they aren’t listening.”
Over one hundred years later, we heard and felt many of the same complaints during the height of the pandemic.
Not satisfied with the plight of women in civic life, Dr. Atwater became a champion for women’s suffrage. You can hear echoes of these arguments today when it comes to women’s rights.
“The southern argument for states’ right was primarily a cover for the fear of giving the vote to Negro women.”
Men feared, “If women could vote…they would be ousted from political control. Another argument was the fear that the delicate sensibilities of ‘pure’ womanhood would be corrupted by ruthless female advocates imbued with a Machiavellian will to power. Still, another concerned the belief that women, being more emotional than men, would be susceptible to control by clergy, leading to a government by theocracy.”
There were also bizarre arguments about “the inadequacy of the female physiology to support right thinking.”
PIONEER DOCTOR is well-researched and documented. Reading of Dr. Atwater’s experiences reminded me of a quote attributed to Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.” Recommend.