Celebrating Women in Wellness: Part 1

As March comes to a close, and we say goodbye to Women’s History Month 2021, we want to take a second to appreciate some groundbreaking women in wellness. This entire month on our Instagram page @resetbioscience, we’ve been honoring some of the amazing women who have made history in the wellness sector – whether it be inventions, breakthroughs in medical journalism, or just paving the way for more women in the wellness field. But Instagram can only share so much, so we’re here to tell you more about these fabulous women.

Elizabeth Blackwell

In 1838, after the death of her father Samuel Blackwell, Elizabeth Blackwell went into the teaching field, a field predominantly filled with women alongside her mother and two sisters. However, when a dying friend told her that her illness would’ve been handled better by a female physician, she left teaching to pursue medicine. At the time though, you couldn’t just apply to medical school, especially not if you were a woman. Medical colleges were few and far between, and none of them accepted women. So at the time, most physicians got started as apprentices to more experienced doctors. Very few women followed the apprentice route and became unlicensed physicians. 

Blackwell also followed that route. While she was teaching in Cincinnati, she boarded with the families of two physicians who mentored her. In 1847, she went to Philadelphia, in hopes that some of her Quaker friends could help her with her dream of going to medical school. Almost all the schools she applied for rejected her application. Only Geneva College in New York sent her an acceptance letter – though it was intended purely as a practical joke. But that didn’t stop Elizabeth Blackwell. She went to Geneva College, and though the professors forced her to sit separately from her classmates at lectures and excluded her from labs, she worked hard to earn the respect of her professors by graduating first in her class in 1849.  Moving to Europe, Blackwell continued her training at hospitals in London and Paris where she was regulated to midwifery. It was in those hospitals where she found that male doctors were the cause of some epidemics when they wouldn’t wash their hands between patients. 

Eventually, Blackwell found herself back in New York. But in 1857 because of the discrimination against female doctors, she had a hard time finding a hospital that would allow her to practice. So she paved the way and opened her own. Armed with the determination to provide positions for other women physicians, Blackwell, her sister, and a colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. During the Civil War, they used the facility to train nurses for Union hospitals. Eleven years later, Blackwell opened a medical college in New York City, which she put her sister in charge of so she could return to London. In 1875, she became a professor of gynecology at the brand new London School of Medicine for Women. Blackwell also helped found the National Health Society. 

Elizabeth Blackwell paved the way for women to become doctors, persevering through misogyny and RESETting outdated prejudices she learned. 

Lisa Lindahl

It’s hard to believe when you look in your closet, that some of your wardrobe staples didn’t exist since the dawn of time. Sports bras, for instance. Did you know that the first sports bra wasn’t invented until 1977?  It’s true! One of the greatest inventions in women’s fashion was invented by Lisa Lindahl in 1977. Lindahl was an aspiring artist who enjoyed running with her sister in her free time. In 2020, Lindahl told the Greenville Business Magazine that she never considered herself an athlete, just someone who enjoyed running. But she, like many other women, ran into an issue of comfort. Quickly, a joke between her and her sister – “if men can have a jockstrap, where’s one for women?” – would create an entire industry in women’s fashion. 

In 1972, Title IX was passed, which opened the door for women to enter the athletic sphere in a way they hadn’t before. However, federal funding brought the women onto the court, there was still an equality issue with the equipment they needed. The creation of Title IX was a step, but there were still steps to be taken. Enter Lisa Lindahl. In 1977, Lindahl took what she considered just a “creative problem-solving venture” and created what was then called the Jogbra. Changing the athletic wear game, Lindahl and her partners in her business were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2020! But Lisa Lindahl didn’t stop with a simple sports bra.

After the inception of the Jogbra company, Lindahl teamed up with therapist Dr. Lesli Bell to take her initial Jogbra technology to create a chest compression garment for women with breast cancer – The Bellisse Compressure Comfort® Bra. The Bellisse Bra became a foundational piece in women’s relief from breast cancer treatments. Besides creating the bra, Lindahl raised awareness of “truncal lymphedema”, which was so under known that Lindal and Bell essentially coined the term and Dr. Bell became internationally known for her knowledge on the subject. 

However, Lindahl is not just an inventor; she has dedicated her life to advocating for women’s stories in medical research. At the age of four, Lindahl was diagnosed with epilepsy and cites her ability to think on her feet with creative problem-solving to a lifetime of dealing with the disease. Lindahl was the Senior Vice President on the Board of the Epilepsy Foundation of America from 1992 – 2001, where she spoke extensively about epilepsy across the country. She even chaired the Task Force on Women and Epilepsy. 

Women’s History Month reminds us of the amazing contribution to our everyday lives, even down to things that we take advantage of, like our favorite Nike sports bras. 

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney did some amazing things in her lifetime. On top of being the first African-American licensed nurse, she was also one of the first women to register to vote in Boston! Born in the spring of 1845, Mahoney was the child of two freed slaves. From an extremely early age, she was taught the importance of racial equality. She knew she wanted to be a nurse in her teens, so she got a job at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was dedicated to providing healthcare specifically to women and their children and only had women on their staff. For 15 years, Mahoney worked on the staff in supporting roles from janitor to cook during that time she learned a great deal about how to become a nurse. 

The New England Hospital for Women and Children operated one of the premier nursing schools in the US, and in 1878 Mahoney was admitted to the professional graduate school for nursing. Out of 41 of her other classmates in 1878, Mahoney was one of four nurses to complete the program in 1879 due to the rigorous requirements. 

After her training, Mahoney chose to move into the private sector to avoid the overwhelming discrimination encountered in the public nursing sector. Being a private nurse also gave her the ability to focus on specific needs each of her clients had. Most of her patients were from wealthy white families living up and down the coast of New England. Those patients noted her efficiency, patience, and bedside manner.

In 1896, Mary Eliza Mahoney joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the US and Canada, which, at the time, mostly consisted of white nurses, who weren’t often welcoming of their black counterparts. Feeling that a group that advocated for equality for African-American nurses was needed, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, and a year later she gave the opening speech at the NACGN’s national convention. After decades working as a private nurse, Mary Eliza Mahoney became director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children on Long Island for a year. 

After 40 years of being in the profession, Mahoney retired from nursing, though she never stopped being a champion for women’s rights. When the suffrage movement led to the roll-out of the 19th amendment in 1920, Mahoney was first in line to register to vote in Boston. She died after battling breast cancer for three years, but her legacy lives on through awards such as the Mary Mahoney Award that the NACGN created in 1936, as well as being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. 

In 1973, Helen Miller, 1968’s Mahoney Award winner led a drive to erect a monument to Mahoney at her gravesite in Everett, Massachusetts. The drive was supported by Chi Eta Phi, the national sorority for student nurses. The memorial was completed that same year and is a visual testament to Mahoney’s dedication to her field. 

Alice Hamilton

The first woman to ever be appointed to the faculty at Harvard Medical School in 1919, Alice Hamilton was a leading expert in the occupational health field during this time. In 1893, Hamilton received her Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Michigan Medical School. Following her degree, she completed internships at both the New England and Minneapolis Hospital for Women and Children. Like many other Americans at the time, Hamilton traveled to Europe to pursue advanced training. From 1895-1897, she studied bacteriology and pathology in Munich and Leipzig. When she returned to Chicago in 1897, Hamilton became a professor of pathology at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University. 

During her time at Northwestern, Hamilton became a resident member of Hull House – a settlement house founded by Jane Addams, a famous social reformer. Living at the Hull House, extremely close to the working-class community of Chicago sparked her interest in problems plaguing the working class. Due to the conditions that people were working in, injuries and illnesses brought on by their jobs were very common.  

Due to the Industrial Revolution, the study of what was called “industrial medicine” had become more important during the early 1900s. After her time and research in Europe, Hamilton noticed the lack of research on the topic in America. So in 1908, she published the first article on industrial medicine. 1910 started a decade of investigation for Hamilton as she was appointed to a newly formed group – the Occupational Diseases Commission of Illinois. The commission’s goal was to investigate worker issues for state and federal health committees. 1919 marked the start of her time at Harvard, and even though she was top of her field, and publications such as the New York Tribune celebrated her appointment to the faculty, Hamilton was still discriminated against as a woman. She was not allowed to go to the all-male graduation program or any social activities. 

Hamilton went on to publish many more studies with groups like the state of Illinois, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the League of Nations on various public health issues. All of Alice Hamilton’s contributions to public health were honored by the US Postal Service in 1995 when she was put on a commemorative stamp! An all-star in her field, Hamilton shined a light on working conditions and RESET the standard as the first female faculty member at Harvard University.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger’s life was altered when her mother died at the age of 50 due to the physical toll of eleven total pregnancies during her lifetime. That experience as a child led to Sanger becoming a nurse, completing her nursing program at the White Plains Hospital in 1902. She strongly believed that the ability to control family size was the answer to ending the cycle of women’s poverty, but she could not do anything about it because at the time distributing any form of information about birth control was illegal. 

When she and her husband moved to Hastings, New York, Sanger worked as a visiting nurse in the homes of poor immigrants. She observed that many of the households were full and the health of the mother in the families was impaired by many pregnancies and miscarriages. She also saw the aftermath of many botched abortions in more desperate cases. At those homes, they asked her for “the secret” of limiting family size, and that was when Sanger made it her mission to provide women with the birth control information they desperately needed and to repeal the Comstock Act. 

The Comstock Act was a federal statute from 1873 that not only banned contraceptives but also made it a misdemeanor level offense to have anything the law considered “obscene”. All her experience, both personal and professional, led to Margaret Sanger’s firm belief in the theory of population control. Though illegal, she had a vision of what she called a “magic pill” that would help with contraception starting in 1912. In 1914, Sanger created The Woman Rebel, a feminist publication advocating for birth control. Due to the Comstock Act and its legislation regarding “obscene” pamphlets, Sanger was charged. She fled to England and her friends shared her writing in her absence, though she came back a year later to face her trial. However, after public pressure following the unexpected death of her young daughter, her charges were dropped. 

1916 led to her first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, however, barely a week after it was opened, she was arrested. She spent 30 days in jail for the charges. Her arrest garnered enough attention from the media, support flooding in from many affluent supporters. While she lost her conviction appeal, courts ruled that physicians could prescribe contraceptives to women for medical reasons, a huge victory for her cause. That new loophole in the Comstock Act allowed Sanger to open a clinic staffed by female doctors and social workers in 1923. Later, that clinic would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 

Many people believed fully in the Comstock Act, so in 1917 Sanger launched a new publication – the Birth Control Review – to gain support from the public and other medical professionals for birth control. After founding the American Birth Control League in 1921, she also formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control so they could lobby Congress to permit doctors to prescribe birth control to anyone. Though there was initial resistance from doctors and the Catholic Church, her efforts led to widespread use of contraceptives in the United States when courts made it legal for doctors to prescribe birth control in 1936. Unfortunately, Margaret Sanger passed away in 1966, so she did not see the Comstock Act be eradicated in 1971. But she did get to see her dream of a “magic” contraceptive pill become a reality when the FDA approved birth control pills in 1960.

Sanger paved the way for women’s health, allowing women the ability to use contraceptives, bringing the safety of women to the forefront. 

There are so many women in wellness that we could discuss, and while we’d love to take a look at every single one of their lives, we’ve had to narrow it down to ten. These are only five of the amazing women in wellness that we are going to take a look at.

Check out the next five incredible women here!

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