Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mattatuck: More Than a Museum

During Connecticut's colonial era, women were warned to avoid exciting their minds with reading and writing books. And as late as 1888, a Louisa May Alcott character is described as being "too fond of books… they have turned her brain." Cultural constraints worked against women's full participation in the public world until the mid-1800s, but changes in society in that period (immigration, urbanization and industrialization) resulted in new opportunities. As we celebrate Women's History Month, we have the occasion to identify the achievements of three women in Waterbury who were pioneers in re-defining what women could attain.
These women, who remain largely unknown in our city's history, set an early standard for feminist success. They were Martha Dunn, Caroline Conkey and Amelia Porter. They came from middle class households, were educated and had satisfying careers. They were all medical doctors practicing in Waterbury in the 1880s.
The first American medical schools were for men only. After exerting intense pressure, women began to gain admission around 1850. Waterbury's first female physician was Martha M. Dunn who graduated from the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1879. She began her practice initially in Utica, New York before coming to Waterbury in 1882. After a successful practice of five years, Dr. Dunn gave up her practice and she married in 1888. Her successor was Dr. Caroline R. Conkey.
Born in Massachusetts and trained at the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, Dr. Conkey came to Waterbury as a successor to Dr. Dunn. An article in the Waterbury American identifies the tenor of the day regarding gender bias: "She will find that in Waterbury the prejudice against women physicians has been almost entirely removed by the personal virtues and professional success of her predecessor." Dr. Conkey enjoyed a large and important practice and was an attending at the Waterbury Hospital. Her positive position in Waterbury society was assisted, no doubt, by her participation in the city's social activities, including the Young Women's Friendly League. Led by Waterbury's prominent women and supported by St. John's church, this group aimed to develop "intellectual, industrial and social character in self-supporting and wage-earning girls and young women.” A photograph of Dr. Conkey, on view in the museum's current exhibition, shows her at work at her desk looking professional, dignified and competent.
Waterbury's accepting attitude towards women physicians probably motivated the arrival of Ameila A. Porter who arrived in the city just after graduating from the School of Medicine of Boston University. Though she developed an extensive practice, ill health caused her to retire in 1890 before passing away in 1891.
These pioneering women deserve to be known and our city's acceptance of them should make us proud. You will be when you visit the Mattatuck Museum and see the exhibit, Our Beautiful City: Waterbury 1880-1930. Visit our website www.mattatuckmuseum.org for further information.

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