The “cult of domesticity” – the prevailing 19th century Victorian notion that a woman’s sphere revolved around the home, the idealization of the woman’s role as mother, and the moral superiority of women – provided a cultural barrier to middle- and upper-class women working outside the home. However, women slowly started challenging these societal restrictions in the mid-1800s by pursuing professions that could be considered extensions of their “natural” sphere.
Health science professions were compatible with this prevailing societal view of women. Nursing and medicine were an expansion of the woman’s innate abilities as nurturer and healer. Humanitarian and charitable activities exemplified women’s moral superiority. The founding of hospitals for children and the poor, social reform and social work activities were acceptable extensions of woman’s domestic roles and their homemaking and child-rearing talents.
With the availability of expanding educational opportunities, women entered the existing health professions of medicine and dentistry. Women professionalized the field of nursing, establishing formal training schools and advocating standards and certification. And women were instrumental in the development and delivery of social work, occupational therapy and physical therapy services.
From the mid-1800s to the present, women have made and continue to make enduring and indispensable contributions to the health science professions.
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