March 8th marked International Women’s Day and I want to take a moment to take a very brief look into the history of veterinary medicine and just a few women who helped shape the profession.
The first public veterinary school in the United States was established in 1879 at Iowa State University (my current location and soon to be alma mater!). In the halls of the veterinary college, you will see composite photos of classes before, dating all the way back to the early 1900s. The collection itself is quite impressive, but what is even more obvious when examining the photos is the lack of women for many years. The first woman to graduate from Iowa State College of Veterinary Medicine was Margaret Sloss in 1938, but it wasn’t without trials and tribulations.
Dr. Sloss was well accomplished and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s in anatomy, yet she was denied admission into the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State in 1932 because, bluntly, it was a man’s profession. Dr. Sloss though, was smart and willful, and found that a federal land-grant institution (such as Iowa State), could not discriminate against admittees based on sex. Reluctantly, she was admitted as the first woman vet student at Iowa State.
Other accomplishments for women in vet med include Florence Kimball and Elinor McGrath, the first women who earned their veterinary degrees in 1910. In 1949, Jane Hinton (who was co-developer of Mueller-Hinton agar—if you have ever worked in a lab, you have used this) and Alfreda Johnson Webb were the first two black women to earn a doctor of veterinary medicine degree. I researched unsuccessfully to find the first Latinx and Asian females to become veterinarians. 1957 marked the first woman equine veterinarian.
1957 was the same year that a young woman was rejected from Iowa State’s Veterinary College. I was sent a photo of the document years ago when I was first applying for vet school, and it still gives me the chills when I read it today (the full letter can be found on my Instagram @hippy_vetstudent). The letter opens immediately with:
“It is the policy of the Division of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State College not to admit women to the professional curriculum.”
One of the most hauntingly sexist lines, in my opinion, reads:
“In many cases women are not physically equal to the education requirement of the large animal clinics.”
I can tell you from my time on clinics, some of the most badass women are found in the large animal clinics, and they have absolutely no problem physically in doing their job.
Over almost 50 years, the national average for enrollment in vet school changed dramatically, from nearly 89% male in 1970, to nearly 80% female in 2019. It’s an empowering time to live as a woman, but we still have a lot of work to do. Comments are still made about our size and stature and the work that we do. Motherhood brings a multitude of remarks and negative opinions towards women vets. There is also a huge disparity in representation in vet schools with a large majority (~80%) being white. There are many other groups (those who identify as women, etc.) who are not well represented in our field as well.
So while we embrace women/womxn in veterinary medicine, let’s not forget that the work is never done. We must continue to be inclusive and change the profession, as those before us did.