December 27, 1858
“It is not fair!”
Cora Fielding’s cry rang with the full-throated indignation for which her mother had long excoriated her as being unladylike.
Her twin brother Carl’s triumphant smirk only infuriated her further. She ignored him and crossed the room to where her father sat reading the newspaper, her freckled face red as a tomato, her fists clenched in disappointment.
“I am twice the student as Carl! I have memorized every medical book in the house despite having to spend hours each day attending to my position as tutor to the Isaacs children. When I am able to be present at the clinic, I anticipate what treatments you will prescribe before you speak a word to the patient. Why am I not as qualified to study medicine as any man?”
Richard Fielding sighed, his craggy face a mask of pity and frustration. “My dear child, you know very well you would be free to follow your heart’s desire in a world of my own choosing. Indeed, I believe one day young women such as you will have that freedom. God knows, you are amply qualified, as you rightly say. But we live in the present age, and despite the prodigious efforts of Professor Rowell...” For emphasis, he lifted the day’s edition of the Sacramento Daily Union from which he had just been reading aloud. “...the faculty has decided that people of your gender will not be admitted to the new school. And there is damn all any of us can do to change that fact.”
His use of profanity, normally so rare, told Cora as nothing else could the passion with which he held his convictions. It did little to quell her outrage.
Carl sniffed with smug superiority, saying, “Father is, as always, being kind. But everyone knows the female gender is not in the least suited for the rigors of medicine. Not to mention its necessary assault on a lady’s sensibilities over issues of physical delicacy.”
“Horse feathers! I am not the one who fainted dead away at the sight of butcher Harper’s nearly-severed hand dangling from his wrist by a mere tendon or two.”
His cheeks, even more freckled than her own, flamed. “Why must you always throw that one weakness up to me? You know I was tired and ill when it happened.”
“A few sniffles do not constitute an illness sufficient to cause such a humiliating debacle. You simply did not have the stomach for it!”
“Perhaps you should look to your own deficiencies before faulting others. Why do you suppose Herbert Roskam has stopped calling on you? You with your haughty airs and sharp tongue could not attract a proper gentleman if your life depended on it!”
“He stopped calling because I sent him packing. Who would want such a fool as that?”
“Please, children, do not bicker,” said their mother, her tone shimmering with weary forbearance. “We are but one day past Christmas, and I refuse to allow this unpleasantness to ruin the lingering spirit of that holy day.”
Cora felt an immediate stab of remorse. Maude Fielding sat bundled in a blanket in a rocking chair pulled close by the hearth, her diminished frame and pale complexion reflecting the close call she had recently had with pneumonia. They were lucky to have her still with them, and for Cora to have caused her such distress was inexcusable. She shot her brother one last angry glare and retreated to the stuffed chintz chair where she had been sitting when her father roiled her day with his dream-shattering announcement.
How excited she had been to learn some months before that Dr. Elias Samuel Cooper had pulled together a Board of Trustees and Faculty of Medicine in order to establish the first medical school on the West Coast. Dr. Cooper was not a figure without controversy, having inserted himself with bold arrogance into the medical community soon after his arrival from the East in 1855. His widely advertised series of anatomical and surgical lectures and demonstrations had earned him a reputation for self-aggrandizement. This plus an infamous malpractice lawsuit had greatly diminished his reputation among local physicians. However, his success with the proposed school could not be denied, and many were enthralled with the prospect of students being able to pursue their medical studies here rather than traveling far to the east.
Richard Fielding had greeted this news with special satisfaction, for he had two prospective students in his own household. It had long been expected that his only son Carl would succeed him in medicine; Cora’s similar aspiration had come as a surprise, dismissed at first, but given greater gravitas as her interest burgeoned during the years since their journey west when she was but a girl of sixteen.
For her part, Cora had prided herself on the perseverance that finally convinced her father of the seriousness of her ambitions, prompting him to serve as preceptor to her as well as to Carl so both could complete the required two years of study before they would be allowed admittance to a school of medicine. She had rested her hopes on the fact that the new faculty had not yet decided whether or not enrollment would be coeducational. One of the professors in particular, a Dr. Isaac Rowell, had been vocal in his belief that the school should be open to aspirants of both genders. However, his point of view had not held the day, as was just now verified in the Union’s account of the school’s third faculty meeting held six days before. Carl would be going off to pursue his studies in a few months’ time while she stayed home in her dreary tutoring position, a fact all the more galling for her deep-seated belief that were he given a choice, her brother would not enter medicine at all.
Long before the family embarked on their difficult overland trek from Indiana in 1854, Carl’s obsession with wood carving had born witness to the fact that he had a true artist’s gift when it came to creating figures of lifelike proportion. That skill would surely give him entry into any number of trades. Instead, he would bow to their father’s wishes and become a physician whose lack of passion would assure a career of but mediocre dimension.
She sighed, her mood contrary to the room’s cozy ambiance. Their father had built the house with its attached medical office shortly after their arrival in Sacramento. The city had just been declared the capital of California and was still shedding its infancy, crude planks and adobe and canvas being slowly replaced by sawn lumber and brick and mortar. In the years since, the house had taken on an aura of settled permanency with its white-painted exterior, green shutters, and yard graced by young oak and apple trees and flowering camellia plants. Likewise, the gradual acquisition of furniture and fixtures had transformed the interior so that it now reflected the professional stature of its master.
At this time of year, the parlor in which the family was now gathered took on a special aura of cheery hominess. The fire crackled around a freshly-laid log, candlelight brightened the rainy winter day, and the pine tree standing in the far corner, decorated with popcorn chains, colored ribbons, and little candles with burnt wicks, still gave off a fresh tangy odor. Having co-opted this charming custom from their father’s German patients, they had gone to the surrounding hills to cut it just days before. It had been a true sight to see on Christmas morning when they lit the candles and stood around it to sing carols in honor of the day. This afternoon, however, the season no longer held any charm for Cora. Her inner person seethed with resentment even as she pondered the long path that had led her to this moment.
She had felt the scourge of her gender from earliest childhood, all the more poignant for the freedom her twin brother enjoyed simply by virtue of being male. While he was outdoors with his friends playing stickball or hunting for frogs in a nearby stream, she was kept indoors at her mother’s knee learning how to crochet, knit, sew, and any other skill deemed suitable for a young lady. While her brother went off to her uncle’s school for boys in nearby New Harmony, Indiana, she learned her ABC’s from books whose drawings depicted the importance of the female’s role in the home. She perfected her penmanship and writing skills and practiced on the pianoforte, all with the purpose of one day employing her feminine wiles to attract an advantageous husband. True, she had been allowed to enroll for two years, along with Carl, in The Sacramento Academy and Female Institute where her uncle taught on first arriving in Sacramento. However, the curriculum for the twins had been vastly different, again reflecting the cultural bias as to which subjects were suitable for girls and which for boys, the former being much less demanding than the latter.
In the face of this seemingly impenetrable wall of expectation, she had rebelled in whatever manner she could. She had developed the habit of speaking her mind in a bold, direct fashion, eschewing the demure feminine reserve she had been taught. She had read her father’s discarded newspapers and listened intently to any discussion among his male friends and colleagues in order to form her own independent opinions about matters of governance and politics. She read the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which led her to become a champion of the oppressed, whether of her fellow females and their status as second-class citizens or the Negro race and its hateful misuse by supposedly enlightened society
Her father had always looked upon her defiant views with forbearance, even admiration as they reflected much of his own thinking. Thus, when she persisted in her highest form of mutiny, her insatiable desire to become a physician, he was not only sympathetic but secretly delighted. Her mother, however, was more perplexed than judgmental. Nor had she given up hope for a more conventional path for her daughter, as evidenced by her ill-concealed pleasure when Carl’s friend Herbert Roskam began calling on Cora.
He was a nice enough fellow, she thought as she brought his soft round countenance before her mind’s eye. And his intent to succeed his father in the grocer’s business assured him of an income sufficient to support a wife and family. His expectation of said wife’s traditional role, however, had doomed his effort every bit as much as his lack of physical appeal. Cora had the same carnal appetite as any other young woman of twenty years, and she hoped one day to find a man who would trigger those feelings while at the same time valuing her for her independence and quest for self-determination. Alas, she feared her brother was right in his assessment that capturing such a man’s fancy was highly unlikely. Her slight five-foot frame, flame-red hair, and freckled countenance hardly personified the day’s standard of female pulchritude. Add in her willful, bombastic personality, and even she had to admit that her chances of romantic success were scant at best.
She pushed the thought from her mind. The only thing that mattered now was devising a way to achieve her tattered but still passionate dream. There had to be a way.