Our History

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Marjorie Semmens and Fiona Subotsky are the joint archivists, currently working on sorting out papers and artefacts in the office with a view to transferring what is appropriate to the Wellcome Library, and cataloguing what remains.

A small collection of books relevant to the history of medical women is retained and can be made available on request. We may also be able to assist with other archive research requests.

View a list of the books in the MWF Book Archive

View a list of all our Past Presidents

MWF would like to thank Dr Lesley A Hall from the Wellcome Trust for her involvement in the collection and preservation of MWF material. The information below has been adapted from her article '80 years of the Medical Women's Federation', published in Medical Woman, Summer 1997 Vol 16 no 2, pp 6-9.

1879-1919 Origins - The Medical Women's Federation is Founded in London

The MWF developed from the Association of Registered Medical Women. This had been founded in London in 1879 with only nine members representing most of the qualified medical women then in existence in the United Kingdom. A number of provincial associations were set up as more and more women qualified in medicine By 1916 the advantages of a body which would speak on behalf of all medical women and represent their interests (and those of women patients) had become apparent. Representatives of these existing associations came together to establish a Federation to fight for matters of mutual benefit, while retaining the separate identity and autonomy of the local associations. An immediate stimulus to this was the very churlish attitude of the Government towards women doctors who wished to serve their country in time of war by offering their professional skills to the war effort.

In 1917 Articles of Association were drawn up and signed and the Medical Women's Federation incorporated as a limited company with an office in London. The initial membership was 190, representing only a percentage of the numbers of women by then on the Medical Register. Included were some of the most distinguished medical women of the time such as Jane Walker, Ethel Williams, Catherine Chisholm, Lady (Florence) Barrett and Louisa Aldrich-Blake.Initial concerns of the Federation included the position of medical women engaged in war work, both with the forces and examining Government factory and other workers in munitions and other employment relating to the war effort. The Federation also demonstrated its strong roots in the women's movement by its active interventions in contemporary debates about venereal disease and prostitution. Concerns for maternity and infant welfare also appeared very early.

1920-1938 The Early Years - The principle of equal remuneration for medical women was strongly asserted. 

In 1921, a subcommittee to discuss the topic of birth control (which had recently been made notorious by Marie Stopes) was set up and the Association of Medical Women in India affiliated to the Federation. The principle of equal remuneration for medical women was strongly asserted.

By 1925 membership had passed the 1000 mark.

In the 1920s, however, a number of medical schools which had opened their doors to women during the First World War closed them again, and the principle of medical co-education come under serious threat. Although, in the wake of the enfranchisement of women (aged over thirty only until the 'flapper vote' was finally achieved in 1928) various legislative enactments had apparently thrown professions open to women, local authorities and other employing bodies frequently instituted their own regulations imposing marriage bars on women's employment. This was hard for a generation which no longer believed that celibacy was the necessary price to be paid for being allowed to pursue a profession. Such regulations additionally had a significant impact because of the increasing employment of women doctors within expanding public health services. A Standing Committee on Public Health was eventually set up to deal with the issues affecting the numerous women in the public health service.

The MWF was concerned with wider issues than their own professional problems. Committees were appointed to address the question of nutrition, lunacy law reform, assaults on young persons, the registration of nursing homes, the fitness of women to qualify as commercial aeroplane pilots, the menopause, and the improvement of women's health in India. A leaflet on advice regarding the hygiene of menstruation was published and sold 10,000 copies within a year. This was a subject in which the MWF continued to be intensely interested for several decades.

Another women's health issue which exercised the MWF was the adequate provision of birth control information and in 1931 they passed a resolution that instruction should be included in the ordinary gynaecological syllabus of medical schools, and suggested that the Birth Control Investigation Committee ought to include a woman gynaecologist.

In 1930, women in medicine broke through a number of barriers: the first women Commissioner was appointed to the Board of Control and the first woman Chief Medical Officer of a London Borough and Regional Medical Officer under the National Health Insurance Acts took up their posts. The London County Council, one of the largest employing authorities, decreed that all medical appointments under its control should be open to both women and men. A number of hospitals finally admitted women onto their honorary staff. Three years later, following a long campaign, in 1933, a medical woman, Christine Murrell, was elected to the General Medical Council, but died before she could take her place.

1939-1960 The Mid Years - the outbreak of war ensures equal pay allowances. All medical schools opened to women.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, the War Office agreed to appoint medical women with the same pay and allowances as medical men, and with 'relative rank', though actual commissions were still not granted. However, in 1941, the Indian Medical Service actually invited medical women to apply for temporary commissions. In 1946, the first women members were appointed to the British Medical Association council. With the inception of the National Health Services, all medical schools were finally opened to women, although for several decades a quota system of around 20% was applied by most of them.

The MWF continued to demonstrate its interest in a range of issues relevant to women, including social medicine, pain in childbirth, the health of schoolgirls and the place of family planning in the National Health Service. While some long-standing causes of grievance about women in the profession had been eradicated, there were still many problems for women doctors in pursuing their careers and obtaining advanced qualifications. These particularly affected married women and questions around part-time work came to play an increasing part in the Federation's activities.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the MWF took an increasing role through its representation on other medical bodies, such as the General Medical Council and committees of the British Medical Association, as well as submitting evidence to various official committees and commissions on a wide range of topics.

Connections with a range of other women's organisations were built up, and in 1963 an MWF resolution to the Women's Group on Public Welfare led to the establishment of the Women's National Cancer Control Campaign to promote facilities for screening for cervical cancer. A major survey of the work of medical women was undertaken jointly with the BMA in 1963. The Scientific subcommittee of the Federation undertook a research project on cancer of the ovary, with the object of making earlier diagnosis, and therefore earlier treatment, of this malignant disease possible. On the international front the MWF expressed concern over the persistence of ritual female circumcision in several African countries.

1961-Present Recent Years - MWF reaches charitable status, addresses prominent issues within the health industry

In the area of professional concerns of medical women, 1962 saw the setting up of an Advisory Service to deal with the problems of married women seeking part-time work or returning to practice after a break. Particular attention was devoted to the questions of postgraduate education and higher qualifications. In 1969 a network of Liaison Officers was established to undertake a re-education and re-employment project at local levels. In 1972 a Retainer Scheme was launched for doctors who, usually for domestic reasons, were unable to do more than two sessions, enabling them to remain professionally active by subsidising their subscriptions to the GMC and Medical Protection Society. The prejudicial position of married professional women in respect of income tax had long been recognised as a problem: in 1964 an Inter-Professional Working Party was set up at the MWF's initiative to bring together women in a similar position to discuss remedies and to lobby for changes in the law.

In 1970, the MWF was designated as eligible for charitable status.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, questions of career development and training continued to play an important part in the Federation's activities. Other issues of concern were abortion, rape and sexual assault, assisted reproduction, and sex education, as well as traditional interests such as child health.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, changes in the National Health Services as the result of several phases of reorganisation have had implications for women doctors. Although the battles of the early years have largely been won, there are still many campaigns to be fought. Women now account for 66% of medical students and it is vital to plan for this workforce of the future. Part time work and juggling family commitments with training were Federation issues in the 1940s and are still MWF campaigning issues today. Lack of opportunity for part time work and financial constraints make these issues as topical today as in the 1940s.

Matt Elsom is a third year medical student at Kings College London. His essay, entitled 'Breaking the Mould - The Entry of Women into Medicine in the UK' was written during his second year as a Special Study Module under the supervision of Professor John Fabre.

The large and extensive archive of the MWF, including material on women's entry into the medical profession, and predecessor bodies, is held by the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, which also holds a significant amount of other archive and manuscript material on women doctors.

You can view relevant archival and manuscript holdings at the online Wellcome Library catalogue.

Medical Women's Federation
Tavistock House North,
Tavistock Square, London,
WC1H 9HX
admin@medicalwomensfederation.co.uk
Tel: 020 7387 7765

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