Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer, a long-time resident of New Canaan, Conn., was an established physician and pioneer for women in medicine when she wrote her autobiography, Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York’s First Woman Ambulance Surgeon, in 1950. The book contained details of Barringer’s determination to overcome the barriers that limited female physicians at the turn of the century; her experiences as New York City’s first female ambulance surgeon; and her appointment as the first woman to serve on the staff of a general municipal hospital in the city.
Emily Dunning was born in 1876 in Scarsdale, N.Y., to Edwin James Dunning and Frances Gore Lang who believed that all children, regardless of gender, should be trained to support themselves. Even after the family experienced financial difficulty, her mother insisted she go to college, and she earned her medical degree from the Cornell University School of Medicine in 1901, a time when few women trained as physicians. After completing her residency in 1904, Emily Dunning married Dr. Benjamin Barringer and quickly found herself frustrated by the lack of opportunity available to her by comparison with her physician husband.
At the suggestion of her mentor, Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, Emily Dunning Barringer took the qualifying exam for an internship position at Gouverneur Hospital of New York. Despite receiving the second highest grade, her application was denied because of her gender. At the time, the options available to female physicians were limited to the few hospitals that served exclusively women and children. Reapplying one year later and supported by lobbying from political and religious figures, she was accepted, becoming the first woman physician to receive post-graduate surgical training in hospital service and the first female ambulance surgeon. After her acceptance, Barringer faced resentment and outright hostility from her male colleagues who did not think women should work in the environment of the street and saloon; however, they unsuccessfully petitioned to deny her appointment. Nevertheless, Barringer persevered, earning the respect of both previously skeptical colleagues and her patients who lived in the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Dr. Barringer went on to a distinguished career in medicine that spanned 50 years, serving as director of gynecology at the Kingston Avenue Hospital and as a surgeon at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She worked for legislation that would control the spread of venereal disease and authored numerous articles on gynecology. As Chairman of the Special Committee of the American Medical Women's Association, Dr. Barringer was decorated by the King of Serbia for championing the service of female physicians during World War I. As co-chair of the War Service Committee, she organized the American Women's Hospital in Europe, which provided medical and surgical care during the war and post-war reconstruction. During World War II, Dr. Barringer successfully lobbied Congress to allow woman physicians to serve as commissioned officers in the medical corps of the Army and Navy. She was also an advocate for women’s suffrage and improved access to health care, especially in women’s prisons.
After the births of their three children, Dr. Barringer and her husband first purchased land for a summer home in New Canaan, Conn., in 1915. After World War II, they made New Canaan their full-time residence and it was here that Dr. Barringer wrote her autobiography. Bowery to Bellevue was subsequently turned into a movie entitled The Girl in White (1952) starring June Allyson as Emily Dunning Barringer.
Dr. Barringer died on April 8, 1961 in New Milford, Conn. Her groundbreaking career paved the way for generations of women in the medical profession.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.