Feminist Spaces: The Hospital

By Sarah Duff

Dr Jane Elizabeth Waterston. From The Letters of Jane Elizabeth Waterston, 1866-1905, ed. Lucy Bean and Elizabeth van Heyningen (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1983)

I hadn’t intended upon following up January’s profile of the Victorian feminist Betty Molteno with another post about a white, middle-class woman living in nineteenth-century Cape Town. But this month’s theme – ‘feminist spaces’ – is so relevant to the life of Dr Jane Elizabeth Waterston that it would be a pity not to write about her now. Waterston was the first woman doctor to practice in South Africa and had to negotiate a place for herself within colonial Victorian society: as an educated, single woman who earned her own income, she didn’t ‘fit’ into any particular role ascribed to middle-class ladies of the period. As a result of this, she inhabited two spaces or worlds – one masculine, and the other feminine – at once.

She began her unconventional career in a fairly conventional way, though. Born in Scotland in 1843, Waterston trained as a teacher, midwife, and missionary and came to South Africa in 1866 – at the tender age of 23 – to establish the Lovedale Girls’ School. It’s difficult to underestimate the significance of Lovedale to South African society and politics. A mission station founded by the Free Church of Scotland in 1841, it provided high quality education particularly to African elites and ran its own printing press. Its girls’ school was created to educate young women to be the wives of the westernised African intelligentsia Lovedale hoped to produce.

During the nineteenth century many single women travelled across the world to work on mission stations in often remote, lonely, and difficult circumstances. Their independence was justified on the grounds that they had exchanged marriage to do God’s bidding. They had entered the ‘masculine’ sphere of work and activity, relinquishing the ‘feminine’ space of the home. The Victorian ‘cult of domesticity’ placed the home at the heart of civilisation: a clean, tastefully decorated, well run, and orderly home was held up as the epitome of Victorian values. Missionaries not only tried to convert Africans to Christianity, but also encouraged them to wear western dress, live in square – rather than round – houses, and to eat three meals a day. These were all markers of ‘civilisation’. As principal of the Lovedale Girls’ School, Waterston was responsible for teaching African young women not only a basic academic education, but also how to run ‘civilised’ homes. She was educating them to be wives and mothers – precisely the roles which she had rejected in order to become a missionary.

As the home was idealised by the Victorians, women – who were responsible for running the home – were idealised as the embodiment of virtue and goodness. Any woman who eschewed this role fell foul of Victorian double standards. But mission stations were a space where white, middle-class women could live relatively freely. It’s clear that the freedom of the work appealed to Waterston. She was in charge of her own school and answered only to the director of the mission. After nearly a decade at Lovedale, Waterston decided to return to Britain train as a doctor and become a medical missionary. It was then that she confronted the difficulties facing unconventional Victorian women: hospitals and surgical theatres remained, literally, men’s preserve. Women were only allowed to enter these spaces as patients, and not as doctors. Only the New Hospital for Women allowed female women doctors to practice there.

This exclusion was justified on the grounds that women’s intellect was believed weaker than men’s and that, as a result, they were ruled by their emotions and bodies. Women were objects to be studied. Space was organised to complement this thinking, so women had to create alternate spaces in which to work. Medical schools were also barred to women, so Waterston joined a small group of female students who called themselves the London School of Medicine for Women, and in 1879 was awarded a degree from the Irish College of Physicians, which, unlike those in England and Scotland, was willing to recognise female doctors.

When Waterston returned to missionary work as a doctor in 1879 – this time on a station in present-day Malawi – she found that her presence was no longer as easily tolerated as when she was a teacher. Now taking on a ‘male’ role as doctor, her fellow missionaries resented her expertise and refused to accept her authority on medical matters. The space of the mission station did not allow for a single woman whose work no longer pertained exclusively to women. She left after six months, disillusioned by her treatment and also the cruelty meted out to Africans who lived on the station.

Waterston moved to Cape Town and established the Ladies’ Branch of the Free Dispensary, which provided gratis medical care to the city’s growing population of impoverished women and children. She became a regular visitor of Cape Town’s slums – spaces deemed to be unsuitable for middle-class ladies – campaigned for the extension of education to women and Africans, and spoke up for the better treatment of poor women and sex workers in Cape hospitals. Giving evidence before a commission of enquiry in 1899, she argued that the physical examination of sex workers was cruel, painful, and undignified.

Waterston was typical of her class and the period in many ways – she disapproved sex work and was a vocal supporter of British imperialism – but she managed to find a way of living in a conservative, fairly insular society on her own terms. She was financially independent and moved freely, from ‘female’ to ‘male’ spaces, as she pleased. Waterston enjoyed defying expectations around her status as an ‘old maid’. She wrote to a friend: ‘I am wearing dainty slippers here and beautifully fitted kid gloves…and in fact, am taking a wicked delight in disappointing everybody of the strong minded woman they had expected to see.’ This was not without sacrifice: she lived alone and felt that her career was incompatible with marriage and family. Yet, as she noted herself, ‘If you never run risks, you never do anything.’


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