Ruth Mewhinney

As Interviewed by Ruth Mewhinney, March 12, 2013

Ruth Mewhinney: In Her Own Words

I am physician who graduated from the University of Texas medical branch. I am 97 years-old in May. I was born in Dallas Texas in 1916. I went to Southern Methodist University for my college training, and I majored in Biology. I practiced medicine until I was 84 years-old, as a single practitioner. I think people expected certain things from boys and there were certain things that boys were able to do and accomplish, that girls were very discouraged from applying for those positions. Any position that was an executive position, it was thought not suitable for a girl. And actually there were very, very few men teachers because it just naturally felt when girls got out of college, they would be either a teacher or somebody’s secretary. Boys were more pushed into finance and things that involved arithmetic, because girls were not encouraged at all to take math of any kind. And boys were pushed into science courses, and the girls were discouraged. And the boys couldn’t take home economics or chef’s work, because that was women’s work, and you just didn’t do that if you were a boy. Physical Education was required, but it was tap-dancing and ladylike things. I just accepted it – that was the way things were done.

What were women’s roles in society?

To be the mother and not work outside of the home at all. If she didn’t marry or if her marriage didn’t last, she usually had to seek a job as a teacher, or a secretary, or a typist, or someone who did housecleaning, light jobs. Very few girls were doctors, because everybody thought they weren’t up to that. Their husbands expected them to be the mother of their children, run the house, listen to what they said, and do exactly what their husbands allowed them to do. She was subjected to his wishes.

Did you think about your future?

I was very interested in science and as a little girl; I’d prefer to play with the chemistry set over dolls and to do some experiments. I was reared with three boys, and I thought it was wrong to be a sissy and do some of the things girls were expected to do. When I was in SMU, I had thought about being a doctor, but realized I probably couldn’t after talking to some people. Everybody would say, “Oh, you don’t want to be a doctor, you want to be a nurse. You can’t be a doctor, girls just don’t do that.” When I had to take certain classes for what I thought would be a Bachelor of Science in Biology, one of the classes that fit my schedule was a Pre-Med class. I was absolutely blown away by that but, again, was told there would be a slight chance that I would get into medical school.

I’m sure it [amount of women] was well over half of the classes. I think they continued to take the courses they thought it would be helpful being mothers. In Medical School, in my class of 100 students, there were four women – well, five started out, and one dropped out in mid-term saying she had made a mistake, she didn’t want to do that. And another girl became ill and had to drop out, so three of us finished in that class. In our class, we were so few we weren’t a threat to anybody.

I then went into private practice with a friend, this was at the almost end of World War II, and there was a great shortage of doctors in the city. We were busy from day one. We thought, since my husband was a pediatrician and got a lot of night calls, we thought if I did teenagers, I wouldn’t have as many night calls as he did. But it turned out I had many night calls, many to the extent of “Can she wash her hair? Can she go to the dance?” The pediatricians, most of them, weren’t comfortable with girl patients as they hit middle school age.

The head of pediatrics was all women because all the men had been taken into the Navy. It was a very great change in proving that women could do the job and do it well. The thing they would say – that women surgeons would faint at the sight of blood and fall on the patient – we disproved that, too. It proved to the ones who came back from the war that they could work with women, and it changed the complex. Today the student number of females is higher than the male number in some places.