(This article was written by Archives staff for the March issue of East Bradford Neighbors.)
168 years ago a radical event occurred at West Chester’s Horticultural Hall, now home to the Chester County Historical Society. The Pennsylvania Woman’s Rights Convention held there June 2-3, 1852 was the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, and only the eighth in the United States. At the time, women had limited legal and property rights, especially if they were married. They couldn’t vote – but could pay taxes. Job opportunities were extremely limited, as was access to higher education.
Horticultural Hall, site of the 1852 Pennsylvania Woman’s Rights Convention.
Photograph by Thomas W. Taylor, West Chester, circa 1870. Courtesy Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, PA.
The main speech at the convention was given by Ann Preston, MD. Preston was born in West Grove in 1813. A member of the Society of Friends, she actively opposed slavery and supported the prohibition of alcohol. Today, she is primarily remembered as a pioneer in medical education for women. Her career grew out of her desire to lecture on women’s health. After studying with a local doctor, she applied to area medical schools, but they refused to admit a woman.
Women who wished to become doctors in the mid-19th century faced opposition from male physicians, medical schools, and many in society. Women were viewed as too weak and delicate to withstand the rigors of medical education and practice. A group of local men counteracted these traditional beliefs in 1850 and established the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia based school was the first in the world established to grant women medical degrees. On December 30, 1851, the college’s first class graduated, including Ann Preston.
Ann Preston, MD. Carte-de-visite by J. W. Hurn, Philadelphia, 1867. Courtesy Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, PA.
Just five months after receiving her medical degree, Ann Preston spoke to the crowd in Horticultural Hall. Her experience in gaining that degree was fresh in her mind:
“We ask that woman shall have free access to vocations of profit and honor, the means of earning a livelihood and independence for herself! As a general rule, profitable employments are not considered open to woman, nor are her business capabilities encouraged and developed by systematic training… Their brothers may go out into society and gain position and competency; but for them there is but little choice of employment, and, too often, they are left with repressed and crippled energies to pine and chafe under the bitter sense of poverty and dependence.”
To Ann Preston, having professional opportunity was not just a key to economic independence. It was also necessary for intellectual growth and personal independence:
“Those who are best acquainted with the state of society know that there is, at this time, a vast amount of unhappiness among women for want of free outlets to their powers; that thousands are yearning for fuller development, and a wider field of usefulness…We protest against the tyranny of that public sentiment which assigns any arbitrary sphere to woman.”
Dr. Preston was very fortunate that she grew up in a family that valued the education of girls and supported her desire to become a doctor. That belief in equality was evidenced by the will of her father, Amos Preston, who died in 1856:
Amos left his estate to his “beloved Wife Margaret Preston” during her lifetime, with the stipulation that she was to give their son Charles $300 for his business endeavors.
“As regards our other Children, namely Joseph, Ann, Simpson, Smith, Levi and Howard, I having given to each of them the like sum of three hundred dollars as they respectively entered into business in accordance with my approval, and as they are succeeding with reasonable success I purpose to give to them no more during the lifetime of their mother."
Amos Preston's 1856 will filed with the Chester County Register of Wills Office. Chester County Archives Wills & Administration, 1714-1923 file #13031.
After the death of Margaret, the estate was to be equally divided among all the children – Ann and her six brothers.
Ann Preston’s inclusion with her brothers as a child who had received money towards a successful career speaks to how her parents viewed her. The will is also evidence that the family was financially comfortable – the $300 that her brother Charles received in 1856 is equivalent to $9,415.00 in purchasing power today (if you’re curious as to how we got that figure, visit MeasuringWorth.com
After speaking at the Pennsylvania Woman’s Rights Convention, Dr. Preston would go on to become a professor and then a dean at her alma mater, which by then was named Women’s Medical College. She was the first woman dean of a medical college in the United States. She also was instrumental in establishing Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which opened in 1861.
Ann Preston, MD died in 1872. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin marked her passing: “[She] has lived to see the cause which she so admirably and modestly illustrated and so ably defended, placed upon a basis which permits her to depart from a work whose ultimate success is no longer in doubt.”