There is a famous adage in multiple languages across the world — "A picture speaks more than a thousand words." This holds appositely in the case of the inset photograph dated 1885. The three incredible and pioneering women captured in this image (starting from the left) are Anandibai Joshi from India, Keiko Okami from Japan, and Sabat Islambouli from Ottoman Syria. Though they came from very diverse cultural, social, and economic backgrounds, perhaps the most significant binding commonality was their education. Joshi, Okami, and Islambouli successfully obtained a degree in Western medicine. They became the first licensed female doctor practitioners in their respective countries.
Japan's First Female Doctor of Medicine
Keiko Okami became the first Japanese woman to obtain a medical degree from a Western university. Born in 1859 in the Aomori Prefecture of Minato City, Okami's childhood witnessed a Japan that was going through a period of intense transition from feudalism to a modern, industrialized society. She moved to the United States in 1880 following her marriage. Eventually, she graduated with a medical degree in Western medicine in 1889.
Following her return to Japan from Pennsylvania, Okami became Japan's first female doctor of medicine and opened a clinic in her own home in Akasaka Tameike. She also worked at the Jikei Hospital (now the Tokyo Jikei University School of Medicine). During that time, a plan for a rest home called "Eisei-en" for sick women had arisen. Okami opened the Akasaka Hospital Branch Hospital Eisei-en in 1897 (located in Toyotama, Tokyo). Then, as chief of the clinic, she started a dispatch nurse system.
Where The Trio Met
Okami, Joshi, and Islambouli were students at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). It was only the second women's medical program in the world in the 19th century — and one of the very few globally where women could study medicine.
The credit for this, as Christopher Woolf cited in the public radio news magazine PRI's The World, went to the Quakers who "believed in women's rights enough to set up the WMCP way back in 1850 in Germantown." The colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn in 1682. Interestingly, Quakers formed a significant part of the movements for the abolition of slavery, the advancement of equal rights for women, and the promotion of education.
The WMCP began attracting foreign female students who were unable/denied the right to study medicine in their home countries due to various feudal, socio-cultural, economic, and patriarchal societal pressures that existed in those times. Women from North America and Europe were the initial admission seekers to the WMCP. Nevertheless, candidates from distant parts of the world such as India, Japan, and Syria challenged their respective patriarchy and societies, to travel independently to a foreign land to pursue education.
The Women's Suffrage Movement
For the United States too, this period was critical given that the Declaration of Independence specifying "all men are created equal" sowed the seeds for the women's suffrage movement in the US. The movement took root at an 1840 conference in London, where women were denied the right to vote. This became the impetus for the movement to ensure a guarantee of this fundamental right. In 1919, the suffrage movement gained enough support for the US Congress to pass the Nineteenth Amendment which, at last, removed the legal bar to women's right to vote.
The journey of countless women, be it Anandibai Joshi from India, or Keiko Okami from Japan remains similar in a way. It is a story of grit, perseverance, and determination. It is a story that has paved the way for future generations of women to pursue their dreams and break the glass ceilings in male-dominated fields. Their legacy continues to live on in their respective countries and beyond as trailblazers for gender equality and women's rights.
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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).