Doctor or Doctress?

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A book containing journal entries and correspondence about her experiences and work written by medical missionary, Dr. Clara Swain, upon her arrival in 1870 in Bareilly, India, and the 35 years following.

Why It Matters

As a woman, Swain was allowed to interact with women who observe purdah [the practice of concealing women and segregating them from men]. As a doctor, she was able to provide them with much-needed medical treatment. However, she also spent time with them in other ways: some girls were trained as her assistants and others she either visited at their homes or came to visit her. While Swain was a medical missionary, she was able to gain a better understanding of not only local medical practices, but also social and religious customs.

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Analyze this evidence

  • What does Swain’s account tell you about the life of purdah women? How do you think the women felt about her and other missionaries?
  • Why does Swain, an educated white woman from the United States, compare her Indian women patients to "shy kittens" and "little children"? Do you think this this a fair description? Why or why not?
  • In what ways other than medical treatment do you think the missionaries may have helped "purdah" women?
  • Why do you think it was important for the husbands and other men to be supportive of the missionaries’ work?

Listen to this document read aloud

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April 30, 1871 It is the custom here for native gentlemen to call on foreigners to pay their respects and I have had a number of such callers. They do not allow their wives to come to see us for they live in seclusion, but when we go to their houses the gentleman receives us and does the honors. At first the woman sits on a mat in a corner while her husband is with us; she keeps her face covered and seems more like a shy kitten than a human being, but after a few visits she loses some of her shyness and when we are alone sits on a chair or stool and uncovers her face and talks freely with us. I take special pains to tell the husbands about our customs, and that I think it a great pity that they keep their wives and daughters in such ignorance, always shut up in their houses and never allowed to see the beauties of nature. I can see a change in the feelings of some of these men, and have persuaded two of them whose wives have been my patients to allow their wives to visit me. The poor things were very uneasy, everything was so new to them and they were so much afraid that some man would make his appearance. The husbands walked the veranda all the while the women were within lest someone should come or get a glimpse of the women through the blinds, though they were tightly closed. The women went from one room to another and asked questions like little children about everything they saw. We took great pains to show them our needlework and to explain the pictures and books to them. It is quite an accomplishment to be able to entertain native ladies nicely. Some of them are very simple-hearted and lovely and one feels like taking them to one's heart as one would a little child. While they have the stature of an adult they really seem like children.