ELIZABETH GARRETT ANDERSON

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (9 June 1836 – 17 December 1917) was the first woman to qualify in Britain as a doctor and surgeon. Using her career as a case study, this post poses the question whether a strong support network is the only way overt discrimination can be overcome?


While randomly searching for innovative people living in Norfolk and Suffolk I came across Elizabeth Garrett, which in turn took me to The Long Shop Museum in Leiston. My interest was how she became the first registered female doctor in Britain at a time when most women were not even taught to read.

Determination and Tenacity

There is no denying the determination of the young Elizabeth to follow her dream and succeed, and her achievements are vast, see Wikipedia. Not wishing to take anything away from those achievements, this post picks up on some of the support mechanisms that were in place for her, and to begin the conversation of how important these support mechanisms are for people seeking to break down barriers.

Early Years

A supportive father who believed his daughters should be educated was essential. Yet equally important was his reasonable wealth and being able to afford a governess and sending the young child to a quality school. Her tenacious personality raises the question how Elizabeth would have directed her energy and keenness to learn if there were no avenues to formal education?

Family Connections

Elizabeth was fortunate to be part of an industrial family that was growing in wealth. Not only good at business and engineering, the Garrett family were inventors and willing to take punts on ideas, many examples of which can be found in The Long Shop Museum. Her parents were initially appalled by her wish to become a doctor but soon threw their wholehearted support behind her. When The Society of Apothecaries refused her membership, her father threatened them with a lawsuit, providing a foretaste of the legal debates that would eventual lead to a number of anti-discrimination Parliamentary Acts more than a century later.

Without such family support and connections, would it have been close to impossible for a young woman during that period to break down so many doors?

Equality Fight

Once the initial doors of institutional resistance were ajar, Elizabeth pushed on hard and blazed a trail that eventually led to wholesale change in attitudes. When she became the first female Mayor of Aldeburgh, it would have been laughable that Britain could have a woman Prime Minister within 100 years!

Looking back, we see the achievements, but at the time it must have been hard, with many a dark night and desire to give up – to stop fighting? The personal toll was probably cushioned slightly by having financial wealth behind her yet it remains incredible her determination never wilted. She clearly passed on this spirit to her children; one being imprisoned for her suffrage activities. It is harder to tell the impact she had on those immediately around her. Did she create resentment and enemies or inspire? Probably both! As I discuss in my post on Leiston and Sizewell (to follow), whole areas can become pockets of resistance and progress, although distinguishing the exact nature of how such places form is more complicated.

Elizabeth Garrett is a prime example of paradigm shift that can take place in a single lifetime; how entrenched views and institutional resistance can be overcome. Small actions make dents over time until things change, see Trim-Tabs. Gillian Harwood’s guest post, Creating A Successful Hub, provides a more recent account of the issues women have faced starting a business over the last few decades.

Although things are certainly easier for women in the UK on many levels, it does not mean equality has been achieved. Many forms of discrimination remain prevalent throughout society, further stoked by the Brexit debacle.

Supportive Spaces & Places

One of the challenges in this age of Snapchat, convenience and the quarter earnings report, is slowing down people’s expectations for results. It is important for those with an idea to carry on, regardless of the barriers, discriminatory or otherwise as it’s not possible remove discrimination or bias overnight – but it is diminishing.

To create a successful hub, where ideas can develop and flourish requires the space to be undemanding in regards results. It needs to provide support on numerous levels, whether formally through programmes or informally, through peer-to-peer mentorship. The hub needs to be able to, in part at least, be a little like the Garrett family.

John M

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Images from The Long Shop Museum by John McKiernan

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