Since I was a child, I’ve always visited by grandparents several times a year in La Jolla, California. Being an early riser, I always loved to take the seven am morning walk with my grandmother, a couple of miles down to the beach, then along the beach and to a coffee shop, to meet up with “the walkers”. This is a group of my grandmothers’ friends who walk and have coffee together several times a week, and have for many years. Started by my grandmother and her dear departed friend Susan, the walking group has been a social staple and social support for many of these women's’ lives. Every time I came to San Diego throughout my childhood, I would get up early to walk with the walkers, and I loved to come to coffee and chat with them. They would ask me about school, and tell me how much I had to look forward to. Throughout these years, when I had hard times, I always looked forward to seeing my grandmother and her friends, and to find refuge in these group coffee dates.
Through this group, I met Ruth Stern. Ruth is a neighbor and close friend of my grandmother, Elaine’s, and I have known her for as long as I can remember. Throughout the years, I have seen her at coffee and once she even showed my sister and I how to make bagels. I have always admired her. From my family and friends, I had heard about Ruth’s career and her success as a pediatrician in San Diego. Friends talked about what a wonderful doctor she was, and how she was so respected in the community. I was very interested in her experience as a woman in medical school and then in medicine as it was well before the profession had a more even gender split.
So one beautiful Sunday morning in October, I ventured down the street to Ruth's house from where I was staying at my grandmother's. Ruth met me at the door, and was ready to get started. We sat at the table in her kitchen and began to record.
In the interview, Ruth shared much about her life and her experiences. She was born in London, England to American parents in 1929. In 1938, Ruth and her family left England as it was the beginning of the second world war, and moved back to the United States. They moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico when Ruth was eight years old, and she found the social transition difficult, saying "I didn't totally figured out how to be a little American girl" (4:47), and that she felt socially isolated. She spent the rest of her childhood in Albuquerque, where she graduated from high school in 1947. Ruth mentioned that she grew up during the war years, where there was a mild strain on resources, for instance not being able to buy gasoline, butter, or meat. In 1947, Ruth left Albuquerque for Swarthmore College in the Philadelphia area. This meant taking a long train trip to school. College was the first time Ruth felt socially comfortable. She found people with similar backgrounds and interests to hers, and she finally found that she was part of the "social milieu". After college, Ruth decided to go to medical school. Eventually through medicine Ruth met her longtime husband. Ruth describes it as "a successful choice, both husband and career" (11:30). Ruth attended Washington University in St. Louis for two years, but transferred to NYU medical school to be with her husband because he already had an established career in New York. In a couple years, they moved to Ottawa, Canada for her husband's job. So then Ruth had to find a place to do her internship in this new city. She found an internship and soon she was a doctor. Eventually she and her family moved to Champagne, Illinois,
Listening to Ruth’s marriage story, I could not help but wonder if she ever felt held back by having to move with her husband when he got new job offers. About her move to Ottawa she said, “like all obedient wives at that time I had to find a place to do my internship in Ottawa” (16:05). She talked about how it would have been unusual for a woman at that time to do anything different, “if they wanted to have a good marriage”. In many parts of Ruth’s life, she moved to a new place without knowing what academic and professional opportunities would be available to her, because of her family. She remarks, "I didn't go as far in academic pediatrics as I would have if I had been in a bigger city" (16:15). This got me thinking about women's roles and how much they have shifted through time. When asking Ruth whether these changes ever bothered her she talked about how people weren’t “as aware then...women would do what their husbands action demanded” (27-check this).
Throughout the beginning of the interview, when Ruth decides she was finished a question, she excitedly asks, "What next?" As this is the first oral history interview I have completed, I was worried that I was getting everything she might be thinking of, because I took this exclamation as excitement for the interview, but also worry that she might be talking too much about things I wasn't interested in (I was interested in all of it).
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Ruth talk about her specialty in pediatrics. It became very clear to me that Ruth came into her profession because of what she called a “strong social conscience” and wanting “to do something helpful.” (10:30). Ruth talked about how she believes that routine pediatrics is important, including the events that come up, such as puberty, acne, things that may seem small, but have a large influence on people’s daily normal lives. She remarked that she finds “growth and development” a fascinating part of medicine. Sitting with this, I began to realize why Ruth’s dedication to pediatrics was a feminist endeavor --- historically, the care of children has been the responsibility of women. At one point in our conversation, I asked Ruth if she had ever had any problems with receiving a fair salary. She replied that she hadn’t but she did bring up the salary difference in different specialties of medicine, and it began to make me wonder about what society, and the medical profession sees as more worthy. Unfortunately, it seems consistent with our society that care of children would not be as high on the list.
When Ruth moved to San Diego, she was interested in joining a practice that focused on prepaid medicine, so she joined a group which was soon bought by Kaiser. During this time, the focus was not as much on prepaid medicine, so I found it interesting that Ruth was focused on this aspect of healthcare when many others were not. When working in Champagne, Illinois, near the University of Illinois (check this), Ruth worked with many children whose parents were students at the university. Because these young adults had little money to spend, she often found herself choosing between the treatment she thought was best, and what they were able to do with what the patient’s parents could afford. It is clear that this really bothered Ruth. Later in Ruth’s career in San Diego, she had a role in the community as a physician working on child abuse cases.
When I asked Ruth if she felt like what she had accomplished--being a woman in medicine starting in the 50s--was “making a difference,” she responded the way I thought she would respond: “No, I think I just lived my life...I think somebody asked me ‘well was it wonderful to be one of the six women in medical school?’...well it was wonderful to get into medical school but I didn’t think of it as particularly promoting women...I think maybe because the feminist movement came along well after I was already doing what they thought women should be doing..and I can’t remember being very put off by what people thought of women in medicine, maybe it didn’t impact me much, or maybe I wasn’t aware of it” (1:09:30).
Listening back to the tape, I hear Ruth chuckling during different parts of this section. I think she finds it odd that I am so interested in what to her was just her living her life, doing what she wanted to do, and things working out, “without much forethought”. As long as I’ve known her, Ruth has always enriched a conversation by challenging what people mean, and not taking things for granted. At the time Ruth was pursuing her career, she says that she didn’t think much of it. She mentioned that she was praised by her father for being a good student, and doing “the things he thought a brilliant young child should do” (47). It is clear to me that this drive came from a sense of wanting to do the right thing, and less focused on being recognized for this.
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Gluck, Sherna Berger. “Has Feminist Oral History Lost Its Radical/Subversive Edge?” Oral History, vol. 39, no. 2, 2011, pp. 63–72.
Sangster, Joan. “Telling Our Stories: Feminist Debates and the Use of Oral History.” Women's History Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 1994, pp. 5–28.
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