Working Woman

Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters

by Barbara Sicherman
Harvard University Press, 460 pp., $25.00

Returning from Europe to America for a long visit in 1905, Henry James found the predominance of women “the sentence written largest in the American sky.” James meant social and cultural predominance, but a quick look at the names of some women born between 1860 and 1880, who were coming into their own around the turn of the century, suggests that these adventurers were reaching well beyond the Jamesian drawing room: the list includes Gertrude Stein, Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Jeannette Rankin, Frances Perkins, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Edith Hamilton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Grandma Moses—as well as countless others who never became famous but, who had, as James put it, “quite a new story to tell.”

Alice Hamilton belongs somewhere between these two groups, neither anonymous nor as well known as, say, her sister Edith (to whom she always deferred, claiming “one in a family is enough”). Born in 1869, Alice Hamilton became a physician, the first female professor at Harvard, and a leading figure in the early years of American industrial toxicology: she practiced “shoe-leather epidemiology”—investigating health hazards in the workplace by marching down mine shafts, clambering onto factory tables, dredging up old dispensary records. She sought out workers at home to expose the dangers of such industrial poisons as lead, mercury, TNT, aniline dye, phosphorus, benzene, and radium. In her eighties, she had retired from investigative work but was still actively campaigning for civil rights and international peace, and tending her Connecticut garden in sneakers and jeans.

She died in 1970, at the age of 101, having lived virtually from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. That pioneering first generation of college women is almost entirely gone now—you could still see a few of them around Boston in the 1960s and 1970s attending lectures at the Radcliffe Institute, concerts at the Gardner Museum, peace rallies on the Cambridge Common. They had, in a way, invented themselves, growing up in an age of radical social change when middle-class women began to pursue higher education and find work outside the home.

The official movement for women’s rights had begun at Seneca Falls in 1848, its ideals from the start intertwined with those of abolitionism; the Civil War had left a legacy of social activism and a scarcity of men—of the small proportion of American women who never married, the percentages are highest for those born in the last four decades of the nineteenth century. The postwar years of Alice Hamilton’s childhood came to be known as an era of strong-minded women. In Boston, the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker somewhat nervously saluted “the glorious phalanx of old maids,” and across the Charles River there were gently mocking references to “the Cambridge ladies, who seldom marry and never die.”

Only about half of that first college generation did marry—many, including Alice Hamilton, thought a woman had to choose between family and work, and those who chose careers often felt a sense of special privilege and social obligation. Dr. Hamilton…

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