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The Pasage That Always Stumps Me in Dr. S. Josephine Baker's Autobiography

Hello again!  Since I have been writing about her for an upcoming publication of Zelda Magazine, we continue our eclectic tour of my life in this post where I'm going to reexamine some assumptions I've made about Dr. Sara Josephine Baker's manner of dress over the last few years.  It's been a big problem for me recently to come up with new ideas for posts to make here.  If I'm being honest, I'm really getting hung up on the "cosplay" tag line in the URL and at the top of every page.  When I started this blog back in 2012 I thought that I would be doing cosplay and only cosplay on here with maybe a little theatrical stuff thrown in here and there.  PSYCH!  But it feels like an awful lot of work to create a new blog for my historical costuming and research, so I hope you'll stick with me.

For those who know me on social media, it has been almost exactly two years since I first 'met' Dr. Sara Josephine Baker and about a year and a half since she almost entirely took over my life.  In that time I've done probably over a thousand hours of research on her, located every document available about her online, and visited archives in three different states to find the tiny tidbits that the internet had not already discovered about her.

National Library of Medicine

For those who haven't been introduced to Dr. Baker, I will give a quick summary of her life.  Dr. Baker was a woman physician who revolutionized public health in the first four decades of the twentieth century.  Born to a middle-class family in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1873, she found herself shouldering the role of family breadwinner after her father's death when she was sixteen.  She earned her M.D. in 1898 and after her interneship she set up a private practice in New York City along wither her partner (in more ways than one) Dr. Florence Marion Laighton.  Dr. Baker joined the New York City Department of Health in 1902 as a school health inspector and in 1908 she founded a new division within the DOH to improve child and maternal health.  Among many initiatives, her department ran a visiting nurse service for low-income families and provided them with low-cost pasteurized milk with the goal of preventing childhood and maternal illnesses before they could happen in the first place.  She swore to retire only when every state in the union had a division focused on child and maternal health, and she kept that promise when the last state did in 1922.

While this may seem like enough accomplishments for one lifetime, Dr. Baker was also a prominent suffragist, a socialist, and a lesbian.  The latter many others can only speculate at, and indeed we can never know to what extent she and her partners took their relationships, but I know from my archival research how deeply she was loved by her partner in later life, Australian author Ida Wylie.

More to the point of why I decided to write this post, I have been puzzling over a passage in Dr. Baker's autobiography for the better part of two years and it has as much to do, I think, with Ida Wylie as it does with Dr. Baker.  I think we always like to look for the extraordinary in our research, and so I really wanted to believe after reading this passage that Dr. Baker wore trousers on a routine basis.  I now do not believe that to be true, but I present the passage so that perhaps you can share some in my confusion:

"...When I was assistant to Dr. Darlington, the Commissioner of Health, they made me print my name on the letterheads as "Dr. S. J. Baker" to disguise the presence of a woman in a responsible executive post.  The GIbson Girl played a part in the situation because, most fortunately for me, she had persuaded me and the world in general into accepting shirtwaists and tailored suits as a conventional feminine costume.  I liked the effect and still do.  Bu tits convenience came in because, if I was to be the only woman executive in the New York City Department of Health, I badly needed protective coloring.  As it was, I could so dress that, when a masculine colleague of mine looked around the office in a rather critical state ofm ind, no feminine furbelows would catch his eye and give him an excuse to become irritated by the presence of a woman where, accordint to him, no woman had a right to be. My man-tailored shirtwaists and stiff collars and four-in-hand ties were a trifle expensive, but they more than paid their way as buffers. [...] Dr. Mary Walker wore trousers to startle men into recognizing that a woman was demanding men's rights. I wore a standard costume--almost a unfiorm--because the last thing I wanted was to be conspicuously feminine when working with men.  It all seems very strange now, for today women can be ultra-feminine and thus add attractiveness and charm to the work they are doing."
[Dr. Baker's autobiography, Fighting For Life, 1939]

I do, of course, add that last sentence so that you can all appreciate with me just how delightfully quer Dr. Baker was.  Ahem.

A true queer goddess (Library of Congress)

Why mention Dr. Mary Walker and her trousers?  This has made my life very difficult, but the truth of the matter is that women's tailored suits, WITH skirts, not trousers, were a staple of the work woman's wardrobe.  They were not, as Dr. Baker pointed out, abnormal at all.  Of course, one of my hurdles has been finding full-length photos of Dr. Baker that show what she wore on her, well, bottom half, but I'm almost certain it was a skirt, as she wrote in a recollection about her appointment at the Department of Health that she asked the board that appointed her if they had a problem with her skirts.  That source is interesting in itself, so you'll forgive me for leaving it to cover at a later date, but it leaves almost no doubt in my mind that Dr. Baker was going to work wearing conventional women's attire despite its very obvious masculine appearance.  This must have been a very conscious choice, although I am still interested that I can confirm using dated photos that she started wearing her hair short-cropped prior to the early 1910s, about a decade before that became fashionable or even generally acceptable for women.

So what do I think is going on in this passage?  The Mary Walker reference is definitely odd, because Dr. Walker wore a "men's" suit as her everyday clothing.

Dr. Walker C. late 1860s-1870s
National Library of Medicine

After all this time, however, I think I have an answer.  You will forgive me for not remembering the author who mentioned it, but I remember reading an analysis of Dr. Baker's autobiography that noted its stylistic similarities to her partner Ida Wylie's autobiography, and having read both books several times, I have to agree that it is impossible to ignore their rather similar "train of thought" writing styles.  The same analysis wondered if Ida had assisted Dr. Baker in writing her autobiography, and if she did, it may explain quite a few things.  Photos in Ida's autobiography show that she wore trousers herself prior to the 1930s when the volume was published, so wearing them may not have seemed so remarkable to her as it would have been for Dr. Baker had she worn them during her career.  Throughout her literature (I have read several of her fictional novels as well), Ida was prone to somewhat vague statements with seemingly unrelated subjects that at the very least left me wondering what the true meaning of her words was meant to be.  This is not meant to be a criticism.  Indeed, I find her writing engaging.  It does, however, raise key questions about our ability to interpret the exact implications of passages like the one above.

So much of historical research is about trying to interpret sources left behind by people that we will never meet.  In this case, I do think I have made progress even though I have likely disproven the idea that Dr. Baker wore trousers and this discovery does not in any way detract from how extraordinary she truly was.

Do you have questions about Dr. Baker?  My thousands of pages of research materials may yield the answer, so please leave me a comment or send me an email.  If you are interested to know more about her, check back here or watch for issue 19 of Zelda Magazine!

This post first appeared on Albinoshadow Cosplay, please read the originial post: here

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The Pasage That Always Stumps Me in Dr. S. Josephine Baker's Autobiography


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