When Dr. Dorothy Segal enrolled in the Michigan State University preveterinary program in the 1930s, she had already overcome some challenges—a car crash delayed her planned entrance into college by almost six years—but it quickly became clear that there would be other hurdles in front of Dorothy and the other young women in her class.
"There were seven girls in my class, and that was considered to be just an enormous amount (of women in veterinary school)," said Dr. Segal, now age 90. "The dean at the time (Dr. Ward Giltner) did not want women. He said, 'Go back to the kitchen.' He literally said that. The first speech he gave was, 'What are you doing here?' and he was not joking. I thought to myself, I'm going to make friends with that man if it kills me. ... Ultimately, we really became friends."
Only two of the seven women bold enough to enter the Michigan State University veterinary program graduated and became veterinarians. Dr. Segal graduated in 1943, but she said she never felt like a pioneer, explaining, "I didn't know it was strange for me to enroll. I guess I was naive."
But one thing is clear: if Dr. Segal and her classmates were trailblazers, then the trail is officially open—wide open. Today, women outnumber men in veterinary classes by more than 3-to-1, and this year, the influx of women will reach its statistical tipping point. After students receive their veterinary degrees from colleges and schools across the country in May and June, women veterinarians are expected—for the first time in history—to outnumber men, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
As of December 2005, there were 36,383 female veterinarians in the United States (compared with 43,186 men) making up almost 46 percent of the profession. The graduating class of 2007 (2,489 total students) is split 75.3 percent female (1,873 students) and 24.7 male (616), according to the AVMA.
Allison Shepherd, senior manager of market research with the AVMA, explains that this flood of female veterinary graduates are entering veterinary medicine at a time when retiring veterinarians are more than 95 percent male. In 2005, 918 male veterinarians and just 50 female veterinarians retired. As a result, Shepherd explains, veterinary medicine will "go to women" in 2007.
'The duty of a pioneer'
Dr. Segal wasn't the first female veterinarian. In 1903, Dr. Mignon Nicholson graduated from McKillip Veterinary College in Chicago, and seven years later, Drs. Elinor McGrath, Chicago Veterinary College, and Florence Kimball, Cornell University, graduated with their veterinary degrees. Little is known of Dr. Nicholson after her graduation, but Drs. McGrath and Kimball are remembered as pioneers not just because they were women, but also because they chose a type of veterinary practice that was uncommon at the time—they were small animal veterinarians. In 1910, most veterinary practice was so heavily tied to the farming industry and horses that simply driving an automobile to work was controversial—building a veterinary practice around pets was highly unusual.
Graduating during World War II, Dr. Segal was a part of the first real growth spurt of female veterinarians in the United States. Between 1910 and 1940, only about 30 women graduated with veterinary degrees, and by 1939, there were only 21 known women veterinarians in the country, according to "Our History of Women in Veterinary Medicine: Gumption, Grace, Grit, and Good Humor," by the Association for Women Veterinarians, and compiled and edited by Dr. Phyllis Hickney Larsen.
In 1944, Dr. Segal was one of about 55 female veterinarians, and by 1947, the year the AWV was founded, this number had grown to more than 100. Dr. Mary Knight Dunlap, who graduated from Michigan State University in 1933, founded the AWV in the hopes of sparing this new influx of female veterinarians from having to endure alone the professional problems, harassment, and discrimination that she had experienced. In a 1947 letter, "How I happened to start this organization," published in "Our History of Women in Veterinary Medicine," Dr. Dunlap wrote the following:
I felt that I had a duty to other women who might in their ignorance of actual conditions desire to enter the field. It is the duty of a pioneer to blaze a trail, to set up markers for the guidance of those who come after.
Dr. Segal likes to say that she was never the subject of discrimination, and, in fact, that her education brought her good luck in many ways. In 1942, she was the editor of her veterinary college magazine—MSU Veterinarian—and it was also in college that she met her late husband, Dr. Lawrence Segal, also a veterinarian. Dorothy had a fortunate and exciting career. She worked on small animals, food inspections, dairy-cart horses, and goats on a farm, and was even called on-site to treat circus animals, including a caged panther with tent-clearing intestinal difficulties.
But there were instances when her gender wasn't appreciated by clients, and she was often met with surprise because of her gender. One farmer was so disappointed when she showed up that he asked her why he hadn't been "warned" they were sending a woman.
'It's no job for a lady'
During World War II, when Dr. Segal went through college and Rosie the riveter called on women to take jobs to help the war effort on the home front, women made major strides in veterinary medicine as they did in many professions. But in the 1950s, that slowed down. Dr. Larsen, a 1947 Kansas State graduate and a former president of the American Veterinary Medical History Society, said that the percentage of women veterinarians dipped in the 1950s—from 2 percent to 1.6 percent—and that may have been because World War II veterans were given priority. She explains that at the time, the profession on the whole was not welcoming of women.
From the day it started, the AWV received hundreds of letters every year from women and girls asking for information about how to become a veterinarian. "Little girls and women were always interested in becoming veterinarians, but the culture tended to push them away from it because most people felt it wasn't a suitable job for a woman," Dr. Larsen said. "People at the time would always say, 'It's no job for a lady.'"
Veterinary schools openly turned women down. In a March 11, 1957, rejection letter, Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Ames explained the situation to a female applicant as follows:
It is the policy of the Division of Veterinary Medicine at the Iowa State College not to admit women to the professional curriculum. Because of the limited educational facilities it has been necessary to restrict the number of new students who may be admitted. ... Each year we receive more applications from men students than can be accommodated. If women were admitted, they would displace the same number of men. In many cases women are not physically equal to the educational requirements of the large animal clinics. ... We are sorry to disappoint you. If you wish, we will be happy to consider your application for admission to some other curriculum offered by the Iowa State College.
The student who received this letter applied to another college that year and did go on to become a veterinarian, but the letter had an impression on her ... as it still does on some of her colleagues. Exactly 50 years after it was written, women will outnumber men in the profession.
Dr. Larsen explained that people believed women couldn't handle a horse or cow—a perception she says still exists in some quarters. A brochure for high school counselors published by the AVMA in 1951, while it encouraged women to consider becoming veterinarians, illustrates this bias:
Several of the veterinary medical colleges are reluctant or refuse to enroll women because the physical demands are so great, particularly where farm animals are concerned.
The brochure urged women, if they did decide to become veterinarians, to consider small animal practice or research work.
Dr. Larsen said that the civil rights movement in the 1960s had a big impact. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1966 Veterinary Medical Education Act, which tied educational grants to nondiscrimination, pried open the doors of veterinary schools to women. In 1963, there were still just 277 female veterinarians in the United States, but following the Civil Rights Act, that began to change. In the 1970s, women accounted for 16.8 percent of graduates from veterinary schools. This grew to 44.3 percent in the 1980s, with women in veterinary schools starting to outnumber men in the early 1990s (65.8 percent of U.S. veterinary graduates in 1996, according to AVMA surveys).
"The Civil Rights Act did it," Dr. Larsen said. "Changes in laws in the 1960s really made the difference."
'Women are attracted to the field'
This year, women will outnumber men in the veterinary world, but a more difficult question to answer is, why? Law schools and medical schools are also wide open to women today, but women accounted for only about 48 percent of law school and medical school students in 2005-2006, according to the American Bar Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Tuft's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine's student population is now 85 percent female, and nobody really knows exactly why, says the assistant dean of student affairs, Barbara Berman.
"The good news is that—yes, we're mostly women—but we're still bringing in large numbers of amazingly qualified applicants, and the bottom line is that every year we are graduating classes ... who go on to be great veterinarians," Berman said.
"I don't know that anybody has a conclusive answer of why, but I certainly do hear from some of our women students that they are very attracted to the field, in part, because they see flexibility. Not only are there so many things that they can do in the profession, but also, they could work part time if there are times in their lives that they want to concentrate on child care. It's a field that will allow that kind of flexibility."
Lisa Greenhill, associate executive director for diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, said that veterinary medicine may be benefiting from years of educational outreach programs dedicated to attracting young girls and women into the sciences. Furthermore, she said that women may be attracted to a style of practice that has evolved in veterinary medicine that allows them to make time to have families.
"It may be easier to have a life/work balance in veterinary medicine," Greenhill explained. "Practice has really changed over the past 30 to 40 years, and these changes have made it far more flexible and accessible for women working outside the home."
Some veterinary graduates say that one reason may be money—there is less of it in veterinary medicine than many other medical fields, and men feel more pressure to enter higher-paying ones. Thirty years ago, veterinarians earned salaries not far behind those of physicians, but today, they earn only about 60 percent. The mean salary for private practice veterinarians in 2005 was $105,510—according to the 2007 edition of the AVMA Report on Veterinary Compensation—compared with $175,000, which was the mean salary for physicians in 2005, according to Medical Economics magazine. Doctors specializing in orthopedics reported mean salaries of $300,000.
Dr. George Saperstein, chairman of the Department of Environmental and Population Health at Tufts University, said that his graduates are in a financial vice—between low pay and growing educational debt. In 2006, U.S. graduating students reported on an AVMA survey a total mean educational debt of $100,805, a sharp increase from $88,854 in 2005 and $81,052 in 2004. Furthermore, the mean starting salary for veterinarians, after eight years of schooling, was $45,546 for the class of 2006 ($55,031 for private practice veterinarians), according to the AVMA.
"I greatly respect the students in veterinary schools today. They're really doing it for all the right reasons," Dr. Saperstein said. "They chose to go to veterinary school for other than monetary reasons."
Dr. Larsen believes the true reason women are attracted to this profession is that "women like animals." Despite the fact that women were not welcomed by the profession on the whole, she said, some AVMA leaders such as Executive Secretary John Hardenbergh (1941-1958)—and, of course, the AWV—encouraged and welcomed women. The AVMA placed an article in the Girl Scout publication The American Girl encouraging girls to become veterinarians, and Dr. Hardenbergh and a few of the AVMA leaders in the 1940s openly supported creation of a professional association for female veterinarians—the AWV. Dr. Larsen said it could be that the veterinary profession was simply more successful in inspiring young women and girls to feel that veterinary medicine is something that they should be doing with their lives.
'It's finally our time'
Becoming a veterinarian wasn't the only decision that Dr. Segal made in her life that went against the tide. After veterinary college, she and her husband experienced discrimination when trying to adopt children. The Segals were considered a mixed marriage by adoption agencies, but they defied that prejudice as well and adopted a boy and girl. Today, Dr. Segal's granddaughter, Lauren Rose Quinlan, age 17, has decided she wants to follow in her grandmother's footsteps.
"I'm looking into becoming a veterinarian. My grandmother is pretty amazing," Lauren said. "It's finally our time to step up in this field."