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Publication Date



UM campus only

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


History (Arts and Sciences)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Donald Spivey - Committee Chair

Second Committee Member

Robin Bachin - Committee Member

Third Committee Member

Mary Lindemann - Committee Member

Fourth Committee Member

Jomills Henry Braddock II - Outside Committee Member


My dissertation argues that black female medical professionalization can and should be understood as a part of African-American civil rights history. In particular, my study explores the connection between Dr. Helen Dickens of Philadelphia, an African-American obstetrician and gynecologist, and the emergence of healthcare politics from 1935-1980. I use her life and career, to enhance our understanding of African-American womenâ??s role in healthcare politics by developing community clinics and prevention campaigns to eradicate race and gender discrimination in medicine. To examine the role of Dickens participation in healthcare politics, my study analyzes black newspapers, letters, oral interviews, and organizational documents. I found that African-American womenâ??s construction of healthcare reform in Philadelphia provides a necessary corrective to prior assumptions regarding a perceived dearth of physiciansâ?? civil rights efficacy. In 1935, Dickensâ??s joined a close knit group of black medical professionals at the Aspiranto Health Home in north Philadelphia which provided public health services in labor and delivery. At this time, the city experienced large scale migration and most of its public health services were racially and residentially segregated. As local officials placed increased emphasis on medical reform as a way to reduce infectious disease, African-American female physicians lobbied for the desegregation of maternal health services. By the 1940s, civil rights leaders demanded that hiring black medical professionals aided in improving access to health care. African-American women in particular maintained that reducing high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity represented a viable platform for their social and political mobilization. Dickens solidified her ideological bonds with African-American lay women through a series of public forums. Between 1945 and 1965, Dickens used print media specifically the Philadelphia Tribune, to publicize the importance of cancer prevention. Through a series of newspaper articles, Dickens sought to make the American Cancer Society (ACS) prevention programs more inclusive of African-American womenâ??s health concerns. The influence of healthcare politics is apparent in Dickens decisions to embed reproductive rights within the agenda of social and civic organizations such as the National Urban League of Philadelphia and National Council of Negro Women. As Dickens acquired leadership positions in womenâ??s clubs such as Delta Sigma Theta as well as medical institutions including Mercy Douglass Hospital she articulated a vision that targeted improving African-American womenâ??s access to cutting edge medical technologies. Many of these medical technologies resulted from government research funding of hospitals in the 1960s. Over the next ten years, African-American lay women critiqued research hospitals ability to provide quality maternal care. The study ends by examining how second wave feminists and scholars expose of medical experimentation of women of color from 1970 to 1980 impacted African-American female physicians orientation to medical care.


Health; Women; African American