Women partners in social change: Sara Josephine Baker and Linda Frances James


This paper will discuss two innovative leaders, Sara Josephine Baker and Linda Frances James, primarily highlighting their contribution to the modern public health system.


Sara Josephine Baker was a doctor at a time where she was subject to gender discrimination by her male peers.  She however downplayed her femininity by dressing like a male and she was able to succeed in gaining equal footing with her male colleagues (Parry, 2006).  Her gender was hardly raised during her practice.  Her focus was also on preventative health care and the social context of diseases (Parry, 2006).  Linda Frances James was the first woman to be given a certificate for Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health (Harvard Chan School News, 2017).  She served as health inspector for the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Industry (Harvard Chan School News, 2017).  Her life also turned towards activism, mostly for crop insurance, research, as well as education.

Comparison of challenges faced

Both women faced major challenges in relation to their gender.  They lived at a time where women were considered second-class citizens who barely had the right to vote, to education, or employment.  As a result, both Baker and James struggled to gain the right to be educated and to be taken seriously by their male colleagues and by society in general.  They both faced major challenges in terms of credibility in speaking for public health and for patient advocacy.  James went so far as to dress like her male colleagues in order to look like them and therefore make these male colleagues see her as an equal, not as a woman (Epstein, 2013).  This is an extreme method of gaining equal footing with male colleagues, but nevertheless, it worked well for James.  As for Baker, she chose to be vocal and active in expressing her preferences (Mumford, 2013).  Baker’s activism was met with major challenges especially as some funding was lost for some of the causes she championed including agricultural crops.  As a married woman, she also met challenges in terms of pursuing the career she studied during her academic life.  Her public health career ended when she married, and her pursuits shifted towards family pursuits, which turned out to be agriculture (Mumford, 2013).  This is a challenge which women often face upon their marriage, as their priorities change and they often end up giving up their careers or delaying their career pursuits.  Baker persisted with her activism, and with her career change into agriculture and education, she actively pursued causes in relation to her husband’s work and in relation to her chosen cause aligned with her rural agricultural life (Mumford, 2013).

Impact of historical figures on modern public health systems

Both historical figures impacted significantly on the modern public health systems.  James for instance paved the way for other female medical practitioners.  At present, the medical practice, both in the public and private sector include male and female practitioners and the divide is not anymore as controversial.  It is due to people like James and Baker who pursued careers and education in health despite the odds stacked against them which eventually allowed for such gender divides to be less of an issue in education and career pursuits.  James actively but also subtly defied the conventions in the study of medicine.  She conformed with the male standards, even to the point of dressing like a man in order to show other people that her gender did not matter.  In the end, she succeeded in being seen as a doctor, not as a woman doctor.  For Baker, her education pursuit was also unpopular that she ended up being the first woman to complete her course in public health, in Harvard no less.

James approach to public health was to study her patients, their ethnicity, their environment, and their individual qualities (Epstein, 2013).  She also chose to visit communities in order to understand the population.  Her approach to public health was based on first-hand information she was able to gain from the streets and from their homes.  Her advocacy towards preventative health care would later become an important aspect of public health, and to date, prevention is very much considered a priority in efficient healthcare (Epstein, 2013).  Baker’s advocacy also helped promote the importance of public health as an education as well as a career pursuit (Mumford, 2013).

Importance of and implications of the activities for positive social change

Activities for positive social change can be initiated by strong individuals who dare to defy conventions and the status quo.  Without such individuals, the norms of society would stay as they are and social change cannot be instituted.  People are often eventually able to accept change, but they usually look towards leaders who can initiate and pursue it until it materializes. Both Baker and James initiated positive social change at a time when their status as women was low and did not have much weight in society.  Their persistence in pursuing change despite the challenges and difficulties they were faced with helped convince others in society to also support and make the positive social change.  Activities for social change are also very much important in terms of improving the solutions to existing issues; they also help ensure that innovations and new ideas would be welcomed in discussions towards social change.


The achievements of James in terms of going house-to-house to study and examine patients is a very striking achievement for me because this is how I have and will forever see the public health practice.  I see her achievement in this aspect of public health and I see that this is also a dying aspect of public health.  And yet, this is what public health desperately needs.  I relate to this achievement personally because I believed that this is what public health is all about. But my current exposure to public health does not contain such elements.  Patients are still the ones obliged to visit public health clinics, and the doctors and nurses in public health hardly ever study or visit their patients in their homes or communities.  I believe that this aspect of public health practice must be restored because at present, there is a major disconnect between the community and public health practitioners.  As a result, the treatment and management of patients are simply based on norms and a one-size-fits-all package.  There is no patient-centered care in other words.  It is perhaps time for another social change, one which would focus more on public health as it serves communities, individuals, peoples, and ethnicities.

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  1. Epstein, H. (2013). The doctor who made a revolution. The New York Review of Books.
  2. Harvard School News Letter (2017). Meet public health pioneer Linda Frances James, the first woman awarded a Harvard credential. Harvard University.
  3. Mumford, H. (2013). Lost and found: the first woman with a Harvard credential. Center for the History of Medicine.
  4. Parry, M. (2013). Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945). American Journal of Public Health, 96(4): 620–621
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