Why I Study...Medicine and Gender

Assistant Professor of History Jacqueline Antonovich shares her journey from studying at a community college to teaching at Muhlenberg.

By: Jacqueline Antonovich, as told to Meghan Kita  Wednesday, April 24, 2019 09:17 AM

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Jacqueline Antonovich in her American Civil War & Reconstruction class. That day, students were listening to songs from different time periods that memorialize the Civil War era, including Harry Belafonte's 1960 recording of "O, Freedom," and assessing how contemporary political, social and cultural events shape how the war is remembered.

After high school, I went straight to community college. I was a first-generation college student, working full time and living on my own, and it took me more than two years to graduate with my associate’s degree in general studies. Then, I got married, had a kid and stopped going to school. Life just took over.

The marriage that I was in was very abusive. After I’d gone through a divorce, I took my kid and moved from California to Colorado. I decided to start my life over again, and part of that was getting my bachelor’s degree. I enrolled in a local state college and decided to major in history, which I’d always liked. The more I studied it, the more I realized that because of these early experiences I’d had—being married, being a mother, going through all of these challenges as a young woman—I was really interested in women’s history. For my senior thesis, I wrote on the concept of female juvenile delinquency in the 19th century.

I presented that paper at a conference at the University of Wyoming that had a mixture of undergraduate and graduate students. I was the first undergraduate ever to win the award for best overall paper. The University of Wyoming invited me to do my master’s degree there. I had no intention of going to graduate school, but that moment made me rethink everything.

By that time, I’d remarried and had another kid, and we couldn’t move because we had just bought a house in Colorado. I told the folks at Wyoming that I couldn’t be there full-time. They said I could do a lot of independent study and that I could Skype into most classes, but that I had to take the weekly Methods class in person my first semester.

The University of Wyoming was about an eight-hour drive away, over the Rocky Mountains. The chair of the History Department, who was married to the chair of the Women’s Studies Department, said, “We have a guest room. When you’re done with class, come to our house.” We would have this wonderful dinner and talk about academia. Those weekly conversations were foundational for me figuring out whether I wanted to continue on.

I ended up getting my master’s in history with a minor in women’s studies, then applying to Ph.D. programs. I went on to the University of Michigan—their history program is ranked 7th in the nation—and my work there grew organically from what I did before. When I was doing my master’s degree, I wrote on one reform school for girls in Colorado that opened in 1880. It was run mainly by women physicians. The question I had was, is this unusual? That was the beginning of the thoughts I had for my Ph.D. dissertation, on women physicians in the American West and the work they did in public health and in politics. It was unusual, but not so unusual in the West.

Women physicians moved west because they couldn’t find a place to practice in the east, and they had suffrage very early on—way before the 19th Amendment. These women had medical authority, they had professional power and they had access to politics, and so what did they do with that? It turns out they did a lot of not-so-wonderful things: They became pioneers of eugenics in the American West, they created public-health policies based on race—things like that. That was the dissertation; now I’m turning it into a book.

All of my challenges as a first-generation, non-traditional student not only make me a better historian, they make me committed to guiding all students here at Muhlenberg—especially those who faced the same challenges I did as an undergrad.