Photo of Connie Guion, 1961, published in “The Amazing Doctor Guion,” LOOK, Sept. 12, 1961. (Charlotte Brooks/Courtesy of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Gift of Katherine Hall Page)
Growing up, I heard stories about Aunt Connie Guion from my mom. I could sense the admiration and pride she had in being related to her at such an early age that I actually did a 6th grade presentation on Connie. I remember how much fun it was finding pictures and peppering my mom with questions about this truly badass woman in our family.
Here’s a part of her very brief Wikipedia page:
Connie Myers Guion (August 29, 1882 – April 30, 1971) revolutionized health care for the poor in New York City and training for new health care professionals at Cornell Medical Center and also founded the Cornell Pay Clinic, which supported the poor in the city and brought in training. She was also the first woman to be named professor of clinical medicine and in 1963 became the first living woman physician to have a building named after her (New York Hospital‘s Connie Guion Building). Up until her death, she made many house calls and ran her own private clinic.
Here’s another article that references her legacy:
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Brooks documented the challenges of women in the workplace caused by social norms. Guion, described in Brooks’ caption as “an island of femininity surrounded by a sea of men,” was one of many essays that Brooks photographed that focused on women’s rights and achievements. Guion was a pioneer in her profession, the first female doctor in the United States to be named professor of clinical medicine at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College.
My middle name is Guion so in some ways I grew up internalizing this level of admiration myself. In January, my mom sent me an article a cousin of ours wrote about Aunt Con (as my mom likes to call her). You can read the full article here.
Some highlights that I cling to with a smile on my face:
How could a little North Carolina farm girl, born in 1882 when southern women were only beginning to break away from the old patterns of acceptable female behavior, come to have such influence in the male-dominated field of medicine that a male colleague would say, “Connie Guion didn’t get where she is by agreeing with people – she is the only woman I have ever seen who can stand up to men and hold onto her point of view”.
She was quite lucky to have the education she did as it was a priority of her family (something my mom championed for me):
Because Dr. Guion was aware of the role education played in transforming her own life, she championed the cause of education for women, especially women in medicine. As a prominent professional woman, she was a role model for young women, and she was a frequent guest speaker at women’s organizations and colleges. A gifted raconteur, she often told of her early life and inspired others by her example of perseverance. Guion was frequently asked if she had felt any discrimination in her attempts to become a doctor or in her medical practice. Had she felt any particular hardship because she was a woman? Her answer always reflected a great advantage she had enjoyed as a child, one that helps explain why she was never intimidated by men. “No,” she once said, “I never thought anything about it. My brothers always treated me just the same as they treated each other. I never had been in a position where there was any difference. I never thought about it one way or another.”
I’m always amazed reading about the long line of women who helped other women along the way. Reminds me of this recent article on how white women in tech can use their privilege to help:
The efforts of older women to encourage the advancement of daughters and younger siblings was, for educator and social historian A. D. Mayo, the “one feature of Southern life, which…has most compelled our attention.” During his southern sojourn between 1880 and 1892 when he studied the region’s schools, he was struck by “the push to the front of the better sort of Southern young, everywhere encouraged by the sympathy, support, sacrifice, toils, and prayers of the superior women of the elder generation at home.” These women were “the mother, grandmother, and maiden aunt, who had lived through the life of the awful revolutionary epoch,” and who impressed upon their daughters the urgent need to improve their own lot and in turn help their younger sisters.
This passage struck me upon reading it. I’ll let you read it for yourself before explaining why:
Like many career women of her generation, Dr. Guion preferred to avoid the kinds of restrictions that marriage and childbearing had imposed on her mother and older sisters. Kate Guion, still independent in her twilight years, even encouraged Guion to remain unmarried and closed at least one letter with: “God keep you safe and single.” Guion liked men and enjoyed their company, but her life was devoted to medicine.
Connie Guion was 100% a lesbian or at least LGBTQ. I say this a bit nervously – she’s not here to speak for herself and I’ve only ever discussed it with my mom (and my mom has only discussed this with me). Since it’s international women’s day though, I think it’s important to celebrate what she did and who she was. She was a badass, gay woman in a very male dominated field and I draw so much strength from her.
When my mom sent this to me, she said reading this through she was struck by how similar I was to Aunt Con. After spending years hearing about this amazing woman and sifting through old letters mentioning her from my Grannie, I felt incredibly honored to even be compared in any way to her. I frankly don’t believe it 😉 I read these stories of amazing, incredible women fighting for their education, their place at the table, for others to see them as competent, and it puts everything I feel I’ve had to “fight” for to shame.
I also talk to my mom about how closeted Aunt Con was. For example, her partner would join her for thanksgiving but it was never recognized. It was just her “roommate”. It upsets me to think about this especially as I’ve had to closet myself with partners before and know that horrible feeling. I can’t imagine having to do that for years and years despite knowing so many have had to do so.
Aunt Con, I know you aren’t around anymore but thank you. Thank you for setting an example of how to carry yourself in a male dominated field. Thank you for showing how you can continue to take care of others in your profession and choose to focus on bettering the world. Thank you for loving who you wanted to love so that years later I could do the same. Thank you for your persistence and for raising up the women around you including my very own grandmother and mother. I never got to meet you but I wish I could spend just one day in your presence. Your legacy is one I aspire to.