Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros was born May 18, 1869, near Kiev, in Berdechev, Russia. Her parents, Joachim and Bernice Slobodinsky were prosperous, and Rachelle was educated in Russian schools. As a teenager, she joined a revolutionist political group, against her family’s wishes. Eventually, she realized that she might be arrested by the Czar’s police and accepted her families’ money to emigrate to the United States around her 17th or 18th year (Perry). After she arrived in the U.S., Slobodinsky made a living sewing in the sweatshops in New York and New Jersey, where she lived and worked among the poor (Lasch). At the New Jersey sweatshop, Slobodinsky organized a strike (Perry), and although the strike failed, Slobodinsky would go on to organize many other successful group actions for social justice in her life.
In 1890, emigre friends persuaded Slobodinsky to enroll in medical school and funded her efforts. Slobodinsky became the first woman admitted to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Boston. At this time, she began work in nursing care at the Tewksbury State Institution. After a year of medical school in Boston, Slobodinsky moved to Philadelphia, finishing her medical degree at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1893. Subsequently, she interned at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, and eventually went on to postdoctoral work at the New York Infirmary for Infants and Children (Perry).
Christopher Lasch describes Slobodinsky’s relationship with her husband Victor Yarros, “Moving to Boston, she met a fellow countryman, the journalist and philosophical anarchist Victor S. Yarros, to whom she was married on July 18, 1894. They had no children of their own but eventually adopted a daughter, Elise Donaldson” (Lasch). Lasch notes Yarros’ support for his wife’s ongoing education and career. When the couple settled in Chicago and she began her obstetrical and gynecological practice in 1895, Victor Yarros pursued his career in journalism and law (Lasch).
Rachel Yarros undertook residency training at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. After completing her residency and starting her practice on Chicago’s West Side, Yarros worked as an unsalaried teacher in clinical Obstetrics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Perry describes Yarros’ philosophy of teaching and practice:
She thought students should have hands-on instruction by assisting her with home deliveries at the dispensary, and within the year she had convinced the dean to permit the program. Called by students the ‘Department of Obstetrics in the Ghetto,’ this medical training enabled babies to be delivered under the safest and most sanitary conditions. The program ran for twelve years. (Perry)
Yarros’ work at UI in obstetrics, home birth, sexuality, and birth control as a clinician and educator was groundbreaking and remarkably responsive to community needs. In modern times, it is difficult to imagine conditions in Chicago a century ago, but when Yarros began working, there was no organized service system for women in healthcare. At the time, Yarros gained sponsorship for her clinic, because the school had no teaching facilities for obstetrics (Ray).
Yarros became an associate professor at UI in 1902 and remained at UI for most of her career. In 1926, UI created a special professorship to honor her work in Social Hygiene and she held the appointment until 1939 (Lasch).
Between 1907-1927, Yarros was a resident at Hull House in Chicago. Hull House was an extraordinary environment for nurturing many leaders in social welfare and healthcare transformation. Yarros and her husband, Victor, both identified with the social settlement movements inspired by Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, and other reformers. Yarros’ longtime collaborator, Alice Hamilton, developed a relationship with Yarros at Hull House, and eventually Hamilton went on to become first woman faculty member at Harvard’s School of Medicine (Haslett). The settlement and social hygiene movements of this era addressed the needs of the urban poor and immigrants struggling with the social breakdown brought on by industrialization and the hardships of carving out a new life after fleeing poverty and oppression in their native lands. The struggle to overcome these collective survival issues led to the establishment of the famous settlement house in Chicago known as Hull House, which according to Jane Addams’ was purposed “to provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago” (Addams).
In Maurice Hamington’s philosophical work, “Embodied care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Ethics,” Hamington describes the social dynamism of “proactive embodied care” espoused by Addams as leading to enduring friendships and “a woman-centered activist environment that brought together some of the great minds of the time”:
There were probably few venues where women of such achievement worked, lived, and socialized together. Eleanor Stebner suggests that friendship was an important aspect of Hull-House’s success: “The friendships made and fostered at Hull House enlarged the personal worlds of each woman. They helped each woman identify her unique vocation, and served as a basis for her social and political involvement.”86 …The personal relationships among Hull House residents fueled their activism and modeled the spirit of connection they sought with the neighborhood at large. One of their efforts to connect the community was a series of social clubs whose activities centered on the arts, education, politics, or many times simply socialization. (Hamington)
In 1914, Yarros helped found the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA), which is known today as the American Sexual Health Association. Yarros’ motivation for this effort appears to stem from early treatment she had done as a volunteer in a Massachusetts asylum with syphilitic patients (Perry). The mission of the ASHA was “to stop the venereal disease epidemic by educating the public about sexually transmitted infections, working to break down the social stigma attached to VD, and encouraging high moral standards” (American Social Hygiene Association History and a Forecast website).
Yarros was also the first vice president of the Illinois Social Hygiene League, which was founded originally as The Red League. The League’s mission was the same as the mission of the ASHA, to fight the spread of venereal disease through sexual education (Institute for Sex Education Records). Both the ASHA and the ISHL worked to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases that would eventually afflict the most vulnerable, including soldiers with little education in hygienic practices who traveled abroad and returned throughout World War I.
After World War I started, Yarros convinced the Chicago Women’s Club, where she was a member, to establish a birth control committee, which eventually evolved into the Illinois Birth Control League (IBCL). Yarros directed the IBCL for many years in her efforts to empower women’s reproductive self-determination (Perry). In 1923, when Yarros opened the nation’s second birth control clinic close to Hull House, she inspired the creation of similar clinics across the city. Haslett writes extensively on the achievements of Yarros and Hamilton, documenting the widening circle of impact emanating from the provision of birth control services:
As their association with the birth control movement evolved, they challenged the attitudes, policies, and practices that denied women access to birth control information and devices. They also created programs to provide concrete services, such as medical centers that offered a broad range of health care and information, including contraception, and supportive services for day nurseries, particularly for working mothers and their children. (Haslett)
At the core of Yarros’ achievements, was the essential need to establish birth control clinics to enable the limitation of family size, reducing infant mortality and the great hardships large families often carried for the immigrants and the poor. Yarros and her physician-scholar colleagues made distinct contributions to this movement from their place in the academy, working to promote the kinds of research needed to convince physicians that birth control and its research mattered. In 1931, Yarros wrote:
“One of the most valuable means of removing such apathy as exists [among physicians] is the systematic reporting of findings based on experience with the large numbers of cases, such as are treated by the birth control clinics conducted under proper supervision. Exchanging this information and making it available for the use of physicians generally will help to determine the best methods available and greatly increase the appreciation of birth control as a means of promoting health and welfare.” (Haslett)
Yarros was a dedicated campaigner for sex education for women. She hoped abortions would not be necessary through the development of effective methods of sexual education for women (Haslett). Yarros furthered public education through civic action societies and widespread programs. Perry described Yarros’ perspective and courage in reaching out to the suffering women of her time:
Yarros fully supported disseminating contraceptive information to working-class women to ensure a healthier way of life. She had witnessed the effects on immigrant women who had undergone abortions, often self-induced. Some women had suffered serious problems requiring surgery, others had chronic inflammations. Inspired by hearing Margaret Sanger speak and aided by the Illinois Birth Control League, she opened the second birth control clinic in the United States in 1923. She defied opposition from the Roman Catholic clergy and health officials by opening a medical center and clinic that distributed contraceptive literature in the business district in 1924. Encouraged by the strong response she received, Yarros opened additional centers in ethnic and minority neighborhoods. By 1930 Chicago had eight birth control clinics, more than any other American city. (Perry)
Throughout her entire life, Yarros remained engaged in movements to better healthcare in society. In 1932, Yarros established the first pre-marital counseling clinic in the Midwest. She was opposed to the eugenics movement of time and a strong advocate of reproductive freedom. Haslett lauds her “celebration of diversity” and the use of her understanding of culture in the treatment women (Haslett). She describes Yarrow tremendous insight into service delivery as well: “Yarros understood the need for seamless services, beginning with sex education and premarital and marital counseling and ending with birth control clinics accessible to working mothers, thus providing supportive services at each stage of a woman’s sexual life and reproductive journey” (Haslett).
Dr. Yarros’ imprint as a physician, researcher, scholar, community organizer, healthcare delivery innovator, friend and inspired teacher is emblazoned on the cradle of the women’s healthcare in the modern age.
Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull-House: with Autobiographical Notes. Macmillan, 1922.
“American Social Hygiene Association History and a Forecast.” Social Welfare History Project, 6 Mar. 2018. Accessed May 2020 at: https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/programs/health-nutrition/american-social-hygiene-association-history-and-a-forecast/
Hamington, M. (2004). Embodied care : Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Ethics. Accessed May 2020 at: https://search-proquest-com.proxy.cc.uic.edu/docview/2131132765/F2E902B5A93B4228PQ/1?accountid=14552
Haslett, D. C. (1997). Hull House and the Birth Control Movement: An Untold Story. Affilia, 12(3), 261–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/088610999701200302
Perry, M. (2000, February). Yarros, Rachelle (1869-1946), physician and reformer. American National Biography. Accessed May 2020 at: https://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1201753
Ray, J. M. (1992). Women and men in American medicine, 1849-1925: autobiographies as evidence (Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin).
Lasch, C. (1971). “Yarros, Rachelle Slobodinsky.” In E. T. James, J. James, & P. Boyer (Eds.), Notable American Women, 1607-1950, Volume III: P-Z (p. 690). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from Women and Social Movements in the United States,1600-2000 database. Accessed May 2020 at: https://search-alexanderstreet-com.proxy.cc.uic.edu/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C2515557?dorpID=1000169008#page/690/mode/1/chapter/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C2516114