Making history, despite the odds


More than a decade after serving as the first female president of the American Animal Hospital Association, (AAHA) Dr. Linda Merry defines her experience as more than a fond memory; she is proud of being "eternally useful."

More than a decade after serving as the first female president of the American Animal Hospital Association, (AAHA) Dr. Linda Merry defines her experience as more than a fond memory; she is proud of being "eternally useful."

Merry still attends AAHA meetings and practices veterinary medicine, but she considers herself semi-retired. While she practices at her own pace and on her own terms, she has found a new association to lead as founding president of her local senior center, where she serves on the board of directors.

Merry became president of AAHA the same way as men before her, she says, but she was the first woman to experience the authority of the top spot at a time when the profession was dominated by men.

"I remember being over-awed to be rubbing shoulders with the caliber of people that I had admired all my life," Merry says.

But being the only woman was awkward at times, she says.

"I could never share a room with anyone when traveling for conferences, and there was no one for me to do things with after the work day was over."

AAHA was the first national veterinary association to have a female president.

"I believe that AAHA was forward thinking and looking to integrate a woman who had the ability to be a part of leadership," Merry says. "I do not think I was discriminated against or promoted because I am a woman with AAHA."

She was not as fortunate at a student.

While going through veterinary school at Colorado State University, Merry says she experienced sexism on a regular basis from other students and instructors. The most vivid incident occurred when a male applicant approached her to say she was taking his spot at the university. Her reply: "If he would have been more up on his skills, then he would in fact have the seat instead."

Sexism was more evident in the early days of practice, too.

"There were less than 300 female veterinarians in the United States and Canada combined when I was in veterinary school," she says. "There were a lot of men that had trouble accepting women in the industry."

In 1962, the federal government had yet to open the path for women to attend universities, and the odds were 11 to one for anyone to get into veterinary school at Colorado State, Merry says. The odds were about three times that for women.

"There were 72 people in my class, and only three of them were women," she says. "There were no women in the class behind mine."

Though Merry adamantly commends AAHA members and its board for equal treatment of women, she says plenty of politics within the profession excluded women.

"It's the good 'ole boy politics that omits women that have surpassed the glass ceiling," Merry says. "Golf outings, for example, are generally an activity women are excluded from."

Merry was working at Alpine Animal Hospital in Pocatello, Idaho, when she served as president, but her clients were very understanding about her responsibilities to the association's then 14,000 members, she says.

"I didn't lose any clients, and the staff was very proud of me," Merry says. "It was a great honor."

Through the years, Merry encountered a subtle double standard: Instead of colleagues asking her about her practice, she commonly was asked, "Are you still practicing?" "Are you married?" and "Do you have children?"

None of the men that openly chided her ever admitted to wrongdoing, despite repeatedly proving herself worthy of her status.

"It wasn't like we weren't noticeable; there were only three of us," Merry says.

An instructor from Colorado State, Dr. Gene Staffeld, did however, pay her a comment she says she holds dear to this day.

Dr. Staffeld said "Some of us (instructors) were talking about you and said that you made it through and were always a lady and did a great job as a practitioner."

Merry says prejudice still occurs today, but not on the same level as in earlier times.

"I don't think new female veterinarians have to prove everything to everybody like we used to," Merry says.

Through the years, women have been integrated into the profession, but Merry says it's not a bad idea to have both male and female practitioners under one roof.

"A nice combination in a veterinary hospital is both men and women veterinarians," she says. "Some clients prefer to have a male or prefer to have a female practitioner, and that is OK.

"I think having both genders in a practice is nice, but I have visited many all-female practices that really sing," Merry says.

For all of those doubting the ability of a female practitioner to have it all, Merry not only practices veterinary medicine, made a mark on history, but also became a wife and mother.

"I guess people shouldn't throw stones when there's a glass ceiling," Merry says.

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