Women’s History and Nursing’s History

This year’s theme of Women’s History Month, which we celebrate each March, is focused on women’s achievements in business and the labor force, but we don’t need this reason to take time out to remember the strong women who have shaped nursing. We certainly have many of them.

As I wrote in an editorial marking women’s history month in 2015:

Most people still don’t understand all that nurses have done—and continue to do—to improve health care. Most would likely recognize the name of Florence Nightingale. But I wonder if any other nurses would come to mind. I wonder how many nonnurses know that Lillian Wald developed the community health system (she founded New York City’s Henry Street Settlement), pioneered public health and school nursing, and helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; or that Florence Wald (no relation to Lillian) brought hospice care to the United States; or that it was Kathryn Barnard’s research that established the beneficial effects of rocking and heartbeat sounds on premature infants, which is why most neonatal ICUs and newborn nurseries contain rocking chairs.

Lillian Wald and other notable nurse pioneers, 1923

March 2015 cover showing Lillian Wald and others at Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service, 1923.

Despite gains in professionalism and education, nurses still are not well represented on governing boards—and we should be. Our proven record of innovation and creative problem-solving and our intimate knowledge of what patients need and how to provide it at the point of care should make us valuable to any health care organization—and not just as doers, but as the planners and shapers of systems. Yet we’re often overlooked.Why is this? Former AJN editor Karen Roush offers a reason in her blog post from a couple years back marking women’s history month:

The history of women and the history of nursing have always been intertwined, and may always be, even with the number of men who are nurses. The two groups’ struggles against oppression run parallel. Despite the scientific and technical nature of our work, nurses continue to deal with the legacy of—as Reverby stated so succinctly in Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850–1945—their “order to care in a society that refuses to value caring.”

In addition to health reform changes that are estimated to put millions at risk for losing access to care, the new administration is calling for severe budget cutbacks in many agencies and programs that support the poor.

If ever there has been a time for nurses to lead change to find innovative ways to deliver care to those that need it, it’s now. We can look to our foremothers for inspiration and example.

Editor-in-chief, AJN

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