Race and gender disparities. Factional hostility breaking out into violence. Struggles for adequate health care. The right to vote. Although these phrases seem “ripped from the headlines” today, in fact they represent conditions in the US a century and a half ago in which women in nursing found themselves struggling for self-representation with implications for just pension laws, racial equity, and voting rights. The book you must read in order to understand how writing and publishing media were put to use in these social and political struggles is Jane E. Schultz’s 2004 book Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. A professor of English at Indiana University and a fellow and life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge, Schultz turns the skills of archival historical research to understand how some of the over 20,000 Union women served in military hospitals during the Civil War. She examines the nurse narratives published during the war and in the decades afterward (several published by Hartford subscription publishing houses), analyzing the reach of these publications. By moving the domestic practice of nursing outside their homes and caring for the bodies of strangers, wartime nurses were breaking new social and professional ground for women. Within a decade of war, professional nursing education would be established in the US. It would take another three decades after the war for women’s wartime nursing service to be recognized by a federal pension act. Schultz documents, however, racial and class disparities: White middle-class women were routinely classified as “nurses” while Black and poor White women were categorized as “cooks” and “laundresses” (even though they often performed the same tasks), with disparate pensions. Because Union nurses risked their health and lives in service to the country, they also implicitly dismantled a persistent argument against woman suffrage, i.e., that only men should vote because only men could defend the nation. It would take people like Civil War health care organizer Mary Livermore to make this argument explicitly on behalf of women’s right to vote in her book My Story of the War and periodical articles.
Thomas Lawrence Long is associate professor in residence in the School of Nursing, serving on the core faculty of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. He is the curator of the School of Nursing’s Josephine Dolan Collection of Nursing History.