One of my first patients was a suffragette poet. She was 102 in 1981 when I cared for her in a Presbyterian nursing home in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I was a recent Harvard Divinity School drop-out working full-time as a nursing assistant, wrestling with the decision of whether or not I wanted to be a nurse. I was—and still am—a feminist. I was not sure I could be both a feminist and a nurse. Nursing seemed anti-feminist, steeped in the traditional subservient roles to which women were relegated.
I’ll call her Lillian because in my memory she stands out as steely kind and sharply intelligent as I imagine Lillian Wald, the founder of public health nursing, to have been. As a young woman “my” Lillian had met and worked with Susan B. Anthony. “My” Lillian had marched in suffragette demonstrations in Washington, DC and had written suffragette tracts and poetry and lobbied hard for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 that finally granted women full voting rights. She never married and spent the rest of her life as a Presbyterian missionary in various African countries. Being a missionary was one of the few acceptable roles for single women at that time, along with nursing and teaching. (The drawing below is from my paternal grandmother’s 1919 college journal showing the “choices” she was considering for her life—ranging from Old Maid to Bride.)
In my research this past week I ran into an article written in 1904 in Seattle by a man named Honor L. Wilhelm. In between his serialized stories of his honeymoon to Victoria, BC, and guest articles on Native Americans, he wrote a piece titled “The Girl Alone” that made my feminist blood boil. He stated, “Motherhood is the acme of womanhood. The girl alone is a sinful, selfish, miserable, abhorred, ugly, wretched, hideous creature, whom to know is to shun and to meet is to pass by. She is an outcaste and a social parasite.” (p. 74, The Coast: Volumes 7-10, 1904)
The elderly suffragette poet I was fortunate to have had in my young adult life helped convince me that in becoming a nurse I did not have to trade in my feminist ideals and identity. I mainly worked evening shift at the nursing home. Late at night, once I had completed all my work, I sat beside her bed while she told me stories of her life and read drafts of poems she was working on. She gave me a hand-written poem which I treasure—a talisman of feminism.
A year later when I went back to school for my bachelor’s degree in nursing, I had no feminist nurse professors or role models. The sole feminist nursing student I knew dropped out of school in disgust after our first semester. I wish I had known about the work of feminist nurse Peggy Chinn and her colleagues who had just started Cassandra: Radical Feminist Nurses Network. Dr. Chinn’s work continues, including through her NurseManifest Nursing Activism Project. And the next generation of feminist nurse activists have started the Radical Nurses group.
March on. We still have so much work to do to help make our world a safer, healthier, more equitable place for all.