August 18, 2020
One hundred years ago today the 19th amendment was adopted by the final state needed for its ratification, giving 26 million women the right to vote.
Many, many brave and determined women of course contributed to what now seems an obvious outcome. Some advocated at the local, state, and federal levels. Some took to the streets and demonstrated. Change eventually came about for many reasons, not the least of which was the increasingly visible and important role of women nurses. It is not entirely a coincidence that suffrage came about within a few decades of the first nursing schools being established in this country.
Success for the suffrage movement required that both men and women see women differently. Nurses were among the pioneers in demonstrating that women had a place outside the home, but the necessary change came slowly.
It’s estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 women served as volunteer nurses during the Civil War, providing care under the most difficult of conditions and in an era before antibiotics. Though most widely known as the author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott was one of these volunteer Civil War nurses.
At first, volunteers just showed up at military hospitals, but later Clara Barton and Dorethea Dix organized a nursing corps to care for wounded soldiers. Pay was 40 cents a day plus housing and rations; male nurses were paid more. Both equity and suffrage were still a distant dream.
More than half a century later, World War 1 saw more than 20,000 nurses joining the Red Cross, about half of whom served at or near the battle front. It became increasingly hard to deny that woman had earned the right to vote. A suffrage bill passed the House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, just six months after the end of WWI. It is worth noting that this was in the midst of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Doctors had no cure to offer, leaving nurses to provide supportive care and compassion as the only antidotes.
Nurses can be proud of the role their profession played in advancing not only medical care, but also suffrage.