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Securing Our Place in History

Kennedy, Maureen Shawn MA, RN, FAAN

AJN The American Journal of Nursing: March 2015 - Volume 115 - Issue 3 - p 7
doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000461788.76291.a2

Why it matters.

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In 1980, after realizing that women were largely missing from the history books, a group of women formed the National Women's History Project (NWHP; They embarked on a campaign to “celebrate and recognize women's role in history” and, in 1987, were successful in getting Congress to designate the month of March as Women's History Month. Each year, the NWHP chooses a theme and honors women who have made significant contributions to society yet have remained unknown. The organization also provides educational materials and acts as a clearinghouse for multicultural women's history information. This year's theme, “Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives,” reflects the NWHP's tenet that “[k]nowing women's achievements challenges stereotypes and upends social assumptions about who women are and what women can accomplish today.” One might substitute the word nurses for women in this statement.

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. For that matter, how many nurses know what these women accomplished?

For this month's cover, which honors Women's History Month, we turned to our archives. The photograph depicts a “notable group” of women gathered to celebrate the opening of the new headquarters of the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service in 1923. Among them are, besides Lillian Wald, Annie Goodrich, M. Adelaide Nutting, and Lavinia Dock—early leaders who left indelible marks on the nursing profession. Goodrich worked in hospital and community health nursing and in education; her career included positions as director of nurses at the Henry Street Settlement, founding dean of the Yale School of Nursing, first dean of the U.S. Army School of Nursing, and president of the American Nurses Association. Nutting, a noted nursing educator and reformer, also cofounded and led several nursing organizations. She was an early nursing historian, cowriting a four-volume history of the profession with Dock; and she helped start this journal. Dock, an outspoken suffragette and pacifist (she was arrested for demonstrating against U.S. involvement in World War I), worked at the Henry Street Settlement during its early years. An educator and prolific author, she wrote one of the first nursing textbooks and was an early AJN columnist. She served on the board of the International Council of Nurses for over 20 years, and was among the founders of what would become the National League for Nursing.

These are just some of the incredible women who have served the nursing profession; there are many more. And we needn't look only to the past. Many nurses today—men as well as women—are redefining nursing practice and improving health care delivery, locally and nationally. The American Academy of Nursing's Raise the Voice campaign honors such nurses as “edge runners,” telling their stories and showcasing their work.

Why does knowing such history matter? Try substituting nurses for women again in the following, from the NWHP: “The impact of women's history might seem abstract to some, and less pressing than the immediate struggles of working women today. But to ignore the vital role that women's dreams and accomplishments play in our own lives would be a great mistake. We draw strength and inspiration from those who came before us—and those remarkable women working among us today. They are part of our story.”

The story of nursing continues to be one of social commitment, innovation, and problem solving. It legitimizes and supports our inclusion on governing boards and our presence at policymaking tables. It can infuse each of us with pride and energy for the work we do. Let it infuse you.

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