Every gain women have made in the past two hundred years has been in the face of experts insisting they couldn’t do it and didn’t really want to.
--Katha Pollitt, 2005

Many women have been drawn to the healing arts and the medical field, yet for centuries women were barred from any professional medical training. Before women were accepted to universities and medical schools, they would apprentice with other women and learn to be healers and midwives. Through their work, women changed the face of nursing and patient care in ways that have shaped our current healthcare system. From war and epidemics to personal tragedies and necessity, different factors inspired women to get involved in healthcare and healing. Yet, they had one common cause: the improvement and direct aid of the people in their community.

Healing institutions are documented in many ancient societies. Healing practices in Medieval Europe began in the hospitals run by the Catholic Church, with monks and nuns providing care. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German nun, viewed by many as the first female physician in Europe, was well-known for her healings involving tinctures and herbs. She wrote several scientific texts, including Liber Compositae Medicinae et Causae et Curae, a medical text outlining causes and treatment for diseases she had encountered. Many of the treatments explained in her texts focused on herbal remedies as well as recommendations for a healthy diet.

These centers of healing often only treated specific cases, such as leprosy. For many people, general medical care was accessible through the wise woman and midwives of their communities, so-called “witch-healers.”  The “witch” connotation arose after the establishment of medicine as a secular science. During the 13th century, European medical schools formed at universities and the medical profession became strictly controlled by the Catholic Church. Since it had to align with Catholic doctrine, professional medical practices of that time had little to do with the science of medicine that we are familiar with today. During this time—and for many centuries after—women were barred from university medical training. Instead, women healers were trained through apprenticeship and were taught remedies which had been tested over generations. In fact, herbal remedies used and developed by these women—the use of belladonna as an anti-spasmodic, digitalis in treating heart ailments, and salicin contained in willow bark used as a pain reliever—are still used in modern medicine. These healing practices were viewed as “magic” by the church of the time; and women healers were seen as “usurpers of the medical profession” and were targeted by witch-hunts from the 14th century through the 17th century.

Prior to the 19th century, most hospital nurses were commonly viewed as lower-class workers. Their jobs paralleled that of servants in terms of tending to patients and cleaning hospital rooms. However, as the role of hospitals evolved in Western medicine from places of social service to places of medical care and treatment, so too did the role of nurses. From this change in practice the professional nurse was born. This change in the role of nurses is epitomized by the well-known Florence Nightingale.

Nightingale was an early medical professional who identified the spread of disease and infection by improper hygiene. Nursing soldiers throughout the Crimean War, she rightly surmised that it was the use of the same sponge on many soldiers that was spreading cholera, gangrene, fever, and lice along other diseases and infections. Nightingale’s campaign for proper hygiene was revolutionary for the time. Though Nightingale has detractors from among her contemporaries as well as modern medical historians, her legacy continues to be celebrated because of her basic motivations:  recognizing a deficit in medical practices and devoting time and energy to rectifying the issue. This thread connects all women who noted the lack of adequate healthcare within their communities, and took it upon themselves to bring proper care to their neighbors.

Two notable examples of a community need inspiring women to be nurses are Mary Eliza Mahoney and Mary Breckinridge. Mahoney had worked the New England Hospital for Women, as a cook, laundress, and aide over the course of fifteen years. She was finally admitted as a nursing student and graduated in 1879, becoming the first black woman civilian nurse in the nation. In addition to paving the way for generations of black women nurses to come, she directed the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black Children and aided in establishing the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. The other example, Mary Breckinridge, eventually received her certification in midwifery from the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies in England in 1925. Upon her return to the United States, she focused her efforts in the rural communities of Appalachia. There early marriages and high birth rates often took a hefty toll on women’s health and lives. Breckinridge created the Frontier Nursing Service, nurses on horseback that traveled to poor and distant mountain communities that lacked basic healthcare, let alone treatments necessary in more complicated cases. Her work reduced the infant mortality rate in these communities to below that of the general populous.

In 1856, Mother Joseph Pariseau led the Sisters of Providence from Montreal to the Washington Territory to bring healthcare to the newly settled Pacific Northwest. The Sisters established a charity network that saw to it that the needs of the poor, homeless, sick, and hungry were met. Together, Mother Joseph, and the four sisters that followed her to the Territory, opened the first permanent hospital in the Northwest. Mother Joseph also served as the architect for the original St. Vincent’s Hospital, and the corporation she established has become the Providence Health Network. Her final words were recorded as being “My sisters, whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”  This sentiment has been immortalized on the Walk.

Another member of the Sisters of Providence honored on the Walk of the Heroines is Sister Rita Ferschweiler. Sister Rita took her vows as a Sister of Providence in 1944 at the age of 26. She earned her nursing diploma in 1948, Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing in 1957, and a Master’s Degree in Nursing Administration in 1958. In 1971, Sister Rita was named as one of Oregon’s “10 Women of Accomplishment” for her contributions to Portland’s healthcare community and continues to volunteer at the Providence Medical Center campus to this day.

The Walk of Heroines celebrates numerous women in addition to the Sisters of Providence that list a career in nursing among their achievements. Tomie Takeuchi was a Japanese-American woman of the World War II generation who graduated with an R.N. degree from the Columbia School of Nursing and served as the Assistant Supervisor of Surgery at Columbus Hospital in Seattle, Washington. Judith Lone Brenes worked part-time as a nurse while raising her family, went on to work as a Health Educator for Kaiser Permanente and oversaw the creation of Kaiser Permanente’s Adolescent Chemical Health Program. Willie Mae Hart received her nursing degree from OHSU. She was the first African American nurse to work at the Physicians and Surgeons Hospital in Portland. In the 1960’s, Ms. Hart helped to establish a Portland chapter of the Council of Negro Women and organized the first telethon in Oregon to raise money for the Oregon Negro College fund. Though all of these women come from different backgrounds, what they have in common is the type of compassion that pushed them to take on responsibilities in addition to the already challenging work of a nurse.

Nursing, rooted in the “wise woman” and herbalists of medieval communities, and the caregiver encompassing stereotypically feminine tasks of laundress and aide in addition to providing medical treatment, has led to nursing as a traditionally female-dominated occupation. This gender divide was underscored by the fact that nursing was the only role available to women in the medical field for centuries. As the 21st century unfolds, we see the field of nursing continue to evolve. With training based in higher education, and a greater emphasis being placed on the study of advanced practice, nursing continues to earn greater prestige and respect as a vital part of the healthcare system. The nursing field is also becoming less gendered than it has historically been with the number of male nurses in the United States tripling since 1970. Though the structure of the nursing field will continue to develop and change, the women that choose to work in this field are carrying on a long tradition of intelligence and compassion.

Author: Marisa Gilman, Monumental Women Senior Capstone, Winter Term 2014

Further Reading

Ehrenreich, Barbara and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. New York, NY: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, July 2010.

Reverby, Susan. “A Caring Dilemma: Womanhood and Nursing in a Historical Perspective.” Nursing Research. Volume 36, Issue 1 (January/February 1987): pgs. 5-11

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Historical Encyclopedia of Nursing. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999

Helmstadter, Carol, and Judith Godden. Nursing Before Nightingale, 1815-1899. Surrey, England. 2011.

Schorr, Thelma M., and Maureen Shawn Kennedy. 100 Years of American Nursing: Celebrating a Century of Caring. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 1999.