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Nurses Have a History of Activism in the U.S., Championing Suffrage and Health Care Access

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Civil disobedience and jail time were not merely a stunt. Suffragists endured beatings and force-feedings, which scandalized respectable society. In a way, their point was that an upper-class woman and wartime nurse like Colvin did not belong behind bars for wanting the same rights as men. Colvin, however, drew a broader conclusion: In her view, no one belonged behind bars. “A criminal is really a sick person who is receiving the wrong diagnosis,” she wrote, and prisons would never cure inequality.

Colvin, like Dock, believed that suffrage fell short by focusing on middle- and upper-class women. Even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, “there was no real freedom” without economic rights. To Colvin, suffrage was “only a tool with which to work,” and that tool required a mass politics of fair wages, affordable housing, and universal public health care. “Under our economic system of ‘free enterprise,’” she wrote, “adequate medical service can never be paid for as a private cost.” 

Although Colvin and Dock envisioned feminism for an international workers’ movement, neither they nor mainstream white feminists were willing to confront their own racism to make common cause with African Americans. Dock spoke out against “unethical prejudice” in nursing, but Black nursing leaders, such as Adah Thoms, had to devote their careers to fighting discriminatory training, hiring, and pay. Black activists like Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois were excluded from white-run suffrage organizations. The Black fight for the vote continued through the Civil Rights era, and continues today. The repercussions are still with us; it’s impossible to know what a century-long inclusive women’s struggle could have accomplished.

Historians still debate the impact of radical pickets, bonfires, and arrests compared with the behind-the-scenes lobbying of moderate suffrage leaders. When Woodrow Wilson urged the U.S. Senate to support the 19th Amendment, in September of 1918, he insisted that “the voices of foolish and intemperate agitators do not reach me at all.” Instead, the amendment was a strategic move “vital to the winning of the war.” The vote would reward women for their patriotic “suffering and sacrifice and toil.” Even many suffragists embraced his wartime justification, agreeing that citizenship must be earned, pointing to heroic images of Red Cross nurses and mothers of soldiers.

This militaristic logic subordinates the welfare of actual people to that of the state and the market. Just as Americans lavish praise on soldiers while sending them to fight endless wars, nurses “on the front lines” of COVID-19 get free pizza but no functional plan to control the pandemic. Hospitals call them heroes even as some are cutting their pay. Despite their technical expertise, and despite the fact that many nurses are no longer female-identifying people, nursing remains a form of feminized care work. Precisely because the health care industry is so dependent on their labor, it must claim that labor as an entitlement, a natural function that nurses should be proud to carry out. As historian Susan Reverby puts it, they are “ordered to care.”

This year marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which Americans will celebrate as a landmark victory for women. But the right to vote was not the end goal for many suffragist nurses. They made demands for public health investment, economic justice, and universal health care that are still unfulfilled. Recognizing the need for racial equality, activist nurses joined the Medical Committee for Human Rights in the 1960s to treat those brutalized during Southern voter registration drives. Today, as mass protests against racial oppression erupt in the midst of a pandemic, Americans face a disconnect — the right to vote has not secured other basic rights to human welfare. The fact that nurses are once again on the march, this time fighting not for the vote, but for their lives and those of their patients, suggests that we’ve reached the limits of last century’s reforms.

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Nurses Say They Don’t Want to Be Called Heroes During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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