Hidden voices who helped pave the way for the 19th Amendment

In the late 19th century, women began to seek out professional opportunities for themselves in new ways. One of the most visible—and critical—was the nursing profession.

Key to advances in health and healing, and skilled in aseptic technique, nurses became indispensable during the disease outbreaks at that time. Not only did they change the make-up of the medical profession, but increasing numbers of women saw the profession as a way to move outside the sphere of domestic work.

Nurses were also instrumental in laying the groundwork that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote.

The lives and experiences of nurses are an important piece of “In Her Own Right: Women Asserting Their Civil Rights 1820-1920,” an initiative spearheaded by the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries, or PACSCL, with pilot-grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This project pulls together pieces from 11 area archives and libraries, including the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing at Penn’s Nursing School, to highlight women’s struggle leading to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

“When they decided to start thinking about the 19th Amendment, the idea was to do a website on women’s activism, but to define activism quite broadly, to also include women’s activities that one may not consider traditionally activist in terms of suffrage—women who didn’t go on hunger strikes, women who didn’t chain themselves to fences, but women who had an important role nonetheless,” says Patricia D’Antonio, the Carol E. Ware Professor of Psychiatric Nursing and director of the Barbara Bates Center. “Often, people, and not just historians, but even the general public, don’t automatically think about nurses as activists. They want to look at women who kind of broke conventional gender stereotypes, women who became physicians, women who became attorneys, overlooking that fact that there are many ways you can challenge boundaries. Nurses were a group of women who were always challenging conventions.”

As the home of one of the country’s largest collections of documents and images focused on nursing and health care, the Center has a multitude of items that fit this description. Included in the “In Her Own Right” project are student files and photographs from the Mercy-Douglass Hospital School of Nursing collection, one of the Center’s most popular.

The school was the product of the merger of two institutions, Mercy Hospital, founded in 1895, and Frederick Douglass Hospital, opened in 1907. These African-American institutions were the first training schools for black nurses in Philadelphia. The unified Mercy-Douglass Hospital School of Nursing trained women as nurses from 1948 to 1960.

Jessica Clark, archivist at the Barbara Bates Center, says the Mercy-Douglass collection illuminates African-American voices—something that PACSCL had been having trouble finding. The pre-1920 collection contains transcripts and photographs of the incoming students, as well as their applications to the school. These included supplemental documents from doctors attesting to their good health, and from ministers stating they were of sound moral character.

“You had to prove you were respectable because you were actually going to do something quite daring, which was you were going to leave home to take care of the sick,” says D’Antonio. “The idea of women taking care of men who were strangers was a challenge to social conventions.”

Both Clark and D’Antonio say they’re familiar with the Mercy-Douglass collection, but were happy to take a deep dive in to the materials, and ultimately, share it with larger audiences.

“It was interesting to get in-depth with the collection, because most times I’m dealing with broad questions from researchers,” Clark says. “It’s great to get different audiences involved as well, because this project is geared more toward high school students, and undergraduates, and [the] general public.”

PACSCL has written a grant requesting funds to pull together a full-scale website for the project, including materials on civil rights leading up to the 19th Amendment from the Barbara Bates Center and 17 other collections. If funding is approved, they hope to complete the site by November 2018.
D’Antonio says they hope to do more outreach to area high schools to help inform students about the vibrant history of the profession.

“We’re very excited about its potential to reach an audience that the Bates Center doesn’t normally reach in terms of students who are not health care students, who may not know what we have, and who also may not know the rich history of African-American nurses.”

Lillian E. Welch