As a Baby Boomer, I was fortunate to grow up in an era where girls were encouraged to pursue a college education. But when it came time to apply to colleges and choose a career, I discovered that most adults, including my high school guidance counselor, still believed that the only acceptable careers for women were as teachers or nurses. They made it seem as though I should be grateful for those two options!
My mother had become a registered nurse in the U.S. Navy during World War II—the first woman in our family to receive a higher education and have a career. Coming from humble, immigrant grandparents, she never would have had this opportunity if the war hadn’t created a critical need for nurses and provided scholarships. Here is a picture of Mom at age 19, proudly wearing her Navy Cadet uniform.
It was an earlier war, the American Civil War, that first transformed nursing into a respectable career for women, thanks to the tireless work of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix. I learned about the first two women in school, but I came across Dorothea Dix while researching my Civil War novel, Fire by Night. The U.S. government appointed Miss Dix the Superintendent of Women Nurses in 1861 and she went to work with great diligence, studying the example of Florence Nightingale, to create a corps of dedicated women nurses. Her standards were very strict and included outstanding character. Preferring mature, married women, Dorothea wrote:
“No young ladies should be sent at all, but some who…are sober, earnest, self-sacrificing, and self-sustained; who can bear the presence of suffering and exercise entire self-control of speech and manner; who can be calm, gentle, quiet, active, and steadfast in duty. All nurses are required to be plain looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry, and no hoop-skirts.”*
Julia Hoffman, the main character in my novel Fire by Night, butted heads with Miss Dix early in the story. Julia had decided to become a nurse to impress the man she had a crush on, but she didn’t meet Miss Dix’s qualifications. Julia was not only single, pretty, and quite spoiled, she exercised very little “self-control of speech and manner.” She did manage to remove her jewelry, pin her curly hair in a bun, and wear a brown dress to her interview with Dorothea Dix but she was turned down just the same. You’ll have to read Fire by Night to see if Julia managed to become a Civil War nurse in spite of all these obstacles.
Dorothea Dix’s story and her contribution to women’s history shouldn’t be forgotten. Born in 1802, “her early life was bleak, humiliating, and painful,”* yet she transformed her own pain into serving others. She first decided to become a teacher and opened a school in the barn behind her grandmother’s house to teach poor and neglected children. In 1841, while teaching a Sunday School class in a Massachusetts’ prison, she became aware of the terrible living conditions there, where the poor, the guilty, and the insane were all jammed in together to live in squalor. Miss Dix poured all of her compassion and energy into changing public opinion and lawmakers’ policies. The public’s outrage against such dreadful conditions resulted in improved prison conditions and a state-sponsored hospital for 200 mental patients.
This still wasn’t enough for Miss Dix. She visited state after state in her reform campaign for prisons and for the mentally ill, bringing much-needed change all across the country. Her work even spread to Canada and Europe, where she received an audience with Pope Pius IX. She was already famous and highly respected for her work when the Civil War broke out, and she bravely accepted the task of developing a corps of trained nurses to alleviate the pain and suffering of America’s wounded soldiers.
“In the latter days of Miss Dix’s career it may be said that no benevolent project ever lacked her support. . . . Work for others was still her mission and though she was loaded with praise and honor for the things she accomplished, she was as unostentatious as a child, and looked always for the results, and never at her own efforts.”*
Such humility is uncommon. Because she was driven by her compassion for all people, I think Dorothea would be only mildly interested to know that her work resulted in a huge stride forward for women, creating a career that is still highly respected today. What impresses me most about Dorothea Dix is that she refused to wallow in self-pity because of her difficult childhood. Instead, she transformed the hardships of her early life into a life’s work that benefitted millions of people. It’s an example I long to follow. How might the difficult times in my life be used by God for His kingdom and His glory?
That’s all for now,
*Our Army Nurses by Mary Gardner Holland.