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Women in Nursing During American Civil War


Nursing before the American Civil War was perceived as a men’s profession. The extent of gender inequality at the start of the civil war hindered women in partaking in nursing roles. Women stayed at home to take care of their families while a number became school teachers. However, some women decided to engage in the nursing profession as they wanted to change the narrative that only men can be nurses. Several women broke the gender hindrance and enrolled to work as nurses during the American Civil War. Unfortunately, some of the women nurses serving the soldiers during the Civil War had to deal with many challenges. The research question for this paper is how the women in Civil War hospitals changed commonly held ideas about both women and the field of nursing. Women who worked as nurses during the Civil War paved the way for other women to become nurses. Women in the Civil War adopted various approaches such as aggressiveness and perseverance to change the common perspective regarding women and the field of nursing.

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Main Discussion

Persistence, kindness, empathy, aggressiveness, decisiveness, boldness, and the challenge of authority are some of the common attitudes presented in historical sources. Louisa May Alcott (1863) was bold in deciding to be a nurse. She asked her friends what she could do, and most of them advised her to take other professions. She decided to become a nurse after her brother suggested that she could go and nurse the soldiers. Additionally, Alcott (1863) showed empathy to the patients, which was demonstrated when she made friends with a dying soldier. She devoted herself to helping the injured soldiers even though it seemed uncomfortable at first. Pember (1879) worked amongst doctors that mistreated patients and ignored their needs. She confronted the ill-performing doctors and even hid the bottles of liquor to control the drunkenness of the doctor.

Moreover, the oppression of minority groups is evident in historical sources. McKay (1876) interacted with an African American woman who had been forced to give his son a name that does not relate with black people, Jefferson Davis. McKay commented that the lady needed to change her son’s name or else he would regret his name when he grew up. She was also treating an old man whose family had been oppressed for several years. He mentioned that his oppressor only gave him just enough to keep surviving. He had been overworked, underpaid, and held as a slave for his entire life.

Alcott (1863) dealt with gender bias in her nursing job by forming good relationships with male patients. At first, she did not think that she could perform the task that was given to her, including washing, dressing, feeding, warming, and nursing the injured soldiers for three months. Alcott also describes that she was working for long hours with little time to rest. She was being told that she would be very lucky if she ever got into bed by midnight. Alcott dealt with the stress surrounding her job, including the gender issues, by making friends with some soldiers. She had eventually become friends with John, one of the wounded soldiers. She sat at his hospital bed and even had to write a letter to John’s mum when she learned that he was only going to survive for a few days.

Hancock (1937) became hardhearted and decided to care less about gender stereotypes. She believed that she was doing everything a woman could do to assist during the war. She took the responsibility of helping the soldiers even when she was told that she had joined the army to look for a husband. Hancock adds that men in the army were being instructed to show respect for women. Women believed that they had a responsibility to take care of the wounded soldiers. McKay (1975) empathized with the 83-years-old man who said that he had never been a free man before. Palmer (1871) believed that nursing and taking care of the sick was a place for women. Aggressiveness and challenge to the authority are other methods that the rest of the women nurses used to cope with gender issues surrounding nursing. Pember (1879) confronted the surgeon who mistreated patients by ordering unsuitable diets for the patients while administering the wrong medications.

Women showed that they could effectively undertake nursing responsibilities by caring for the injured soldiers. They maintained good relationships with the male soldiers, and this contributed to changing the narrative about women and the field of nursing. By being a young and beautiful nurse, Hancock (1937) helped change the narrative that young women could not make good nurses. Taylor (1902) was an African American nurse who contributed to adjusting the common belief that black women could not become nurses. Taylor believed that she fought for the comfort that the younger generation was enjoying. Beers (1891) had a good relationship with the male doctors she was working with. She worked with Dr. Minor for several hours to help a patient who was suffering from alcohol intoxication. Ropes (1863) believed that she was strong and knowledgeable and, thus, she could not be intimidated by the young, arrogant surgeon.


Women contributed significantly to changing the gender bias portrayed in nursing and other careers. They planned to cause a change by initiating the change and leading by example. These women went against all odds to become the least socially accepted professionals in the pursuit of freedom and help for the needy. They successfully changed the old narrative that nursing was only for men by portraying various desirable nursing traits.

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Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches, 1863.

Beers, Fannie. Memories. 1891.

Hancock, Cornelia. Letters of Cornelia Hancock. 1937.

McKay, Charlotte. Stories of Hospitals and Camp. 1876.

Palmer, Sarah. The Story of Aunt Becky’s Army Life. 1871.

Pember, Phoebe. A Southern Woman’s Story. 1879.

Ropes, Hannah. Letters. 1863.

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Taylor, Susie. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops 1902.

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