Health Professions


The association of women and nursing was a natural extension of the socially and culturally sanctioned roles of women as mothers and nurturers. Nursing before the Civil War had been either a domestic duty performed by a woman or a servant, or a public social service performed as part of a religious calling. The nursing that went on in hospitals, prior to the establishment of schools of nursing, was relatively unorganized and unregulated. For example, the women supervising the nursing at the St. Louis City Hospital were appointed by City Hall, with the women doing the bedside nursing recruited from the laundry or kitchen.

Throughout the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century, housekeeping tasks were integral to nursing. As a result, employers made little distinction between domestic servants and nurses. In addition, nursing was considered acceptable for working class, but not middle or upper class women. The rise in the number of hospitals after the Civil War meant an increased demand for nurses. The development of training schools for nurses, based on the model developed by Florence Nightingale in England, helped raise the status of nurses, transforming their image to respectable, virtuous, clean, and disciplined women, assisting doctors in treating the sick. The establishment of nurse registration laws, state examinations, and training requirement standards in the first decades of the 20th century further helped raise the status of nursing as a profession.

Nursing in the early 20th century attracted young women who wanted the opportunity to serve and some personal independence. The nursing profession offered women a chance to move into cities and to live independent lives, while not seriously challenging societal mores and expectations.

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