[On May 21st, 1881, Clara Barton founded the American National Red Cross. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and contexts related to nursing and medical aid, starting with my colleague and friend Irene’s Guest Post on Barton herself! Add your responses and thoughts for a healthy crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On pushing beyond our understandable but simplistic images of wartime service.
First, I’d ask you to check out this wonderful PBS American Experience article by Professor Marian Moser Jones on the more than 22,000 professionally trained female nurses who served with the US Army during World War I (more than 10,000 of them near the Western Front and perilously close to combat). Then c’mon back here and we’ll talk some more!
Welcome back! Clearly those amazing stories (and the tens of thousands more not featured in that article) are well worth remembering and retelling for their own sake, but I would also highlight an important broader effect of doing so. When we think about military service in a conflict like the Great War—and I’m as guilty of this as anyone, to be clear—I believe we almost always think about members of the armed forces, those directly involved in combat operations. Certainly I don’t want to downplay what those men (and it was all men in the US armed forces in the Great War) experienced; but as Jones’s article details clearly, nurses at the Western Front went through many of the same experiences as men in the armed forces, including incoming bombs, shrapnel damage and other serious wounds, infections and contagious disease, and more. To put it simply, war’s threats and effects do not discriminate, nor they are aware of the specific role (much less the gender) of those affected.
Thinking about these WW1 nurses as fully part of wartime service isn’t just (or even primarily) about gender equality or women’s rights. Instead, doing so helps us more accurately assess and engage with particular historical and social questions: what these women faced and experienced; what those experiences meant and contributed to the war effort; what effects they had on their careers, lives, and identities moving forward. Of course nursing isn’t the same as fighting in combat, but the same could be said of many of the roles undertaken by particular soldiers: radio operators, for example. The truth is that military service entails many different elements, with direct participation in combat operations one central thread but far from the only one. And it seems clear to me from the stories and histories detailed in Jones’s article that these WW1 nurses took part in military service in any and every way we could understand that concept, and deserve to be remembered as part of that broader American community and history.
Last nursing post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other nursing or medical histories you’d highlight?
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