"Every nurse is not a sister": Sex, work, and the invention of the Spanish-American War nurse

Date of Completion

January 2005


History, United States|Women's Studies|Health Sciences, Nursing




This study uses the service of Red Cross nursing sisters, African American health workers and male graduate nurses during the War of 1898 as a window into three vibrant occupational work cultures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The self-conscious crafting of war remembrance by nursing professionalizers fashioned the “Spanish-American War Nurse” into a white female graduate, disguising the fact that few such practitioners tended soldiers overseas between May and August 1898. Instead, nurses from other sectors of the variegated occupation supplemented enlisted hospital personnel. Recovering these wartime labors restores a cross-section of the period's nursing majority to the historical record, since the transplantation of workers from local contexts to labor alongside occupational rivals raised distinct work practices in high relief. ^ Traditional work cultures accommodated the progressive push for certified expertise without sacrificing established occupational identities or community standards of good care. The successful adaptation of Europe's nursing sisterhoods to North American shores redefined medical charity in urban neighborhoods, and changing standards of scientific practice found their place amidst a family model of organization and expressions of ethnic or religious belonging. Likewise, nascent southern African American institutions responded to calls for certified proficiency with curricula that reaffirmed age, experience, and other attributes of expertise that black nurses inherited from the skilled healing traditions of enslaved women. Finally, the rise of training schools for men at large general hospitals recognized a third occupational variant, the informal apprenticeship to physicians that made nursing a stepping stone to a medical career. ^ Sexuality played a central role in the definition, experience and evolution of this leading service occupation. The increasing institutionalization of nursing education and practice created new sites for the organization of romance. Concomitantly, intimate knowledge of the body, feminization, and longstanding associations between servitude and sexual availability made assertions of respectability central to the occupational identity of diverse practitioners. The lack of any exclusive claim to nursing knowledge also ensured the prominence of race- and class-coded accusations of sexual deviancy and disrepute in campaigns to discredit rival practitioners and to combat occupational change. ^