Providing Healing, Promoting Hope: National Women’s History Month

The contributions of women to United States History are celebrated every year in the month of March.

This observance, to honor women’s contributions in history, culture, and society, began in 1978 as a small, local celebration. It grew into a month’s long event, established by a resolution in Congress, over 35 years ago. (for a more detailed account of the initiation of this observance, go to

This year, the National Women’s History Alliance (NWHA) has chosen the theme “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.”

Given the heroism of the pandemic’s health responders, especially the contributions of women in healthcare, this is a wonderful opportunity to salute and thank these brave, hard working women. They have demonstrated great strength, resilience, and dedication, in kinship with well known trailblazing women of the past. Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale are two women who come to mind.

Clara Barton, a hospital nurse during the American Civil War, was the founder of the American Red Cross.

Clara exemplified compassion and dedication, by risking her life to bring supplies and support to soldiers, and tending to the wounded. She also established the National First Aid Association of America, an organization that brought awareness to the importance of emergency preparedness and developed first aid kits. Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing. Often referred to as “the lady with the lamp” for her nighttime rounds to wounded soldiers, she changed the face of nursing from a mostly untrained profession to a highly skilled one. A caring nurse and leader, she wrote over 150 books, pamphlets, and reports, on health related issues. She is widely known for making hospitals more sanitary. In the history of healthcare there are numerous trailblazing women doctors. In 1849, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree, paving the way for innumerable women to follow, including Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first black woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the first female U.S. Army surgeon, the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor, Dr. Antonia Novello, the first woman, and the first Hispanic, to serve as surgeon general of the United States (1990), and Dr. Nancy Dickey, the first woman to be elected president of the American Medical Association (1998). There are many more, too numerous to mention, that paved the way. Their legacy lives on, as there has been a steady rise in the number of women joining the physician workforce. While men outnumber women as physicians, 91% of nurses are female.

Nurses, as members of a hospital care team, are the ones who spend the most time with patients.

Research has shown that hospital nurses are impacted to a greater degree than their physician counterparts by stress, anxiety, and depression. Now more than ever, as a result of the pandemic, these nurses have had to work under extremely challenging conditions. Besides the fear of exposure to the virus, with the possibility of bringing it home to their families, they experience heavy workloads, extended shifts, changing protocols, exhaustion, and burnout. Caring for patients with Covid who are isolated from loved ones, or who die under their care, takes an emotional toll. This has been an unrelenting pandemic…a perfect storm, with the potential to impact physical, emotional, and psychological well being. In qualitative studies led by nursing professor Marcia Bosek at the University of Vermont Medical Center, one nurse stated, “Providing nursing care during the pandemic has been a rollercoaster you can’t seem to get off and something I never thought I would experience in my nursing career.”  Respondents also stated that they don’t “embrace a hero identity,” but emphasize that nurses are always prepared to provide care because “it’s what we’re trained for.” If asked  why they do it,  Mansi Patel, a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital would tell you, “Nurses have been taking care of people forever…This is what I do. This is what I love doing.” At the Johns Hopkins special Covid unit, resident chaplain Andreas Andreou notes that the unit’s staff members refer to their work as “a calling.”

The NWHA theme of  “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope” honors women healers, and honors the ceaseless work of women caregivers in all aspects of our communities.

Mothers, grandmothers, teachers, counselors, therapists, and clerics all provide healing and hope. They “listen, ease suffering, restore dignity, and make decisions for our general as well as our personal welfare.” They lead the way with compassion and empathy towards physical, emotional, and mental health. And with healing, comes the gift of hope…for recovery, and for the power we need to live our dreams. We honor the thousands of ways that women throughout history have provided healing and hope, and who continue to promote these priceless gifts.