Commentary: Forget the comics, meet real Wonder Women
Imagine a dimly lit room, the air full of the sickly sweet stench of blood, masking or mingling with the smells of infection, vomit, urine and soiled linens. The walls, floors and ceiling of the hospital ward (if you can call it that) were filthy, and rodents scurried about, hiding under beds when nurses came near. Sick and dying soldiers crowded the room. Bed bugs, lice and fleas swarmed everywhere. If soldiers survived their battle wounds, they had an even higher chance of dying from cholera, typhoid or dysentery.
The description above may feel like it was ripped from a Hollywood screenplay, but it actually depicts hospital wards in the mid-1800s where nurses cared for combat casualties.
A female nurse in the 1850s couldn’t vote, own property or have a bank account. A majority of women were servants to their husbands or others. At this time, it was unheard of for a woman to lead out and take charge, especially during war. However, that’s exactly what Florence Nightingale (also known as “The Lady with the Lamp”) did. Her focus on sanitation and fresh air, as well as her determination to provide endless care for the soldiers under her watch, saved countless lives.
In 1907, Nightingale was the first woman to be awarded the British Order of Merit for “exceptionally meritorious” or distinguished service in the armed forces. Although Nightingale was one of the first to be recognized, she would not be the last woman to change the course of history.
By 1917, the United States armed forces began recruiting women to their ranks. Most served as phone operators and were known to be much more efficient and accurate than their male counterparts. Sadly, after World War I, these women were not recognized as veterans. When World War II began, women remained in the background, though by this time they played a central role in battle, breaking codes, smuggling refugees to safety, flying aircraft, and even being captured and tortured. Though female soldiers were taunted and mocked, the wounded soldiers clearly understood the pivotal role their military counterparts and nurses played in helping them to live another day.
In 1987, Congress declared March National Women’s History Month. There are numerous, fascinating books which detail the extraordinary impact of women. A couple of examples include “Hidden Figures,” made popular by the 2016 film adaptation that chronicled the story of the Black women mathematicians who helped the U.S. win the space race, and “The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women,” a tragic account of the women and girls who were exposed to radium (and the devastating, gruesome effects of radiation) in numerous factories across the United States. Their groundbreaking battle ultimately strengthened workers’ rights across the nation.
If stories like this inspire you, be sure to join Weber State University’s Annie Taylor Dee School of Nursing in April when it hosts Maj. Gen. Mari K. Eder, who will discuss some of the women featured in her book, “The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line: Untold Stories of the Women Who Changed the Course of World War II.”
One of the women featured in Eder’s book is Grand Slam tennis champion Alice Marble, aka Wonder Woman. Her influence has led some to suggest women’s tennis is divided into two periods: before and after Alice Marble. As someone who mingled with Hollywood’s elite, no one dreamed that she would also put her life on the line by assisting in wartime espionage against those collaborating with the Nazis.
This month, we celebrate women in the past and present who were, and are, willing to risk it all to make a difference and change lives.
Take heart. Be inspired by their sacrifices. Embrace the advantages that change brings, and go forward with the light from those who’ve gone before.
Dr. London Draper Lowe, RN, NHDP-BC, is a professor of nursing at Weber State University’s Annie Taylor Dee School of Nursing, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. She is the nursing military liaison and a board-certified national health care disaster professional.