Radical Nurse Emma Goldman

On September 14th, The Radical Nurse interviewed Dr. Cynthia A. Connolly, Associate Professor in Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and Senior Fellow at the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing. In 2010, she published a wonderful article on Emma Goldman. Goldman has been one of the most influential radical thinkers in history. She was also a trained nurse. For more on the life and nursing career of Emma Goldman, we encourage you to read the article[1].


Q: Why did you want to write about Emma Goldman?

I love Lillian Wald, who I write about in the paper. She is a mainstream reformer and she got a lot done. In fact, she improved American health care much more substantively than did Emma Goldman. But, in this paper, I really wanted to look at the tensions between reform and radicalism. How are they intertwined? How do they exploit and synergize each other? I always loved Emma Goldman but I did not know until maybe 10 years ago that she was a nurse. After I found out, I read a lot of the biographies about her. Many mention her nursing years vaguely so I assumed she was a nurse’s aide or an untrained “professed” nurse, as some women called themselves who did not have formal training but who practiced as nurses. To find out that she had undergone nursing education was so interesting. It was also surprising to note that so many of her female biographers chose not to engage with that.

Q: Do you have a sense of why her biographers did not want to write about that?

I spoke with one of her biographers who she said she really never considered it. I thought it was so telling in terms of the invisibility nurses often face, even those who don’t fit traditional gender roles, not being seen as feminist because they chose nursing as a profession. It made it even more important for me to write that article. Goldman was not an easy “fit” with nursing. She had no time or patience for what she saw as its incremental, timid, agenda. I sort of relate to that as well. It gave voice to what I sometimes feel like I see. Nursing’s agenda sometimes is small; more about obtaining professionalization; and not looking at the bigger picture in terms of what society needs from its health care delivery system. I identified, in some ways, with what she believed.

Q: It’s fascinating to hear you explain how you came to write about her

I wrote a paper in graduate school for a labor history course. And it got me thinking about my own profession. Susan Reverby has written about nursing in a classic monograph called “Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850-1945.” In that book, she describes the divide between nursing leaders, (many of whom came from middle and upper middle class families) who had a very strong professionalizing agenda for nursing. And they differed from the average “rank and file” nurses who usually went to less elite schools. The average nurse’s agenda was not some intangible professionalization agenda, but was much more grounded in making a living wage and being able to support her family. Nursing’s leaders were not enthusiastic about the language of labor, of unions, or of workers’ rights. Because that did not fit their image of professionalism. Reverby’s book had a profound effect on me and it got me thinking back to the many jobs I had as a staff nurse. I had always been told that I was a professional in nursing just before I was told that I had to do something for nothing, or I had to work under what I felt were unsafe conditions from a staffing perspective, or I had to do a double shift even though I was exhausted. The rigid dress code that was imposed on me when I was a staff nurse, one that even dictated the color of my underwear, for example, did not make me feel professional. Nor did the salary I was making make feel professional. As a staff nurse, my experience had been that the word professional had been used right before I was told to do something that I believed was not in my—or my patient’s—best interest. No one had ever asked me “you’re a professional, tell me how many nurses are needed for these patients?” Or remarked, “you’re a professional, you should make more money” or “you’re a professional, you should have more control over your practice environment.” So I felt that the work professional was used to keep me down. To oppress me. And that nurses by and large, had bought into a fear of being called unprofessional if they spoke up.  I believe that tactic has been used quite successfully against us by those who run health care in the United States. American health care is a big business. There are a lot of nurses who would disagree with my ideas and many of them read the same historical data I do, but that is my interpretation. That is OK, it is this debate and dialogue that that enriches our profession. And I think about this a lot about when I teach students about professionalism, what it is that we are trying to inculcate into them? When asked my opinion about labor-related issues by students, I try and share a multifaceted perspective, but if requested, I also share my view, making clear that it is my personal opinion. Students should hear and read a variety of ideas to be able to think critically and make their own choices. That is, to me, what being an educated nurse is all about.

Q: Why is it important for nursing students to know that these nurses exist? Nurses like Lillian Wald who helped reform systems and policies but also radical nurses like Emma Goldman who had zero patience for the system and were being “rebels”.

I think it is really important because what I feel like what I learned in nursing school and from nursing organizations was one way of thinking about professionalism and advocacy. And it was a pretty safe way that did not suggest “rocking the boat.” A way that was good for nursing quite frankly. It was good for nursing first; sometimes good for patients, but always good for nursing – for nursing’s image of itself. But the full story is a much richer, more meaningful, one. What we think of as nursing and as the nursing profession can be altered by learning about people like Emma Goldman and other important nurses like Lillian Wald and Margaret Sanger. A new vision of the past can be used to help shape a new one for the future. Sometimes change only happens because there are people like Emma pushing at the edges of what many people find acceptable. Most nursing schools, in my opinion, tend to give a pretty sanitized version of nursing history to students. But my colleagues at the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing and I think students are best served by hearing as many different voices as possible, past and present. That’s how we can challenge them to make real change. That is the most intellectually nourishing nursing education.


Thank you to Dr. Connolly for this wonderful interview. For more on Dr. Connolly’s work, visit her webpage. For more on Emma Goldman, please read the article and watch this short video. Also, make sure to explore her essays and the many books written about her life.

Marilou Gagnon, RN, PhD, Associate Professor, School of Nursing, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa

[1] For a copy, do not hesitate to contact me : marilou.gagnon@uottawa.ca

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