Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History

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There is a T-shirt my daughter wears that reads “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Often when I see her wearing that shirt, I reflect on two women that profoundly shaped my professional career and the careers of many other women: Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. Because March is Women’s History Month, I wanted to recognize how these women conjointly and almost simultaneously left an indelible mark on the health and well-being of humanity. Their grit and determination to make a difference empowered them to seize the moment, identify the problem, gather their team, and address the problem head-on. The ripple effect of their life’s work is astounding if we look at it through a modern lens but when you add in the societal pressures and view it from a mid-nineteenth century perspective, it is a true testament to what extremely capable women with an amazing and passionate team can achieve. They both chose the path untraveled because they believed in their higher calling and refused to settle for the status quo.

I’ve always had a passion for taking care of people and educating the future leaders of tomorrow in the nursing industry, but becoming a CEO was never in my career plans. I did not look for the opportunity to run a business, but the problem presented itself to me and I was not willing to accept the status quo; I wanted something better for my students.  As I reflect on how far Avkin (formerly SimUcare) has come in the past seven years, I can’t help but shout out two iconic women who took the world by storm and profoundly impacted the nursing profession for the better. They both have shaped the woman, nurse, educator, and leader I have become. 

Florence Nightingale, known across the world as the founder of modern nursing almost wasn’t a nurse at all. She defied her parents’ wishes, turned down a marriage proposal, and enrolled in nursing school at the age of 24, but she’s best known for her impact on the health and safety of the British soldiers during the Crimean War.  Reports of injured British soldiers dying 2-3 times more from infectious diseases than from injuries suffered on the battlefield reached England. This news caused an uproar due to the neglect of their ill and injured soldiers, who were receiving horrific care in appalling conditions. After receiving a letter from the Secretary of War, Nightingale accepted the challenge, gathered a team of 34 nurses, and headed to Crimea within the week. She later reported that nothing could have prepared them for the conditions these soldiers faced. Drawing on her knowledge of infection control from managing a cholera outbreak while superintendent of Middlesex Hospital just a few years earlier, she went right to work and recruited the nurses and any able-bodied soldiers to scrub the facility top to bottom to improve the conditions and reduce disease. Under her leadership, the death rate of the soldiers was reduced by two-thirds. Additionally, Nightingale created several services such as a special kitchen stocked with healthy food, a laundry to be sure they had clean linens, and a library to help them pass the time in the infirmary. Nightingale’s refusal to accept the status quo along with her problem-solving skills inspires me to think outside the box, a skill that ultimately led me to create Avkin.

I was first introduced to Clara Barton at the age of eleven. I was in fifth grade during America’s bicentennial. That year my school, like many others in the US, had year-long activities and assignments focusing on America’s history. One of the assignments was to read a biography of a famous American Hero, write a report on that individual, and present what we learned about our hero to the entire class. I read through the list of names my teacher gave us as my class hurriedly walked to the school’s library to pick our American Hero. The list was full of names three columns wide, however, there were only a few women listed there, one of them being Clara. I had never heard of Clara before this assignment but grew to quickly admire her spirit and tenacity. Clara is probably most famous for bringing the Red Cross to America from Europe in her later years, but I chose her for my American hero because she was a nurse in the American Civil War and my paternal grandmother was a nurse years before I was born.

As an active child, I typically opted to read the first and last chapter of any book that was 100 or more pages, but I read the 203-page library book cover-to-cover over a single weekend. It was as if Clara and her life’s work popped out of the pages and became a movie—she was fascinating. I can remember thinking that she never took “no” for an answer and made the world a better place in the process. She did not let social norms or an “impossibility” stand in the way of doing what was right for all Americans regardless of their gender, social status, or skin color. When she saw a problem, she worked to find a solution, effectively leading teams of passionate supporters, and gathering needed resources by spreading the word about the need at hand. When she ran out of resources like clean bandages, she simply looked for other solutions she had at the ready such as dried corn husks. Reading over a quick biography as an adult, I like her, even more, today than I did in 5th grade!

Both women pioneered healthcare to not only become a force in nursing but to ultimately harness their passion and build something great that is changing healthcare is being delivered and all the while, having a positive impact on nursing education. I think it’s very true to say that “well-behaved women rarely make history” because without Florence and Clara challenging the status quo and refusing to accept what’s expected, I never would have had the courage to do the same.  While I may not be on the battlefield tending to soldiers’ wounds or expanding service organizations across the world, I still can see moments of history being made with Avkin every day. I carry their legacies with me as a reminder that combining passion, vision for what is possible, and determination to do what is right have an impact regardless of the challenges ahead.

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