A medical professional takes inspiration from the history of women in nursing.

Celebrating 9 Notable Women in Nursing for International Women’s Day


In the early days of nursing, before the mid-19th century, volunteer caretakers learned on the job, since formal science-based nursing education had not yet been established.

Fast-forward to today, and nurses have evolved to become critical providers of health care thanks to standardized nursing education and training. Currently more than 3 million registered nurses are working in the United States, most of whom are women. Nursing is one of the few professions that has been primarily dominated by women throughout its history.

Women in nursing have been involved in some of the most pivotal points in world history, including wars, civil rights movements, and advances in health care. Thanks to the legacy of nurse educators, students have access to high-level programs such as Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree programs.

A Brief History of Nursing

Before the practice of nursing was professionalized, the care of the sick and injured typically fell to family, friends, and members of one’s tribe or clan. Before 1860, the education available to women nurses was rudimentary, at best. They learned working side by side with other nurses or doctors, but their training never focused on the scientific aspects of health care. Most nurses were akin to caretakers rather than experts in health care. For instance, a nurse treating a patient with yellow fever, smallpox, or malaria couldn’t do much beyond trying to keep their patient comfortable.  


The history of science-based nursing started with Florence Nightingale, who is often referred to as “the mother of nursing.” In 1860, she established the first formal nursing school and integrated scientific methods into her teaching, thus changing the entire direction of the profession for women in nursing. The Nightingale Nursing School trained between 20 and 30 students per year, producing the first certified nurses in the history of nursing. These graduates went on to become superintendents or matrons of nursing.

The hospital-based educational model that Nightingale invented dominated the landscape for several decades. Women nurses grew in number in the United States and Canada but were far from unionized, meaning they didn’t have much of a voice to fight for more resources or better hospital standards.

Early Recognition

It wouldn’t be until 1911 that a group of nursing school graduates formed the American Nurses Association (ANA), which later became one of the most influential and globally recognized nursing organizations in the world. Over the past 100 years, the ANA has worked with policy makers, health care organizations, and key decision makers to advance the profession of nursing and fight on behalf of nurses for improvements such as equal pay and better working hours.    

The American Nurses Association and similar organizations set new standards for training in addition to increasing diversity in the profession overall. For instance, one big evolutionary leap in nursing was the introduction of nursing ranks. Rather than simply being certified, nursing professionals obtained titles such as certified nursing assistant (CNA), registered nurse (RN), and advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) that more accurately reflected their training and education.

The Modern Profession

Today’s landscape of nurse education and training is fully standardized to ensure that nursing students all graduate with the knowledge base and skills required to hit the ground running in their nursing careers. Nurses can now select from a variety of nursing programs—both online and in person—that range in their comprehensiveness.

For instance, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) program is considered the most basic level of nursing education, whereas a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program is considered the most advanced. Nurses also have a wide variety of specialties they can focus on, such as cardiology, family care, or pediatrics, to name a few.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, there are currently over 996 nursing baccalaureate degree programs in the United States. This makes nursing one of the most widely available health care programs for college students.

Notable Women Nurses in History

Nursing is a profession that was started by women and has continually evolved and expanded through the efforts of women. Although countless women nurses have made their own distinct impact in the profession, the following nine are some of the most notable in the history of nursing.   

Florence Nightingale

Born in Florence, Italy, in 1820, Florence Nightingale began working as a nurse in 1853, the year that the Crimean War began. Newspapers reported widely on the severe lack of medical care for wounded soldiers and the plight of soldiers living in squalor. At the request of the British government, in 1854 Nightingale traveled to Crimea, where she oversaw a team of nurses. Under her leadership, the medical ward was quickly brought to acceptable standards and the death rate of soldiers significantly decreased.

In 1859, Nightingale published the canonical work Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not. The following year, she opened the Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. It is said to have directly inspired the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia (founded in 1872), which is considered the first permanent nursing school in the United States.

Nightingale is one of the most celebrated women in nursing, having earned several Red Cross medals during her career. She died in 1910, leaving behind a stunning legacy as one of the original pioneers in the history of nursing.   

Clara Barton

Clara Barton was born in 1821 in Massachusetts and is widely considered one of the greatest nurses in history. Barton first pursued a career as a teacher. However, things drastically changed in 1861 with the beginning of the Civil War. Barton often saw pictures of her former students who had become soldiers, which inspired her to get involved. Without official permission, she went to the battlefields and delivered care to any soldier she came across, Confederate and Union soldiers alike. This earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.”

After the war, Barton traveled to Europe, where she found her reputation preceded her. She met with the original founders of the Red Cross and worked with the organization in times of war. Inspired by this work, Barton came back to the U.S., eventually founding the American Red Cross and becoming its president.

Barton led the American Red Cross until 1904, stockpiling food, water, and health care supplies for when situations arose that required them. In 1905, Barton launched the National First Aid Society to teach people to save lives in the absence of health care workers. She died in 1912.   

Mary Breckinridge

Born in 1881, Mary Breckinridge was widowed at the age of 26 and lost both of her children at an early age. This experience motivated her to enter the field of health care, becoming a registered nurse in 1910 and working at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York.

During World War I, Breckinridge moved to France, where she was exposed to many new health care concepts related to nurse-midwifery. She later traveled to London, where she became a certified midwife, then spent time in Scotland observing midwifery practices in poor and rural areas, similar to those in her native Kentucky.

Armed with a surplus of knowledge, Breckinridge returned to Kentucky and established the Frontier Nursing Service, a private charitable organization that served the southeastern part of the state. Her staff of midwives traveled by foot and on horseback to care for their clients in their own homes, providing both nursing and midwife services at affordable rates. This drastically decreased the infant mortality rate in the area.

Thanks to her pioneering work, Breckinridge has been celebrated by the American College of Nurse Midwives as the person who introduced modern nurse-midwifery to the United States.

Goldie D. Brangman

Born in 1920, Goldie D. Brangman got her start in the medical field during World War II, when most male doctors were being sent overseas. At this point, Brangman recalls, the title of nurse anesthetist didn’t exist. Instead, nurses were assigned by doctors to give anesthesia without the specialized education that is standard today. Brangman spent a year in obstetrics helping induce patients at Harlem Hospital, but her role was of a supporting nature. 

In 1946, Brangman was intent on training formally to become an anesthetist, and planned to study at Meharry Medical College. Just before she was due to leave Harlem Hospital, however, she was contacted by Dr. Helen Mayer, who had recently arrived at the hospital. Mayer committed to teaching Brangman everything she knew about anesthesia and making her a part of a new anesthesia school if she would stay at Harlem Hospital. Brangman agreed to these terms, and they opened their school in 1949.

Brangman served as director of the Harlem Hospital School of Nurse Anesthesia for over 38 years, breaking both racial and gender barriers for women nurses. She estimates that she educated over 700 students in anesthesia. Another noteworthy fact about Goldie Brangman is that she was part of the team that saved the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after an assassination attempt in 1958—a memorable moment in the history of nursing.

Virginia Henderson

Virginia Henderson was born in 1897 in Kansas City, Missouri. She graduated from the Army School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., in 1921 and began practicing nursing at the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. After working as a nurse educator at Norfolk Protestant Hospital in Virginia, she returned to New York where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees with the aid of a Rockefeller scholarship. Henderson continued teaching for the next 16 years at Teachers College; she also practiced nursing at a major hospital in New York.

Along with her work as an educator, she is known as an important author and researcher in the field. She wrote the fourth edition of Principles and Practice of Nursing, a textbook for Macmillan Publishing Company. Originally written by Bertha Harmer, Principles and Practice of Nursing became the standard reference for those working in health care. Henderson also revised the textbook for its 1955 publication. By this point, Florence Nightingale’s original nursing concepts had become outdated. Henderson rewrote the text under a new premise: that the main objective of nursing is to enable the patient to be free from hospitalization as quickly as possible. This became the new standard objective in nursing care.

In 1972, Henderson released the four-volume Nursing Studies Index, which was hailed as her most important contribution to nursing science and secured her place in the annals of nursing history. At the age of 75, Henderson began the revision that would become the sixth edition of Principles and Practice of Nursing. Taking five years to complete, it was her final masterwork and the culmination of 50 years of nursing experience. 

Hazel W. Johnson-Brown

Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was born in 1927 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and graduated from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in New York in 1950. After a successful stint at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, Johnson-Brown joined the Army, serving at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Camp Zama, Japan. She later entered the Army Nurse Corps’ Registered Nurse Student Program, going on to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1959 and then a master’s degree in 1963 from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

After a variety of jobs and teaching posts, Johnson-Brown joined the Medical Research and Development Command as their first nurse on staff. She was promoted to director of the Field Sterilization Equipment Development Project. After earning her PhD, Johnson-Brown further elevated her career by becoming the director and assistant dean of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing. In 1978, Johnson-Brown served for one year as the chief nurse of the 121st Evacuation Hospital in Seoul, Korea.

In 1979, the Army nominated Johnson-Brown to become the 16th chief of the Army Nurse Corps along with promoting her to brigadier general. She was the first African American woman and the first chief with a PhD to have earned that distinction in the Department of Defense.

Margaret Sanger

Born in 1879 in Corning, New York, Margaret Sanger had just finished school when she became a caregiver for her mother, who was suffering from cervical cancer and tuberculosis. Sanger attributed the cervical cancer to her mother’s numerous pregnancies, and this motivated her to learn more about birth control and women’s health.

After her mother's death, Sanger enrolled in the nursing program at White Plains Hospital and specialized in working with new and expectant mothers. She was particularly struck by the number of patients she encountered who were dealing with botched abortions and unwanted pregnancies, which were a significant problem at the time due to the law that prohibited contraceptive devices. Sanger devoted her life to studying and finding reliable and safe methods of birth control.

After many years of advocacy, Sanger launched the National Birth Control League, which would later become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It was shut down almost immediately for violating the Comstock Law, which prohibited any materials being shipped by mail that the government viewed as obscene. Although a judge told Sanger he would dismiss the charges if she committed to not reopening the clinic, she refused and was sentenced to 30 days of labor in a workhouse.

After serving her time in the workhouse, Sanger reopened the clinic in her home, continued to write about women’s health and birth control, and took her advocacy on the road with a national lecture circuit. She received over a million letters from women requesting birth control information during the first five years of her lecture tour. These letters were a crucial resource when she lobbied the American Medical Association and legislators to reverse the Comstock Law, which eventually happened in 1936. From that point on, it was legal for doctors to mail birth control information and devices to patients.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (originally named Isabella Baumfree) was born into slavery in 1797 in Ulster County, New York. She was sold as a slave no less than three times but escaped in 1826, leaving behind some of her children. After arriving in New Paltz, New York, Truth found her freedom and spent the next two years working on getting the custody of her children back with the help of her new employers.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City and found a job as a housekeeper for an evangelical preacher. She became immersed in the world of religion and was inspired to preach about the gospel and speak out against slavery and oppression. In 1851 she spoke passionately at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention about equal rights for Black women, which is considered a major highlight in the abolitionist movement. The speech both captivated audiences and earned her renown as one of the leading women’s rights activists of the time.

In addition to advocating for equal rights for women, Truth also campaigned for equal opportunities in education. Specifically, she was a major advocate for nurse training programs. Seeing the need for formal training, which did not exist at the time, she actively campaigned to get nurses the education they needed to do their work effectively. Sojourner Truth is considered one of the first major activists for formal nursing education and equal rights for women.

Betty Smith Williams

Betty Smith Williams was born in 1929 in South Bend, Indiana. Her father, a civil rights activist, raised her to campaign for equality and to be an agent of positive change. Williams embraced the values taught to her by her father while also focusing on her education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from Howard University in 1954. She also earned a doctorate from the school of nursing at Case Western Reserve University, becoming the first Black graduate in the school’s history.

Breaking yet another barrier, Williams became the first Black person to teach at the university level in the state of California in 1956. She earned a position teaching public health nursing at the University of California, Los Angeles. A lifelong educator, Williams remained in academia for over five decades, eventually serving as the dean and a professor at the School of Nursing at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

In addition to teaching countless nursing students during her tenure, Williams also co-founded the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA). She served as president of the NBNA from 1995 to 1999. The organization currently represents over 200,000 nurses across 115 chapters throughout the world.    

Today’s Nursing Landscape

Today’s nursing landscape is quite different from the profession’s humble beginnings in the days of Florence Nightingale and other women in nursing history. Most notably, nursing is one of the most common health care occupations in the country. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over 3 million active registered nurses were working in the U.S. in 2020. Additionally, the BLS projects that the number of jobs for registered nurses will grow 6% (which translates to 195,400 new jobs) by the year 2031.

As has been the case throughout the history of nursing, a large percentage of nurses are women. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 336,793 of all nurses were male in 2019 compared to 2,186,697 who were female, making nursing one of the most female-dominated occupations in the country.

Sixty-one percent of nurses work in state, local, or private hospitals according to the BLS. Another 18% work in ambulatory health care services. A small percentage of nurses work in nursing and residential care facilities, government agencies, and educational services.

According to the BLS, the median annual salary for registered nurses in May 2021 was $77,600. The lowest 10th percentile of nurses made less than $59,450, while those in the highest 10th percentile earned a salary upwards of $120,000. 

The 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey found that:

  • The median age of RNs is 52.
  • Nurses aged 65 years or older make up 19% of the RN workforce.
  • Male nurses make up 9.4% of the RN workforce.
  • Races of RNs break down as follows: 81% of RNs are white/Caucasian, 7.2% are Asian, 6% are Black/African American.
  • RNs with bachelor’s degrees make up 42% of the RN workforce.

Pursue Your Career Goal of Becoming a Nurse

Women in nursing have played a pivotal role in advancing educational standards, starting important organizations, lobbying for health care initiatives, and breaking racial and gender barriers throughout history. The history of nursing is built upon the legacies left behind by important women nurses like Florence Nightingale, Goldie D. Brangman, and Clara Barton—all of whom were pioneers in their time.

Nurses continue to play a critical role in today’s health care system as frontline medical workers and leaders in their profession. The best way to make a difference as a registered nurse is by investing in a superior education, such as by earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree from Norwich University. As these women in nursing history illustrated, education is a key element in pursuing health care career goals. 


Recommended Readings:

Emergency Nurse Practitioner: 5 Essential Responsibilities

Nurse Practitioner Scholarships: A Guide for MSN Students

Nursing Apps and Technology to Optimize Patient Care



International Women’s Day

The Top 10 Jobs Dominated by Women, StyleCraze

The Practice of Nursing, Britannica

A Brief History of Nursing, Incredible Health

The History of the American Nurses Association, American Nurses Association

Florence Nightingale’s Story and Legacy, The Royal Oak Foundation

Clara Barton, The Truth About Nursing

Mary Breckinridge, The Truth About Nursing

How Harlem Hospital School of Nurse Anesthesia Was Born, American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology

Virginia A. Henderson, American Association for the History of Nursing

Baccalaureate Education, American Association of Colleges of Nursing

Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson Brown, Army Women’s Foundation

Margaret Sanger, Founder of Planned Parenthood, Nursing Theory

Sojourner Truth, History

Recognizing the Contributions of Black Nurses, Medline

Betty Smith Williams, AAREG

Past Presidents, NCEMNA

About, National Black Nurses Association

Registered Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

National Nurses Day and Week: May 6 and May 6-12, 2022, United States Census Bureau

National Nursing Workforce Study, NCSBN

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