From Private Matter to Public Health Crisis

Dr. Catherine Jacquet spoke today at the National Library of Medicine on “From Private Matter to Public Health Crisis: Nursing and the Intervention into Domestic Violence.” Dr. Jacquet is guest curator of NLM’s newest exhibition, Confronting Violence: Improving Women’s Lives, and Assistant Professor of History and Women’s Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. Circulating Now interviewed her about her work.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Catherine Jaquet poses in front of a bookshelf.Catherine Jacquet: I am originally from Connecticut—that’s where I spent the first 21 years of my life. Since then I’ve lived in Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis and now I’m in Louisiana where I am an assistant professor of history and women’s and gender studies at Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge). I feel so fortunate because I get to do what I love. My workdays vary but I typically do some combination of the following: prepping and teaching my courses, working on revisions to my book manuscript, responding to student emails and/or meeting with students, grading student assignments, attending faculty meetings, working on committee projects, advising graduate students, reading and commenting on colleagues’ work, developing new courses… It depends on the week and the time of year, but there is always plenty of work waiting for me!

CN: You’ve just finished work on a new exhibition here at the National Library of Medicine, what sparked your interest in curating Confronting Violence: Improving Women’s Lives?

CJ: For the past decade I’ve been researching anti-rape activism in the United States. I’m particularly interested in how the civil rights and women’s liberation movements understood rape as an issue and how activists sought to make change. When I was approached with the proposal to work on this exhibit with the NLM, I was immediately interested since there is so much overlap between the battered women’s movement and the feminist anti-rape movement of the 1970s. I wanted to learn more about the movement against domestic violence, and this exhibition gave me the perfect opportunity to do that. I was also excited to work on a public history project—this was a very different way of producing history than the traditional academic writing that I’m used to. With the exhibition, there is the potential to reach a much broader audience and that was very exciting to me.

CN: Would you tell us about the work you presented in your lecture, “From Private Matter to Public Health Crisis: Nursing and the Intervention into Domestic Violence?”

CJ: In the lecture, I wanted to give the audience a larger context for the exhibition and give them more of the story of how nurses changed medicine. Before creating the exhibition, I conducted several months of research and then wrote a 30-page narrative (about 7500 words) about the history of nursing and the intervention into domestic violence. Using that document as a base, we created the exhibition narrative. The major challenge for me in creating the exhibition was that I had to convey my 7500-word narrative using less than 500 words! I think we did a pretty good job and the exhibition touches on the key moments in this history. With my lecture though, I wanted to give a fuller picture and tell more of the stories using the longer narrative—to really give audience members a closer look at this history and how change happened.

CN: In researching this subject, were you drawn to any particular individual’s story?

CJ: Honestly, the stories of all of the pioneer reformers whom I read about or interviewed were so compelling to me. It is incredible to imagine a time when domestic violence simply was not on the medical radar. These nurses, physicians, and social workers recognized the problem and weren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. It’s amazing.

I think about pioneer physician Anne Flitcraft who researched and co-wrote one of the very first scholarly articles addressing the failure of medicine to identify, understand, and treat battered women (that was in 1979!). To this very day, over 30 years later, Dr. Flitcraft continues to work on this issue. I think about Jackie Campbell who realized that homicide of women was not just a criminal justice matter but a critical public health matter. This realization changed her life, and she dedicated her career to working on domestic violence. I think about Dan Sheridan who, while working as a “jack of all trades” at the Chicago shelter run by his wife, saw the injuries survivors sustained and made the connection between domestic violence and health. This changed his life and, like Jackie and so many others, he dedicated his training and career as a nurse to working on domestic violence. For me, it’s not just about one or two people, but the dozens and dozens of folks who all worked to make change, which ultimately made an incredible a difference in the lives of women survivors of domestic violence.

CN: How did you originally become interested in the History of Medicine? What inspires you in your work and what do you hope readers will gain from it?

CJ: I first became interested in the history of medicine when I took a course in graduate school on medicine, race, class, and gender in US history. The overlaps between social, political, race, and gender history (to name a few) and the history of medicine were glaring. Once I realized those connections, I became much more interested in healthcare activism and how the understanding of access to healthcare as a “right” developed over the course of the 20th century. In working on Confronting Violence, I was most inspired by the nurses, doctors, and social workers who advocated for survivors and worked relentlessly to make change. I hope that readers will realize that these people, who made an extraordinary impact, were also ordinary people—they really are just like you and me. Any of us can make change—we all can be history makers—it’s just a matter of getting out there and working for what we believe in. I hope readers will gain a sense of just how far we’ve come in terms of medical reform, but also realize that we still have a long way to go—and that we all have a hand in shaping the direction that this story goes. 

Dr. Catherine Jacquet’s presentation was part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of NLM and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities.