Cover, with bullet hole illustration.

Nurses Organize

This post is the fourth in a series exploring the history of nursing and domestic violence from the guest blogger Catherine Jacquet, Assistant Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University and guest curator of NLM’s exhibition Confronting Violence: Improving Women’s Lives.

During the mid-1980s nurses nationwide formally organized. Up until this time, many nurses either worked individually in their respective locations or were parts of informal networks across the country. In some instances, nurses were wholly unaware of some of the work that was transpiring in other towns and cities. When Dan Sheridan started a hospital-based family intervention program at Chicago’s Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in 1986, for example, he didn’t know that medical technologist Susan Hadley had also created a similar program in Minneapolis that same year. Known as WomanKind, Hadley’s program provided education and consultation for healthcare providers and case management services for abused women. In other instances, nurses were part of informal networks of medical providers who were dedicated to the identification, treatment, and prevention of domestic violence. Jacquelyn Campbell remembers that, “along the way we were in contact with other nurses, a few around the country that were doing this. And we got in contact with [pioneer reformer and physician] Anne Flitcraft  and [social worker-reformer] Evan [Stark]… There were relatively few of us back then.” Together, these pioneers would “trade ideas on how to fix the healthcare system.” These informal networks connected some of the reformers who were doing this critical work nationwide. Yet a significant shift would occur in 1985, when nurses would formally organize on the heels of a national conference on violence and health. From there, they would continue the difficult work of reforming the health care system.

In 1985 Surgeon General C. Everett Koop convened a workshop on Violence and Public Health. Held over three days (Oct 27–29) in Leesburg, Virginia, the workshop brought together over 150 experts from across the disciplines to discuss recommendations on the evaluation, prevention, and treatment of victims of assaultive violence, child abuse, rape and sexual assault, spouse abuse, and violence against the elderly. The significance of this gathering cannot be overstated. As reformer physician Anne Flitcraft remembered, this “unprecedented workshop… marked a turning point in public health officials’ involvement in domestic violence.” It was also critical for creating a national community of medical experts working on domestic violence. As Jacquelyn Campbell recalls, “it brought together all of us in the health field that had really started to write about this, think about it, do studies on it, care about it.”

A cloth totebag with the text Nursing Network on Violence Against Women NNVAW printed on it.
Nursing Network on Violence Against Women Conference Bag

For the twelve to fifteen nurses who attended, the Surgeon General’s workshop was particularly significant—here they formed the Nursing Network on Violence Against Women (NNVAW). This organization was the first of its kind in the country and “was formed to encourage the development of an informed nursing practice on the range of health issues relating to violence against women.” In practice, this coalition of nurses and other concerned health professionals sought to both prevent all forms of violence against women and diminish its effects on survivors. The NNVAW held the First National Nursing Conference on Violence Against Women less than a month later on Nov 1–2 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Organized by Peggy Perri, RN M.Ed., and Christine King, RN, MS, the conference had 150 people in attendance and provided “a forum for nurses and other health care providers involved in the areas of woman abuse to meet, share knowledge and ideas, and gain support” for their work. The NNVAW would continue to grow over the following years. At the second conference, where Jacquelyn Campbell gave the keynote address, over 40 papers were accepted for presentation and attendance increased from 150 to 250. The organization worked to disseminate health-related information on violence against women by holding biannual conferences, publishing a directory of members, publishing a regular column in the nursing journal Response, and maintaining a list of protocols and training manuals for working with battered women in hospitals and shelters. Now connected via a national organization, nurses would continue the critical work of reforming the healthcare system.

Learn more about why NLM is hosting this important exhibition, and read about the traveling banner exhibition in The Washington Post.

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