I am a nurse, so nurses week holds a special place in my heart. I believe it’s an important time to celebrate the dedication and hard work of my fellow colleagues worldwide. It gives us the opportunity to recognize the contributions of nurses to both patient care and the healthcare system. To me, one of the most important aspects of the nursing profession is our advocacy work. We have a long history of advocating for patients and for social justice, which makes this week the perfect time to celebrate that.
National Nurses Week was first celebrated in 1954, marking the 100th anniversary of Florence Nightingale's mission to Crimea. It has since become an annual event, recognized from May 6th to May 12th. It gives the public and the nursing profession an opportunity to recognize the important role nurses have in healthcare, with their patients, and their communities. It is also a time to reflect on the role of nurses in advancing the nursing profession and advocating for patient rights. This year, National Nurses Week’s theme is "You Make a Difference." I cannot think of a better week or theme to celebrate our role in social justice, healthcare innovation, health equity promotion, and patient advocacy.
Advocacy It’s Who We Are
Nurses are often the first point of contact for patients in the healthcare system, giving us a unique perspective on patients’ challenges and the barriers to quality care. Advocacy is the act of speaking up on behalf of others, and we are well-positioned to advocate for our patient’s needs.
Our advocacy takes many forms, including lobbying for policy change, raising awareness of health issues, and providing education to patients and the community.
Our History of Social Justice and Ethics
Nurses have been influential advocates for their patients and the nursing profession throughout history. Florence Nightingale is perhaps the most well-known nurse but Sojourner Truth, who was an informally trained nurse, is probably the most famous advocate with her 1844 speech "Ain't I a Woman?" which demanded equality for women and Black Americans.
Nurse advocates like Mary Eliza Mahoney, who in 1879 became the first African American registered nurse and advocated for racial equality in nursing. Lillian Wald was known as the first “public health nurse.” She founded the Henry Street Settlement in New York City in 1893 and advocated for public health and social justice.
In the early 20th century, nurses were instrumental in advocating for women's rights, including the right to vote. Lavinia Dock, and Mary E. Lent, were both nurse leaders who strongly supported the suffragist movement. In 1913 a small contingent of nurses marched in full uniform with over 5,000 suffragettes in Washington, D.C, despite being harassed and taunted by the angry crowds.
During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, we played an essential role in promoting equality and fighting against discrimination. Nurses like Georgie Conoly Labadie, RN, BSN, EdD, who battled segregation. Labadie was a Black nurse in an OB unit that was segregated. The inefficiency of having to run back and forth to care for premature infants made no sense to her.
Every time she was on shift, she would rally the other student nurses, and they would move all the high-risk infants together regardless of race. It was risky but made sense, as Labadie said “We knew that we were going to have to keep pushing the envelope.” Black nurses were key in desegregating healthcare, often being the voice of compassion and calling out inequities.
In the 1980s, nurses like Bobbi Campbell and Baruch Golden, members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, worked to bring awareness around STIs, particularly around a new disease, AIDS, among gay men and provided the medical content in consult with Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights through the pamphlet, Play Fair! It was a guideline for safer sex for gay men by gay men in non “jargon” language. Campbell was diagnosed at 29 with AIDS, yet was a tireless advocate, defending the rights of the queer community and those with AIDS until his death a little over three years after diagnosis.
More recently, nurses have formed grassroots groups to call out injustice and protest inequities, like the San Diego Protest Medical Response Taskforce with the American Nurses Association-California, which advocates for racial equity and social justice and has participated in over 200 protests.
Nurses also recognize the impact the environment has on our health and are at the forefront of environmental advocacy and innovation. The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, whose mission is, “promoting healthy people and healthy environments by educating and leading the nursing profession, advancing research, incorporating evidence-based practice, and influencing policy.”
Then there is Rachel Walker, Ph.D., RN, a queer nurse innovator who led a research team developing a portable, self-contained system that purifies water and generates essential IV fluids on-site in response to critical IV fluid shortages. They were the first nurse to be named an “Invention Ambassador” by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Lemelson Foundation, for their work. My favorite quote “Nurses are masters at Making. It. Work. No. Matter. What.” That outlook is why we are often driven to find solutions and advocate for best practices.
Ways to Celebrate Nurses and Appreciate Nurses Advocacy
There are many ways to celebrate nurses and honor advocacy in the nursing profession during Nurses Week. One way is to recognize the contributions of nurses by providing tokens of appreciation, such as gifts or thank-you notes. However, I encourage nurse allies to also support the field of nursing through policy changes and laws that favor safer patient-nurse ratios and provide protection for nurses who call out unsafe practices.
Listen to nurses’ concerns regarding the growing nursing shortage and encourage more funding towards growing the nursing field. Nurses are leaving the industry due to burnout and the impending retirement of our aging workforce.
Allies can help by acknowledging the stress and strain the field has. Recognize that nurses often go entire shifts without eating or even taking bathroom breaks; please be kind. Nurses often deal with misperceptions around their role and a lack of respect from other healthcare providers. We are the largest segment in healthcare, not a cost to be cut or negotiated at a lower rate.
The Importance and Future of Advocacy in Nursing
Nurses Week is an important time to celebrate the contributions of nurses to healthcare and society. Advocacy has been a fundamental aspect of our profession throughout history, and even though the profession is constantly evolving, it remains a core value. As healthcare systems become more complex, we will continue to advocate for patients and our profession. We may need to adapt to new challenges, such as technological advances and changes in healthcare policy. But our strength as advocates will ensure that the nursing profession remains at the forefront of healthcare.
CTA: Let us celebrate Nurses Week by advocating for the nursing profession and recognizing the contributions of nurses to healthcare.
The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE) https://envirn.org/
Minority Nurse Magazine Making History (Mar 30, 2013) https://minoritynurse.com/making-history/
Nurses and Suffrage https://www.nps.gov/fomc/learn/historyculture/nurses-and-suffrage.htm
Nurses By Day, Social Justice Activists By Night (May 2021) https://today.ucsd.edu/story/nurses-by-day-social-justice-activists-by-night
Rachel Walker, PhD, RN, Wants Nurses to Tap into Their Innovative Spirit https://nursing.jnj.com/nursing-news-events/nurses-leading-innovation/rachel-walker-phd-rn-wants-nurses-to-tap-into-their-innovative-spirit#:~:text=Messages%20from%20her%20Puerto%20Rican%20nurse%20colleagues%20navigating,purifies%20water%20and%20generates%20essential%20IV%20fluids%20on-site
Safe Sex in the 1970s: Community Practitioners on the Eve of AIDS Am J Public Health. 2017 June; 107(6): 872–879. Published online 2017 June. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.303704