Date of Award

Spring 2017

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Master of Arts

First Advisor

J. William Harris

Second Advisor

Marion G. Dorsey

Third Advisor

Jessica Lepler


The Civil War marked American women’s entry into the arena of public nursing. The influential reformer and advocate for the mentally ill, Dorothea Lynde Dix, was appointed Superintendent of Female Nurses in 1861. Dix was tasked with supervising all female Union nurses, establishing hospitals, and coordinating the arrival and distribution of supplies for the Union army. The responsibilities of the position were immense. Despite attempts to centralize her authority over the female nurses, by the end of the war, Dix had lost her administrative influence. Lacking effective administrative oversight, upper-class female nurses relied on existing social networks in order to obtain their nursing positions, as well as additional supplies for themselves and their patients. In doing so, the women consciously challenged and circumvented established administrative authority. Similar manner of behavior is also reflected in the nurses’ interactions with the predominantly male hospital administrators and military authorities. The nurses’ interactions with their male administrators reveal the women’s decision to both embody and defy gender expectations in order to fulfill their nursing duties. This study concludes that the upper-class female nurses serving in Union hospitals exercised their own authority by circumventing and challenging established administrations in order to advocate for their patients.