By Amy Ushry, MPH, RN, CCM
In honoring Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first Black person to be licensed as a nurse in the United States, I honor both her brilliance as a nurse leader and her boldness as one of the many who stood against racist systems of power in health care.
In the late 1800s, nursing education in the United States was in the midst of a transformative time. Although nursing had long been a vital occupation, hospitals had just begun establishing schools of nursing with formalized courses of study. These new training programs largely adopted institutional practices that denied or limited admission for Black students; for example, the founding charter of the New England Hospital for Women and Children, one of the country’s earliest nursing schools, stated that only one Black person could be accepted into the program each year. Mahoney ultimately graduated from that program in 1879 and became the first licensed Black nurse in the United States.
Mahoney was not content to have achieved individual acclaim without contributing to dismantling power structures that excluded her and many other black individuals who had provided nursing care to those in need for years. She became one of the original members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, but when the group discriminated against other Black nurse applicants, she helped to cofound the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. An advocate for voting rights, Mahoney was notably one of the first women to register to vote in Boston after the ratification of the 19th amendment.
In reflecting on Mahoney’s life and contributions, we must examine the power structures she had to challenge in order to enter the nursing profession and how parts of those structures still negatively impact both health care workers and people seeking care. Upon examination, we must actively seek to understand our own biases, how we each fit in to these structures, and what we can do to dismantle them.
Mahoney’s work has opened doors for me and countless others in nursing. In celebrating her work, I also recognize the responsibility I have in continuing her legacy and working to actualize equity in health care. It is a responsibility that must be central in everything we do if we are to truly create change.
Amy Ushry MPH, BSN, RN, CCM is a Senior Nurse Special Project Manager working with the AIM program. She currently oversees projects at ACOG supporting AIM patient safety bundles, with specialization in resources and educational supports related to the Obstetric Care for Women with Opioid Use Disorder Bundle.