Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
By Kathryn S. Gardiner
During the 1918 influenza epidemic, Lillian Wald was a general in charge of an army. As chairperson of the Nurses’ Emergency Council in New York City, she organized supplies and led her fellow nurses and volunteers, all women, in caring for the city’s ailing population. Later, she wrote an article about the experience. Her chosen title reveals the scope and how it must have felt to those trying to fight the virus: “When the City Was a Great Field Hospital.”
Lillian was born March 10, 1867, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Max Wald and Minnie Schwarz. Her parents were both Jewish immigrants from Europe who had come to the United States for more lucrative employment. Lillian enjoyed a close relationship with her three siblings, Alfred, Julia, and Gus, and considered their life privileged and herself “spoiled.” In 1878, the family relocated to Rochester, New York. Lillian attended an English-French boarding school, where she showed great skill in the arts, as well as math and science.
As she grew, an active social life in Rochester wasn’t enough for ambitious Lillian, but, at just 16, she was too young for Vassar; the college denied her application. She was not too young, however, to help her sister Julia through childbirth, and there, in nursing and caring for another, she found her life’s passion.
“She had too much individuality to be willing to lose herself as a cog in an established institution. Instinctively, she wanted to change things—to do better.”
At age 24, Lillian, a nurse newly graduated from the New York Hospital Training School, took up a position at an orphanage serving children from ages 5 to fourteen. The New York Juvenile Asylum revealed to Lillian the failings and inadequacies of institutionally administered care, especially for children. She soon left, disillusioned but not discouraged. Of this time, her friend and biographer R. L. Duffus wrote, “she had too much individuality to be willing to lose herself as a cog in an established institution. Instinctively, she wanted to change things—to do better.” She followed her brief time at the asylum with additional studies at Women’s Medical College.
Lillian then took her medical knowledge into the community. By 1893, she was teaching at the Hebrew Technical School for Girls. Her classes on nursing were offered specifically to the Lower East Side’s poor immigrant families. While teaching, the next great endeavor of Lillian’s life found her.
A little girl came asking for help for her ailing mother. Lillian followed the girl back to her home in the squalor of the tenements where so many immigrants lived. “Over broken asphalt, over dirty mattresses and heaps of refuse we went…” she wrote in The House on Henry Street. “There were two rooms and a family of seven not only lived here but shared their quarters with boarders…” Lillian tended to the girl’s mother, but was forever changed by this “baptism of fire.” “[I felt] ashamed of being a part of society that permitted such conditions to exist… What I had seen had shown me where my path lay.”
Along with fellow nurse Mary Brewster, Lillian moved into the area to be more accessible to their patients and founded the Visiting Nurses Service. Within a year, they had served over 125 families and provided guidance to many more. To describe this task they performed—as a nurse embedded within a community—Lillian coined the phrase “public health nurse.”
The next year, Lillian founded the Henry Street Settlement House at 265 Henry Street. The philosophies informing her medical practice were considered radical for the time. She believed that all individuals, regardless of race, gender or social status, deserved quality health care. Further, she believed that those who were home-bound in tenements and could not afford at-home medical care still deserved access to it, along with the same respect given to those who could afford it.
As such, her drive and compassion were not limited to Henry Street. She was an early advocate of nursing in public schools, and her voice was chief among those driving the New York Board of Health to create what would be the world’s first public nursing system. She was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and hosted the organization’s first major public event at Henry Street. She toured Hawaii, Japan, China and Russia, meeting dignitaries to share her ideas and learn from other cultures. She was a leader of the Child Labor Committee, which promoted education and lobbied for child labor laws. She, and Henry Street, supported industrial workers on strike for better treatment, and she was a tireless advocate for women’s suffrage. “The greater number of [women] have been more concerned with that portion of the political life that is related to human happiness…the home life and family…,” she wrote in 1915 in an article titled “20 Reasons Why You Should Vote Suffrage.” “Men have been more definitely prepared for other political and social duties. The mingling of the traditions…seem to me to give the best promise for securing better government.”
“Out they pour, the little hyphenated Americans, more conscious of their patriotism than perhaps any other large group of children, unaware that to some of us they carry on their shoulders our hopes of a finer, more democratic America…”
Her support of suffrage did not, however, always mean agreement with its leaders. After the amendment failed to pass in 1915, a prominent suffragette blamed absent immigrant voters. Having lived and worked with them for decades, Lillian pointed out that, far from apathetic, most immigrants were eager to exercise the political voice they’d been denied elsewhere. Lillian’s political passions were in support of women and immigrants, and she never elevated one demographic over the other.
She wrote, “Out they pour, the little hyphenated Americans, more conscious of their patriotism than perhaps any other large group of children, unaware that to some of us they carry on their shoulders our hopes of a finer, more democratic America, when their old-world traditions shall be mingled with the best that lies in our new-world ideals. They bring a hope that a better relationship—even the great brotherhood— is not impossible, and that through living love and understanding we shall come to know the shame of prejudice.”
Like Lillian’s drive for change, the Henry Street Settlement itself could not be contained, and soon had branches in the Bronx and around Manhattan, focused on caring for the immigrant community of the area, regardless of origin. By 1915, the original Henry Street location employed over 100 nurses, who had—in that year alone—served over 26, 575 patients and made over 227,000 home visits.
“A stern task confronts our women—not only trained women, but untrained women.”
The epidemic that struck in 1918 overwhelmed even that formidable system. In addition to caring for patients and her fellow nurses, Lillian recruited volunteers and entreated benefactors for additional emergency funding. For one recruitment effort, she positioned nurses at the doors of Tiffany’s and other high-end shops, distributing flyers to solicit female volunteers. “A stern task confronts our women—not only trained women, but untrained women,” the flyer read. “Capable, though untrained, hands can lighten the burden of the trained ones. There are many things intelligent women can do to relieve the situation, working under the direction of competent nurses.” Notable is a plea at the end: “Physicians should not employ nurses as office or laboratory assistants during this emergency.”
Lillian’s deep belief in the importance of community was only strengthened by her experience during the pandemic. While her “Field Hospital” article featured graphs and data for providing in-home care, she also shared personal anecdotes of the generosity she saw across racial, religious, and economic lines during the crisis. “Certainly there was evidence from all kinds of people—professional and non-professional,” she wrote, “of a willingness to give and to give instantly.”
After the desperation of 1918 faded, Lillian’s life did not slow down, nor did her advocacy. She enjoyed close friendships, but never married. Her life’s focus was The Henry Street Settlement, which continues to this day, and her efforts for the advancement of public health, immigrants, people of color, children, and women. She died on Sept. 1, 1940 at age 73. A rabbi conducted the memorial service at the Henry Street Neighborhood Playhouse. Months later, a tribute was held at Carnegie Hall, where the president, governor, and mayor delivered brief addresses. It was attended by over 2,000 people.