By Pamela Toler (Regular Contributor)
On October 30, 1862, Anne Reading, a nurse stationed at Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, committed an unforgivable sin from Dorothea Dix’s point of view. She married one of her patients. Not surprisingly, Reading chose to keep quiet about the marriage. In March, someone told Miss Dix that Reading had gotten married. “Dragon” Dix was not pleased. Faced with Dix’s strong disapproval of nurses marrying patients or doctors, Reading reached the conclusion that it was time for her to leave the service.
Reading was not the only woman to meet her future husband while nursing. Ellen Sarah Forbes and Nancy M. Atwood both married men they nursed. (Like Reading, Forbes married while part of the nursing corps and left as a result.) Amanda Akin, Georgeanna Woolsey, and Annie Bell all later married doctors they met during the course of the war. One Sister of Charity left her religious order to marry one of her soldier-patients. The numbers were small, but Dix feared the people who opposed female nurses in the army would use them as proof that women entered the nursing corps only to find a husband.
It was a common charge. Cornelia Hancock told her niece Sallie that she was sure most people believed that husband-hunting was the reason she’d joined the army. Hancock acknowledged that if she were interested, it would be a good place to look since there were many nice men, and since soldiers were required to show respect to women. There were a number of women who spent the evenings gallivanting in just that pursuit. As for herself, she declared, “I do not trouble myself with the common herd.”
Elvira Powers, somewhat older, took the suggestion that she might look for a husband among her patients as a joke:
Once in my life did I have the audacity to pay special attention to a young corporal from Massachusetts by accompanying him to church one Sabbath evening, and came very near being discharged for the same. Shall never dare to repeat the heinous offense. Special attentions not allowed among Uncle Sam’s nephews and nieces. It is my opinion that said corporal is not over fifteen years younger than myself, still there’s no knowing what might have come of it.
She concluded, tongue-in-cheek, “Ah, me! What a sacrifice am I making for the good of my country.”
Powers might have treated the possibility as a joke, but any question that a woman’s virtue had been compromised was grounds for dismissal, even when proven false. Romance was strictly forbidden. The free-wheeling sexuality of a Hot-Lips Houlihan? Unthinkable.
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