Activism in Black and White: Mary Eliza Mahoney, Pathbreaking Nurse and Voter
Mary Eliza Mahoney registered to vote in Boston’s Ward 13 on August 18, 1920, the very same day that Tennessee ratified the women’s suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
by Laura Prieto
Mary Eliza Mahoney registered to vote in Boston’s Ward 13 on August 18, 1920, the very same day that Tennessee ratified the women’s suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At 76 years old, Mahoney had already waited a long time for the chance Though she had retired before 1920, Mahoney had supported herself throughout her life. Her voter registration records her trailblazing occupation: “trained nurse.” Mahoney was not only part of the first generation of professional nurses in the United States, but the very first Black woman to graduate from a nursing program in the United States.
Mary Eliza Mahoney, born in the West End in 1845, completed her course of study at Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children. New England Hospital was unlike most nineteenth-century hospitals, North or South, in that it welcomed both Black and white patients. The hospital’s Annual Report from 1867 noted that some of the mothers who gave birth there had been formerly enslaved. When the hospital opened its nursing certificate program in 1872, Mahoney had already been working there for several years. Her tasks included cleaning, cooking, and other aspects of patient care like those performed by nurse’s aides today. She must have impressed the hospital with her potential because the administrators decided she had the “suitable acquirements and character” necessary for admission to the certificate program.
Mahoney graduated as a nurse in 1879, at the age of 34. The certificate from New England Hospital enabled her to earn a higher salary, and greater respect, as a private nurse. Her formal training also qualified her to join the fledgling American Nurses Association (created in 1896). Mahoney became one of the professional organization’s very few Black members in its early years. Conscious of the persistent racial segregation and other barriers against Black women in nursing, in 1908 Mahoney became a founding member of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. Mahoney hosted the NACGN’s first convention in Boston the following year. She led and inspired the organization’s work: "to advance the standards and best interests of trained nurses, to break down discrimination in the nursing profession, and to develop leadership within the ranks of black nurses."
When Mahoney became ill with breast cancer, she sought treatment at the same hospital where she had trained as a nurse. She died there on January 4, 1926. The profession of nursing did not racially integrate until the 1950s. Black women, and men, could not exercise their right to vote in many states for even longer than that. But Mahoney continued to inspire the struggle for equality and inclusion after her death. She’s an inductee of the Women’s National Hall of Fame and the subject of numerous articles, including a long overdue obituary published in 2022 as part of the New York Times “Overlooked” series. The Mary Eliza Mahoney Medal, first awarded by the NACGN in 1936, continues to honor a nurse each year for outstanding contributions to the profession.
There are many reasons why we chose Mary Eliza Mahoney as the namesake of our project to transcribe women’s voter registrations from 1920. She was an extraordinary individual who broke barriers, fought prejudice, and worked for social change. She was also in many ways an average person; like the majority of the individuals in our database, she was a working woman who valued her privacy and left behind very few historical records of her life. As a result, misinformation about the basic facts of her life abounds, including in published sources. One thing that’s certain, however – plainly visible in the voter registration books – is that she seized her newly granted right to vote without hesitation in 1920. We should look to her everyday example when we imagine what it meant to be a nurse, a suffragist, and a voter in Boston’s history.
Althea K. Davis and Paul K. Davis, “Mary Eliza Mahoney, 1845-1926,” in Early Black American Leaders in Nursing: Architects for Integration and Equality (1999).
“Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights,” National Park Service
“Suffrage and Nursing,” University of Pennsylvania https://www.nursing.upenn.edu/history/suffrage/
Dr. Laura R. Prieto is a professor of History and Women's and Gender Studies and the Alumni Chair of Public Humanities at Simmons University in Boston. You can follow her at LauraRPrieto.com.
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- Published by: Archives and Records Management