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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Frontier Nursing Service

Dr. Dee Jeffers, who specializes in the health of women and babies, sent an excited e-mail announcing that US News had named Frontier Nursing University as the Number One school in nurse midwifery – coming in ahead of Yale, Penn, Columbia, and other such well-known institutions. Her husband, Dr. Charles Mahan, former head of the State Department of Health and a founder of the USF College of Public Health, long has served on its board.

I didn’t know that it had added “university” to its name: when I first wrote about founder Mary Breckinridge back in the 1990s, it was “Frontier Nursing Service.” I discovered the institution when I researched entries for my Prentice Hall book, American Women’s History: An A-Z. My initial interest was in Sophonisba Breckinridge, called Nisba, the world’s first woman to earn a doctorate in political science, in 1901. She was a member of the extended family of John C. Breckinridge, who was vice president of the United States just prior to the Civil War. Nominated for president in 1860, he lost to Abraham Lincoln and ultimately served as Secretary of War for the Confederacy.

He died in 1875, and two decades later, in 1895, Nisba Breckinridge became the first female lawyer in Kentucky. That was not as revolutionary as her credential in political science: most states had female lawyers by 1895. (Florida’s first, in case you are wondering, was 1898, with Jacksonville railroad attorney Rebecca Pinnell.) Yet even though Breckinridge had prestigious degrees in law and political science, older biographical works nonetheless refer to her as a “social worker.” She was, in fact, that too, as she joined famed Jane Addams in founding Hull House, the Chicago institution that performed miracles in establishing the field of social work – as well as fighting for the legal rights of poor people.

Her work there is reflected in titles that were innovative at the time, such as The Delinquent Child and the Home (1912) and Marriage and the Civil Rights of Women (1931). Along with Dr. Edith Abbott, the founding dean of the world’s first school of social work, Dr. Breckinridge turned the University of Chicago into an incubator for twentieth-century social and economic concepts. Some of her students went on to serve in the Roosevelt administration during the 1930s, where they established such fundamentals as Social Security. She taught a full load until retiring at age 76 in 1942.

That was the first full year of American involvement in World War II, and her kinswoman Mary Martin Breckinridge was making headlines. For many people, Mary Martin Breckinridge’s voice was the first female one that they heard on the radio in an area other than entertainment. Like other women of her family, she was well educated and an experienced traveler who spoke several languages. She worked as a freelance photographer in Europe, and when Germany began bombing England in 1939, eminent newsman Edward R. Murrow put her on the air to provide the perspective of a young American woman. She proved so popular that she broadcast regularly. Because the US still was officially neutral, she was able to report from the Continent -- and ended up taking the last train out of Paris when the Nazis invaded.

I covered her and Nisba in my Prentice Hall book, but didn’t write about Madge McDowell Breckinridge until later, especially in my most recent work for Congressional Quarterly Press, Women in American Politics: History and Milestones. As her name indicates, she married into the family: her husband was newspaper publisher Desha Breckinridge, whose unusual first name was his mother’s maiden name. (Yes, I’ll admit that it took me a while to figure out that Desha was a man. But that’s my job: digging through primary sources to create secondary sources that make references seem easy.)

Madeline “Madge” McDowell Breckinridge was a descendant of famed Kentucky Senator Henry Clay – and she led a feminist revolution in the South after taking over a movement that was badly fractured by her aristocratic kinswoman Laura Clay. This political warfare not only was internecine, but also belated: as the twentieth century began, state law granted complete custody of children to the father, who even could appoint someone other than the mother as guardian for his unborn child. The legal age for a girl to marry was twelve. Madge Breckinridge began leading the Equal Rights Association in 1912, and by 1920, the state surprised the nation by easily ratifying the 19th Amendment that enfranchised all American women.

So we’ve covered three Breckinridge women and finally are back to the nursing school founder where we began. Born in 1881, the woman known as Mary Breckinridge had two other names from two marriages during her lifetime. (Another case of how much more difficult it is to research women’s history than that of men.) She was a granddaughter of Vice President John Breckinridge – but her father was a congressman from Arkansas, not Kentucky. She grew up in Washington, DC, as well as Russia and Switzerland, but returned to Arkansas and married. Her husband died suddenly, and this led to her interest in nursing. She graduated from a New York nursing school in 1910, but married again in Arkansas in 1912. Then, in 1918, the second of her two children died; she assuaged her grief with nursing.

Divorcing and returning to her maiden name, she volunteered for the Red Cross at the end of World War I. After working in France for three years, Breckinridge earned a degree in public health from Columbia; she returned to Europe for additional study in Britain and then began Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in 1925. She based it in Kentucky, where family connections enabled her to raise money – and where she saw great need. The nurses she employed traveled by horseback to mountain homes where there were no roads – even in the late 1920s.

FNS’s systematic health care soon proved viable, as maternal deaths rates fell dramatically. The idea of women caring for women slowly caught on, and her professional staff formed the nucleus of what eventually became the American Association of Nurse Midwives. Mary Breckinridge lived until 1965, long enough to see the scientific results of prioritizing health care for mothers and their babies. Frontier Nursing Service became Frontier Nursing University in 2011, but its purpose remains the same: it provides opportunity to the geographically isolated with distance learning. Through their work with both Frontier Nursing University and Planned Parenthood, Drs. Jeffers and Mahan follow this stellar example.

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I’ve mentioned before that my friend Dr. Gary Mormino sends (through the old-fashioned US Post Office) copies of things that he comes across in his research on Florida. They often reinforce the point I made above about primary documents: sometimes the words of another era require some background knowledge to get the point – and other times, the bald, non-PC truth just shouts out loud. This is such a case, even though you may understand it better if you remember that today’s TECO was founded as an electric streetcar company. The below is a full-page, un-illustrated ad in the Tampa Morning Tribune, signed by J.T. Hanlon, Jr. of the Tampa Electric Company. Complete with grammatical errors, it ran on June 12, 1923.

“To Street Car Patrons:

We desire to inform our patrons that all cars operated by the Company are being equipped with Bennett Adjustable Race Separation signs, and upon completion of the installation of these signs our white patrons will be expected to sit in the front of and the colored patrons in the rear of these signs. Up to this time the custom has been for white patrons to fill the car from the front and colored people from the rear. This, we admit, was not in strict compliance with the law but has proved satisfactory to a majority of our customers for many years.

Now, however, upon complaint of one, Scott Leslie, to the State Railroad Commission, the Commission has been compelled to require us to comply with the law and install movable signs.

While the abolishing of an old and satisfactory custom is not in accordance with the management, we trust this new arrangement will prove satisfactory, and that you will cheerfully co-operate in complying with the law.”

Were it not for my New Years resolution to goof off more, I’d check out two things. One, the streetcar’s principal founder was Amelia Chapin. She was a Yankee who lived here only briefly (primarily because her playboy husband wanted to sail our bay), so I wonder if she still was the major stockholder in 1923? And was it her more liberal attitude that had led the company to ignore the law on segregation?

Second point: The first woman to win a race for statewide office in Florida was Mamie Eaton Greene. She was elected to the Railroad Commission in 1928. It would be interesting to know what debate the commission might have had on this after she took office and how she might have voted. I could spend several days figuring that out, but instead, my zinnia seeds need planting.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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