Suffragist of The Month – April, 2017

Mary Eliza Mahoney, 1845 – 1926

Mary Eliza Mahoney was born April , 1845 (some references give May 7) in Dorchester, Massachusetts; her parents were freed slaves who had moved from North Carolina to seek a better life for their family. One of three children, Mary attended an integrated school, and dreamed of becoming a nurse. At the age of eighteen she took a job at the New England Hospital for Woman and Children as a cook, cleaning woman and laundress. After fifteen years she was finally admitted as a student, and graduated in 1879 at the age of thirty-three, thus becoming the first African-American woman to graduate as a registered nurse. She was one of only four graduates from a class of forty.

Mary began her nursing career at a time when the medical profession was experiencing lasting and profound changes. The evolution of modern medical practices fueled the demand for hospital services, including the need for trained nurses. But many hospitals refused to hire African-American nurses or discriminated against them in wages and privileges. In 1908, to combat this discrimination, Mary enthusiastically supported the formation of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) by Martha Minerva Franklin, and remained a member for the rest of her life. She was also one of the few African-American nurses to join the American Nurses Association, which originally refused entrance to black nurses. She worked for most of her career as a private duty nurse.

Her belief in fighting discrimination was reflected in her work for the woman suffrage movement. With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 Mary was one of the first women to register and vote in Boston.

Mary Eliza Mahoney fought discrimination on many fronts for her entire life. When not fighting for equality for black nurses she was championing political equality for all. She died in 1926 at the age of eighty.

Happy Birthday, Mary Eliza Mahoney!


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