Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Nurses: When an Activist Becomes an Administrator


  • Emily Galik Tulane University


Although the public praised Dorothea Dix’s work as a progressive reformer before the American Civil War, her leadership as the Union Army’s Superintendent of Nurses was privately criticized. Halfway through the conflict Dix effectively fell from prominence, and other Union nurses rose as leaders in the national spotlight. This paper explores why Dix was unsuccessful in this new position, despite her previous professional success, citing her maternalist beliefs about gender propriety, her failure to work effectively with fellow administrative men, and her conflict with her subordinate nurses. By examining Dix’s story, one can see how a woman could spend decades perfecting her navigation of the patriarchal political and social scenes of the mid nineteenth century, and how these curated leadership strategies hindered her success in a new environment.  The modern workforce is not the only place where leading women can fail to thrive in a new setting, and hopefully modern women can recognize the timeless warnings posed by Dix’s years as superintendent: years of experience can blind one to the benefits of and need to adapt to a new environment, and new colleagues may take your qualifications gathered in other fields with a grain of salt.