1. Section Editor(s): Donnelly, Gloria F. PhD, RN, FAAN, FCPP
  2. Editor-in-Chief

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In April 2016, the US Secretary of the Treasury announced that the image of Harriet Tubman, an African American nurse, spy for the Union Army and leader in the antislavery movement, would replace the image of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. The Harriet Tubman $20 bill, part of a movement by the Department of the Treasury to honor women's suffrage, will not be available for distribution as currency until well after 2020.1 Nevertheless, it is not premature for nurses to consider and honor the work of Harriet Tubman and to emulate her advocacy.

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Harriet Tubman, once a slave herself, worked tirelessly during the Civil War to care for sick and wounded soldiers. She also transported more than 300 slaves to Canada and to freedom through her "underground railroad." She proudly claimed that she never veered off track, nor lost a passenger.2 When the Civil War ended, she established a home for aged and indigent African Americans in collaboration with the AME Zion Church in New York State. Until the announcement of Tubman's image on the newly configured $20 bill, I did not know that she was a nurse but I was not surprised. Nurses' work is often unheralded, at the core and background of health and healing, but not usually at the forefront. Therefore, honoring Harriet Tubman and characterizing her work as holistic nursing practice is especially important for us.


Harriet Tubman was an advocate not only for health and healing but also for the human spirit and human rights. Holistic nursing is the act of taking responsibility for health and healing in a larger context and with a spirit of advocacy. When was the last time you advocated for a patient, student, family member, a fellow nurse, or for yourself? Did you clearly conceptualize the issue that demanded advocacy? Did you recognize that you had the power to act, to significantly change the situation for the better? Did you gather data, construct an argument? Did you speak your mind assertively and respectfully to those with the power to act? Did you persist when others discouraged you from pursuing the issue? Did you learn from your mistakes if you failed and try a different tact when the next opportunity arose? Advocacy is dogged and delicate work, and it is at the heart of holistic nursing practice. Advocacy is more than empathy; it is acting on behalf of the experiences, perspective, and rights of those for whom we care. For Harriet Tubman, advocacy extended far beyond the ward and the clinic; it was a mechanism for improving people's lives and society's ills, even if she had to buck the system. When was your last act of advocacy?


-Gloria F. Donnelly, PhD, RN, FAAN, FCPP






1. Close K. It could be a decade before you hold a Harriet Tubman $20 bill in your hand. Accessed April 21, 2016. [Context Link]


2. Harriet Tubman. Accessed April 21, 2016. [Context Link]