Mary Bartlett Dixon Cullen: Activist, Nurse and Women’s Rights Pioneer

By Debra R. Messick

Courtesy Library of Congress

A picture from over a century ago captures a timeline moment in the Women’s Suffrage movement. The ladies lined up at the White House fence, circa 1917, disarmingly dressed in feminine Edwardian era finery, may seem unlikely warriors for the cause we commemorate in 2020. Nevertheless, these “Silent Sentinels” as they were known, and others, in relentless fashion for years on end, stepped up all over the country to campaign for the cause of winning the right to vote for women, braving backlash, ridicule, arrest and imprisonment.

Maryland native and professional nurse Mary Bartlett Dixon, who picketed the Wilson White House on the day the photo was taken, served among their ranks. This was her second trip to Washington, D.C. on behalf of a mission she profoundly believed necessary. In 1913, she joined several suffragists accompanying renowned activist and future National Woman’s Party founder, Alice Paul, to a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson.

While Dixon’s name doesn’t carry the recognition factor of Paul or Susan B. Anthony, her dedication to the cause of women’s voting rights, tireless efforts, and pioneering spirit nevertheless deserve a generous measure of acknowledgment and gratitude. As an adopted daughter of Talbot County, she brings to the area a unique source of pride.

Throughout the arduous uphill battle, Dixon was noteworthy for speaking out staunchly in favor of her professional sisters staying off the sidelines of what was still a widely controversial issue. Delegates to the 11th annual convention of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States, meeting in San Francisco in 1908, rejected a motion supporting woman’s suffrage.

A historical collection of photos depicting the Women’s Suffrage movement;

Below: Mary’s gravestone located in Spring Hill Cemetery in Easton

Shortly afterward, the affiliated American Journal of Nursing endorsed this stance of professional neutrality. The following month, the Journal published Dixon’s letter, stating her “deep disappointment” and posing the question, “Is it logical for you to interest us in such subjects distinctly outside the four walls of a sickroom, as social hygiene, school hygiene, almshouse reform, child-labor laws, factory inspection, etc., if your attitude on ‘broad questions’ is to remain neutral?”

That same year, Dixon’s essay, “Votes for Women,” appeared in the Nurses Journal of the Pacific Coast arguing that becoming politically involved was a professional necessity for nurses to effectively do their jobs. She encouraged all to proactively research their states’ voting rights.

In 1909, Dixon became Chairman of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Maryland. The organization published a pamphlet of scholarly essays entitled “Opinions of Representative Men and Women on the Franchise for Women,” as part of an ongoing effort to win hearts, minds, and votes. In 1910, she headed the legislative committee for the Just Government League of Maryland, begun the year before by social worker and activist Edith Houghton Hooker, who was among the first women admitted to Johns Hopkins Medical School.

During this fervent period, while engaged in fighting for the vote, Dixon was also considerably active on a remarkable number of health-related fronts locally, including raising funds for an emergency hospital in Easton (forerunner of Easton Memorial Hospital), creating a local nursing school in Easton, and chairing an Easton Civic Improvement Club Sanitation Committee to combat tuberculosis.

Fast forward to World War I when Dixon advocated for nurses to earn military rank. In 1920, with Congressional passage of the 19th Amendment followed by the required 36 states ratifying, Dixon stepped up to serve as the first President of the Talbot County League of Women’s Voters. (Maryland did not retroactively ratify the amendment until 1941!)

This innovative nurse’s path to the future endeavors distinguishing her legacy wasn’t at all certain from the start.

Baltimore born in 1873, the second of four debutante daughters of well-to-do Baltimore business scion Thomas W. Dixon, she had no need to develop an outside career. However, feeling called to find a useful, independent life, she applied to the Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School for Nurses, which had opened in October 1889. Thomas W. Dixon had served as president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Board of Trustees from 1892 to 1903.

Nursing School Superintendent Mary Adelaide Nutting, concerned about the intensive schedule her student nurses were toiling under, reportedly wanted the weekly workload reduced to a mere 48 hours. Believing that a trustee president’s daughter in the program might advance her cause, she agreed to Dixon’s entry, with a candid proviso, according to Alumna Betty Borenstein Scher ’50’s Johns Hopkins Nursing profile. She wrote, “When she admitted Mary as a student nurse, Miss Nutting told her she did not think Mary would last, that Miss Nutting was going to get her way, that Mary would work longer and harder than any other student because of her father’s position, and that her dad would come to see the light. As Mary told the story, ‘and she did, and I did, and he did.’”

Following graduation in 1903 and relocating to Talbot County, Dixon witnessed firsthand health conditions at the local almshouse as a Maryland State Association of Graduate Nurses representative. By 1906, she was serving on the group’s legislative committee, and from this time forward channeled her oratorical and organizational energies into winning the vote for women.

The year 1920 marked a turning point for the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, and a personal milestone for Dixon, who married Baltimore surgeon Dr. Thomas S. Cullen. In addition to working to establish the Talbot County League of Women’s Voters, Mrs. Cullen was a dedicated and distinguished editor of the Johns Hopkins Nursing School’s Alumnae magazine and valued Alumnae Board member.

In later years, experiencing hearing loss, Dixon discovered another avenue of service working with the League for the Hard of Hearing. Following her husband’s death in 1953, she donated the couple’s Baltimore residence to the American Cancer Society and retired to her Talbot County home, Morling’s Chance, where she died at the age of 83 in 1957.

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