Vol. 7 Issue 17
In the Spotlight
Nursing's Political Advocate
Barbara Thoman Curtis has devoted 40 years to nursing advocacy on all levels
In 1992, the American Nurses Association (ANA) established the Barbara Thoman Curtis Award to honor an extraordinary nurse and political activist. Curtis, an RN, received the first award in 1994. Every 2 years, the award is presented to a nurse who has significantly contributed to nursing practice and health policy through political an legislative activity.
"That award was the greatest professional honor of my life," Curtis reminisced. "Usually those types of honors are awarded posthumously, so that recognition by my profession means a great deal to me."
With more than 40 years of tireless service to ANA, Curtis is active in ANA-PAC, the political action committee. In spite of significant health problems and a disability, she continues her political activism from an apartment in Bethesda, MD. "I've cut way back on my responsibilities at this point in my life, but political activism continues to be a lifestyle, and has been for many, many years," she told ADVANCE.
Politics in the Blood
Curtis remembers her first election party back in 1948 when her Missouri neighbor Harry Truman won the presidential race. "Because we knew him, there was never a mystique to politics," she said. "My parents had been politically active on school boards and other local groups, and the seeds of politics actually came from my Greek ancestors. I recently read a letter that my grandmother had received from a congressperson in 1921 in response to her letter about immigration law. Here she was, a young woman with six children who had come to this country only 4 years earlier from Greece, and she was lobbying Congress about immigration law!"
While in nursing school, Curtis was elected president of the Missouri State Student Nurses Association, which whetted her appetite for politics. After marrying and moving to Washington State, she was elected president of the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA). Under her leadership, WSNA established one of only three PACs in the country in 1971.
"Subsequently, ANA invited me to join the taskforce to explore the development of a national PAC," Curtis recalled. "In 1974, ANA established a PAC but called it the Nurses Coalition for Action in Politics (N-CAP), because there was such a stigma among nurses about politics."
Curtis was the first elected chairperson of that PAC, and has not missed an ANA House of Delegates meeting since. "It wasn't until the mid-80s that the name was changed to ANA-PAC, when the leadership believed that nurses were ready to accept the idea of political action."
Nurse Lobby Days
In 1976, Curtis moved to Illinois and traveled with four nursing colleagues by car from Chicago to Springfield, to meet with the chief lobbyist for the Illinois Nurses Association. Today, more than 1,000 nurses from all over the state travel to the state capitol on Nurse Lobby Days, and the practice has spread across the country. "That just goes to show you can start something small and really build on it," said Curtis. "This lobby experience was a jumping-off place for nurses to see the impact of political action at the state level. I spent a number of years after that doing contract lobbying and public speaking in a number of states," said Curtis.
In 1983, Curtis was arrested after she spoke out publicly about the inhumanity of the welfare system in Illinois. "I've always been aware you're vulnerable when you're politically active, but it was quite a shock to be handcuffed and led away in front of my children. My friends came to my rescue, establishing a legal defense fund. The charges were dropped after the elections were over and the state's attorney who arrested me was defeated."
As a political activist, Curtis has had numerous opportunities to draw nurses into the political arena. She has served as a consultant to the campaigns of nurses at the local, state and national levels, helping them win elected positions where they could influence healthcare policy. "I've met so many dedicated and talented nurses who have made a difference in the healthcare policy arena. I traveled through the years to more than 30 states to help them get their PACs going, and I've testified before the Democratic Platform Committee and before several congressional committees," said Curtis.
In 1994, ANA chose Curtis to spend 3 months in Washington, DC, as a liaison with the White House to promote healthcare reform. She was the chief coordinator and member of the White House advance team for a healthcare rally attended by then-president Bill and Hillary Clinton and vice president Al and Tipper Gore, and subsequently attended several White House events. "I was especially pleased to attend a state dinner honoring the president of Greece, which was the birthplace of my mother," she recalled.
Curtis remains passionate about political action and public policy work for the nursing profession. "It's important to get the word out to nurses that there is a tremendous need for us to take control of our own practice, and to advocate for our patients," Curtis emphasized. "We need to be politically active. Legislation doesn't come about without political activism, so political action is not a choice, it's a mandate. Politics is not a spectator sport!"
Sandy Keefe is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ADVANCE.