The Return of Sue Barton


I have just re-read Sue Barton: Visiting Nurse. If you are male or perhaps a female under a certain age, you might not be familiar with the Sue Barton series. But for girls born during certain years, not reading Sue Barton would have been like not reading Nancy Drew. Don’t even dream of telling me you don’t know who that is.


Nancy Drew is still around. In fact, her books have been (unfortunately) updated and she was even the star of a recent (unfortunate) movie. But Sue Barton, whose adventures took place in the 1930’s, has gone the way of the corset. It is easy to see why.


In this era of “girls can do anything” a female detective is still deemed relevant. A nurse who works in hospitals and clinics where every single doctor is male is less so.


In the book I just finished, Sue is working in Manhattan as a visiting nurse, going into the homes of immigrants and the indigent as a combination nurse/social worker/Mary Poppins.  She soon faces a major dilemma, one that seems quaint to any contemporary reader. Her fiancé, a doctor naturally, is establishing a practice in New Hampshire, and despite her commitment to and satisfaction with her work, he balks at a multi-year engagement while she remains at her post. The idea of a commuting marriage doesn’t cross anyone’s mind.


The issue is resolved when Sue tentatively approaches her supervisor, expecting condemnation for thinking of leaving so soon after her training has finished, and instead receives delighted congratulations. If memory serves me correctly, in one of the future books Sue will even stop nursing professionally as she raises a young family.


Back to 2010. I know a number of bright, accomplished and capable young women who are either working in the nursing field or training to do so. A number of them thought seriously of attending medical school, but in the end decided against that path. Why? Because while they are drawn to the medical arena and think they would find working in that area personally gratifying and meaningful, they also value being wives and mothers. The number of years and the dedication necessary for training as a physician, the debt incurred during schooling and the investment of hours needed to establish and maintain a practice discouraged them from pursuing that course. In a way that might horrify some of their mothers who came of age in the sixties and seventies, they are willing to trade prestige, responsibility and higher income for the ability to better balance family and work.


They have watched older sisters, aunts and neighbors attempt to have everything and in the process sometimes lose too much. Some of them were raised by mothers who chose to stay home with their own daughters, and in retrospect, they appreciate that decision and want to emulate it. Others, while proud of their mothers and knowing they were always loved, felt that they want to be more available to their own husbands and children than their mothers were.


There is one big difference between the girls I know and Sue Barton. Approaching adulthood in the 1920’s, Sue never thought of being a doctor. (If there are Sue Barton experts out there and I am wrong, I await correction). My daughters and their friends are encouraged and wooed by professions that Sue Barton would have had to claw her way into if she so desired. Many of their peers are among the large number of young women who are going to medical school and whose primary goal right now is being a doctor, a career they often plan to mix with marriage and children.


I don’t see girls entering nursing rather than medical school as “settling” or not being true to their inner selves. I think they are showing a level of self-awareness and maturity that bodes well for their success in all the areas they view as important in their lives. I look forward to watching those lives unfold.  

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