Obstacle or Opportunity? One Woman’s Legacy of Fearless Living

If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere. ~Frank Clark.

Faith sees the opportunity – doubt sees the obstacles. What you see is what you get. ~James MacDonall

Her note read “My dear, your idea is so absolutely mad that it must be thoroughly sane. Come and talk it over!”

Such was the spirit of Elsie Maud Inglis – entrepreneur, war heroine, philanthropist, physician, suffragist – and serial finder of opportunity when obstacles loomed large.

She was famous for her outlook on life – that obstacles are simply a way to show what you’re made of, what you can overcome, what you can accomplish even in the face of them. And because of that outlook and her fabulously fearless nature, her life was … spectacular.

But you’ve probably never heard of her, and as this is Women’s History Month, that seems like something we should remedy. Don’t you think?

Elsie: A Girl Can Be A … What?

Elsie was born at the foot of the Himalayas in 1864. By her teens, she and her family had relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland – where she was given the same educational opportunities that a boy would have gotten. (Of course, at the time that was fairly rare.)

Already showing herself to be incredibly smart, dedicated, generous and a wee bit spunky, Elsie decided that – no matter how much harder it would be for a girl – she would become a doctor.

So – off she went to medical school. She beat the odds and graduated, got her license and trained in two hospitals in London, including a maternity hospital.

She returned to Edinburgh, a fully-credentialed, practicing (and well-respected) doctor. But she soon learned that other newly-graduated female doctors were not so lucky; as a class, women were ineligible for residency at the Royal Infirmary and the maternity hospital in Scotland.

In other words, if you were a new MD in Scotland who just happened to be a woman, you had nowhere to train.

Elsie saw that obstacle looming large in front of so many of her fellow female doctors.

But she viewed it as an opportunity.

So, in 1901, at the ripe old age of 37, she opened her own hospital.

The Hospice: hospital opened by Elsie Inglis

Partly motivated by the “generally appalling care”  that women received at the time, her all-female-doctored hospital served women and children, most of them quite poor. The hospital (called “The Hospice”) significantly improved the care given to the women of Edinburgh – and because it was fully staffed by women, newly-minted female doctors finally had a place to train.

And of course, The Hospice made history as the only maternity training center run by women in Scotland.

That alone would be enough to leave a lasting mark on society. (And it was, because that hospital was renamed “Elsie’s” and operated in her honor until 1992.)

But we’re just getting started.

Elsie the Suffragist

At the time, Scottish women couldn’t vote. And while before she opened The Hospice Elsie had not been involved in the suffrage movement, by 1906 (she was 42 or so) she had positively immersed herself in securing women the right to vote. In fact, she helped organize the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and remained their Honorary Secretary until her death (more on that later).

Elsie Maud Inglis

But she didn’t just hold positions in this newly-discovered political movement. She threw herself into speaking, organizing, and leading and empowering other women – not just handing out leaflets and being involved on the periphery.

Her ability to empower other women was on full display one night as she assigned women to speak at various schoolhouse meetings – a meeting that was later recalled by a volunteer:

At last she turned to me and said, ‘And you will speak with Miss X. at ——’

I was horrified. ‘But I must explain,’ I said; ‘I am quite “new.” I don’t speak at all. I have never spoken.’ …

There was just the jolliest, cheeriest laugh and, [Elsie replied] ‘Oh, but you must speak.’

That was all. And the remarkable thing was that, though I had sworn to myself that I would never utter a word in public without proper training, I did speak that night. It never occurred to me to refuse. Confidence begat confidence.

Such was the way that Elise looked at the world, and her fellow female travelers.

No training? No matter. No experience? No matter. There was work to be done, and if you were willing – by God you were able enough.

Impossible was simply not an option.

Elsie spoke at hundreds of meetings, organized hundreds of women, and cut her organizing and leadership teeth within the suffragist movement.

Those relationships, and that experience, would soon come in handy.

Elsie Goes to War

Elsie was 50 years old the year that WWI broke out. The war diverted attention away from women’s suffrage, but Elsie again saw it as an opportunity – both for female doctors and for the suffrage movement.

Elsie Maud Inglis, around 1916

On August 4 war was declared; on the 10th she presented the idea of mobile hospitals staffed entirely by women (which would become known as Scottish Women’s Hospitals) to a meeting of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The female-staffed units would serve on the front lines – proving that women were just as capable as men.

And once those ladies got ahold of that idea, “nothing was able to stop its growth.”

But there was just one little problem.

When she suggested creating the units on the Western Front, the British War Office flatly refused the idea, famously rejecting her offer by saying “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

There are no accounts of her reaction… (but it had to have been epic, right?)

Undeterred, she reached out to France, which quickly took her up on the offer.

Now she needed funding. So she contacted the Scottish Red Cross. But they surprised her by refusing support, saying that because of their relationship with the British War Office they would have “nothing to say to a hospital staffed by women.”


So she rolled up her sleeves and used those suffragette-honed-public speaking skills in public speeches asking for funding… and she was rewarded with both broad public support and enough funds to to get started.

“Saint” Elsie

Elsie and what would soon be called the “Scottish Women’s Hospitals” deployed to Serbia, where her pattern of finding her way around (and through) obstacles continued on the front lines.

Elsie Inglis with female doctors and nurses of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

It didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, one ambassador spoke of Elsie by saying “In Scotland she became a doctor, in Serbia she became a saint.”

Stories abound of her resourcefulness in the field – how she fixed problems, provided support, saved lives – and relished in all of it. At one point, a shell exploded over her head as she was running from one building to the next. She turned to a colleague, blue eyes flashing and said “My dear, we are having experiences, aren’t we?”

Eventually, when the hospital’s territory was overtaken, she and the rest of the staff were captured. (Yet another obstacle.) She was invited to return home – to abandon the hospital and her patients and go back to Scotland. She refused, choosing to remain with her staff to provide care for the sick and the wounded.

Elsie with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals doctors and nurses (and their dog)


Honestly, there are too many stories of her generosity, courage, and valor to share here.

But by the end of the war in 1918, there were 14 Scottish Women’s Hospitals in France, Serbia, Russia, Salonica and Macedonia. Of the nearly 1500 personnel, only 20 were men. Elsie and the hundreds of women that worked with her and under her command saved tens of thousands of lives.

And hundreds – if not thousands – of women found a home for their talents because of what Elsie dared to achieve.

I imagine Elsie would have broken even more barriers had she not died of cancer at 52 years old – the day after she returned home from her service abroad. And even then, as it became clear to her that her death was near, she looked upon that ultimate obstacle as opportunity – saying “It is grand to think of beginning a new work over there!”

You … Can Unleash Your Inner Elsie

Elsie was a complete and total badass.

But what made her so extraordinary wasn’t some special talent that she had that you and I don’t.

It was her outlook.

Her determination, her resourcefulness, her stubbornness – and her belief that obstacles were there to provide an entertaining challenge for her to overcome.

That’s what made her extraordinary.

Not her degrees, or her pedigree, or her family, or her money.

Her heart.

And guess what? You’ve got heart, too.

What if you saw road blocks before you as encouragement to take a different, less-traveled-and-probably-more-difficult-but-also-more-interesting path?

Because you can do that, you know.

What if you saw the obstacles before you as opportunities to show yourself what you’re capable of? As the chance to accept the challenge to do something amazing. Something brave. Something courageous.

Something, as Elsie said, “so absolutely mad that it must be thoroughly sane.” 

And yes, of course – we don’t all have the kinds of challenges Elsie faced to test ourselves against. But that doesn’t make our challenges any less important.

How to fit everything into your busy life is an obstacle.

Being told you’re too young, too old, too experienced or not experienced enough – all are obstacles.

Being told that there’s no way to win this red district, or to find a candidate for that one, to raise money for this cause, or to get enough votes for that one.

All of them, obstacles.

It’s what you choose to do when you’re standing in front of those obstacles that matters.

So, friend.

How can you unleash your inner Elsie? What obstacle can you set her loose to tackle?

How can you let her show you what you’re really made of?

But more importantly – will you let her show you?

I sure hope so.

Because you’re made of more than you think you are.

Let’s get to work.

Actions for the week of March 4, 2019

Tuesday: Hands Off SNAP. For Real, This Time.

After failing to take SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits away from 750k people through legislation, the Trump administration is trying to do the same thing by administrative regulation. (That approach – using executive powers as an end-run around Congressional approval of his policies – kindof rhymes with declaring a national emergency, doesn’t it?)

You might remember that we’ve discussed adding work requirements to SNAP benefits before. It’s just a bad idea.

First off, the majority of people who can work (non-disabled, working-age) who obtain SNAP don’t stop working.

Second, fraud and waste just aren’t a problem with SNAP. Back in 1993, the “trafficking” rate was 4 cents on the dollar – now, due to increased oversight, it’s 1 cent. (Source? The USDA.) And “95% of all federal dollars spent on the program goes directly to benefits.”

Third, contrary to the GOP talking points, there’s little evidence that work requirements actually lift people out of poverty.

So really, this whole regulation is about reinforcing talking points … and being mean.

Democrats have already vowed opposition (Democratic Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow heads up the Ag committee, and has been a vocal opponent) – but the best way to keep this rule from taking effect is to actually lobby against it!

What’s great is that you can lobby against the rule by commenting online at regulations.gov. The Government has to consider all unique comments – so please personalize your comments and don’t just cut and paste what someone else has already said. So, I’m sad to say that I can’t give you a script, lest our comments all be batched and sorted together. You can riff off of the points I’ve made above, but speak from the heart, and think of the hungry folks you’re helping!

Comment by clicking HERE.

Wednesday: Write A Letter to Support Gun Reform

March for Our Lives-DC is taking on a super interesting project – encouraging people like you and me to write letters to our Senators to support S. 42 / H.R.8, the universal background checks bill that passed the House on 2/27.

If you send your handwritten letter to March for Our Lives-DC (March For Our Lives GW, 800 21st Street, NW, Suite 505, Washington, DC 20052) they will deliver them by hand on March 25 when they will go to Congress to lobby for change.

For you moms of young kiddos, this is a great handwriting practice exercise! For those of you with local MOMS chapters, this is an easy and fun project to undertake while folks are milling around before a meeting.

You can learn more about their project at their website HERE.

Thursday: Call Your GOP Senators and Urge Them to Vote Against Emergency Declaration

Even Mitch McConnell sees the writing on the wall – that’s right folks! It looks like the Senate will pass the resolution blocking Trump’s emergency declaration. But that does not mean that we let up.

Trump will veto the resolution, and it will get kicked back to the House and Senate for a veto override vote. That means we need 2/3 of the House and Senate to vote against this completely bonkers vanity project – which he’s trying to build by tearing down the constitutional separation of powers.

So we’ll need to keep up – and ramp up – the pressure so that our Senators know how serious we are about this, and that we expect them to do their job.

On Thursday and on Monday, there’s a national call-in that’s sponsored by Public Citizen, so if you call on those days you will be joined by many others.

Don’t know what your Senators have said about the declaration? 538 has a great tracker, so you can see where your Senators stand – even if they’ve been dodging the issue. Click here for that resource.

Script: Hi, my name is ___ and I’m a constituent at ___. I’m calling because I’m concerned about Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a wall that Congress refused to fund. I know the Senator understands the Constitution, and separation of powers. How is (s)he planning to vote on the resolution that will void the national emergency declaration? If (s)he hasn’t made a decision yet, what has to happen before (s)he feels comfortable making a call one way or the other? (Add personal anecdote about how many pals you have that feel similarly, or if you’re a Missouri resident, how you know that a “constitutional conservative” like Hawley or Blunt would surely not support such a massive power grab from the executive…right?)

Friday: I Support the Girls

Here’s yet another powerful story of a woman hearing about a need – and deciding to step up and do something about it. I Support the Girls was born when a woman who had lost a massive amount of weight was getting new bras. As she was getting fitted she wondered aloud – what should I do with all of my old bras? The woman helping her said – homeless women need bras.

And that was that.

Now I Support The Girls provides donated used/new bras and menstruation products to unhoused women across the country – and around the world. It’s a great organization with a great mission and wonderful story. Check them out, and when you’re cleaning out your closet or cupboards (I know some of you are sparky joy and getting Tidy!) consider donating: https://isupportthegirls.org/get-involved/providing-essentials/

P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S: Yes! Some of you have asked if I write for a living, and the answer is “I sure do!” Visit www.mhornish.com to learn more.

P.P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every e-mail. (Really! I really do!) We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

Have a thought? A small deed to suggest? Share it here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s