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Peggy Wilmoth.

First Woman Deputy Surgeon General in the U.S. Army Reserve, First Woman Nurse to become Brigadier General and lead a medical brigade in the U.S. Army Reserve, and Educator.

"I'M FULL OF CONTRADICTIONS, IN A GOOD WAY."

published 6/27/20

Short Biography

Peggy Wilmoth ​is an exceptional leader, nurse, and educator. Currently, she serves as the Executive Vice Dean and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She served an extensive career in the U.S. Army Reserve where she served as the first nurse and female commanding general of a medical brigade with responsibility for wartime readiness of all the U.S. Army Reserve medical assets in the Southeastern United States, including Puerto Rico. She was also the first female and nurse to serve as Deputy Surgeon General for the Army Reserve. She has also taught over 40 years of nursing education. 

She loves exercising and strongly believes in 7 to 8 hours of sleep and proper nutrition. She also loves to garden, read, and spend time with her grandkids. When we read history, too often women's stories haven't been told, and Peggy told me she's working on an article about Florence Nightingale.

"You’ve got this meek image of this lady--but she is anything but meek! I mean, she paid her own way to go to the Crimea and she put up with a lot of stuff from the male physicians who did not want her there. She was a powerhouse and when you think about these women, long before women ever had the right to vote, doing these remarkable things, they’re just so inspiring so I like to read about women in history and what they went through to crack the glass ceiling for the rest of us." 

About Restructuring at the Dean's Office of UNC Chapel Hill School of Nursing

One of the challenges when you're leading change is communicating that change and getting others to buy into the change and also feel that it's important and that they are valued in the change that’s taking place. A lot of it is building relationships and being able to listen and hear what others are saying. I think sometimes leaders tend to talk too much but it's really important to listen and hear. I'm not always perfect at that but I try to listen to what others are saying and I have no problem with saying "I'm wrong," or "I'm sorry," or "I misunderstood."

I think that's another important behavior for leaders: to be able to admit when they may have gotten out over their skis a little bit too much. We heard General Milley apologize for his behavior on June 1st for going with the President to Lafayette Square; that's hard to do in that kind of a public position. The fact that he did it was important.

Patient with Healthcare Nurse

ON HER JOURNEY

The hardest—and best—part was actually doing it. Remember the era in which I was raised—and I was raised in a very traditional home—yet I was expected to go to college. I did the traditional thing being a nurse but that's what I wanted to do—I don't think that was a bad option. When I decided to get a master's degree, I was one of the first of my family to do that and later on I decided I should join the Army Reserve. I had always wanted to be an Army Nurse.

 

Breaking out of what others think you should do versus what you think and what you know inside of you is your passion that you need to do is often hard to do. I believe that many times women tend to allow themselves to be boxed in and stay in the boundaries of what others think they should do and we don't often break through and do what we think we should do for ourselves. The hardest part was actually writing on the dotted line and I still have the letter my father wrote me to tell me I was a wife and a mother and my place is at home. I obviously didn't listen! Being in the Army gave me so many more opportunities than I would've had as a civilian nurse alone.

I was selected by the Secretary of the Army to serve on a senior policy committee twice so I had the chance to shape a lot of what went on in the Army. I was the first woman to command a medical brigade in the history of the Army: only because there was an interim opportunity! The higher command called and asked me who I would recommend: I should have been more assertive,  but I said it like, "who else is better for the job than me?" Had I not advocated for myself even though I did it in a passive way, I wouldn't have gotten that role. So when the door opens and somebody gives you an opportunity, it's important to run through it!

To get to where I was, I took the hard jobs. Another time, a General Officer called and asked me to leave my command early to be his chief of staff. It required me to get out of my comfort zone and away from medical and into other elements of the Army. Thankfully he persisted and called me several times before I went “Duh, finally, someone is giving you an opportunity here you need to take it.” and I did, and learned so much! I had to completely get out of my comfort zone but again that's how you grow and learn - take risks.

Another instance of opportunity: while I was on faculty at UNC Charlotte, a postcard came across my desk to apply for a policy fellowship. Something about it resonated; and lo and behold, I applied and ended up working in the office of the Speaker of the House, the Honorable Nancy Pelosi, for a year. A phenomenal opportunity to watch a phenomenal female leader up close. Again, I took a risk and it was hard work but well worth it.

Army Boots

How do you see the field of women in nursing and Healthcare changing in the next 10 years?

Hopefully there will be more diversity in the workforce. There are a lot more mid-career people that are moving into nursing because of the vast opportunities in our profession so it's not just twenty-something young people who are going to college and just becoming a nurse.

But I also hope that nurses will begin to see that making policy, whether its working on climate change, working in your city/county government health policy, working at the Department of Health and Human Services making policy at the center, is where you can really make a difference. It’s a matter of getting nurses to believe they are the right ones to step up and speak out and too often they believe that isn’t their position but it is.

How do you see the world in relation to gender equality in promoting women in the workplace in 15 years?

We have to be willing to do the hard work and to take the hard jobs to get there. There is a really good book to read; Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World by Linda Tarr-Whelan.


It talks about when corporate boards or other large organizations end up with 30% of women on their boards, they tend to make more money, they are much more successful, and they become much more responsive to the needs of others. This notion of women being 30% of senior leadership of Fortune 500 corporate boards is a critical percent and we’re not there yet. We’ve got alot of work to do, so hopefully in the next 15-20 years we’ll get closer to that 30%, but it’s all about taking the hard jobs. 

Her Advice to You 

When someone opens the door or cracks open a door, walk through it! That’s true in any path of life, you need to believe in yourself, believe in your abilities, don't let anybody put you in a box, and follow your passion and your dreams no matter what.

Have a B.H.A.G. -- Bold, Hairy, Audacious Goal!

Biggest Honor

The biggest ones actually are when I've had students or mentees come back and thank me for helping them or guiding them or opening a door for them. That really is the biggest honor.

Thank You, Family

Never ever ever regret spending time with your kids; that is your real legacy. Remember that. Your family is your long-term. No one's going to put on your tombstone: great leader, hard worker, worked 12 hours a day. They'll write the kind of person you were along the way and the legacy that you leave behind, family.

Passing it Forward

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

 

If you don’t risk, if you don’t step out, if you don’t advocate for yourself or push yourself, you’re going nowhere.