Saturday, March 6, 2010

Waitresses, sex workers, mothers, child care workers....all are included in the welcoming arms of a feminist ethos that values the work of women in society. Women in historically male occupations such as lawyers, physicians, business managers, and such are allowed entry, too.
But not nurses. Why?
Misogynistic stereotypes of dumb nurse-sexpots abound in Halloween costumes , television , and even in public service announcements for lung cancer . It's pretty plain that the profession takes its hits for being female-dominated (93% of nurses are women), intimate, and, in many ways, downright unpleasant . The work of nurses is the traditional work of women: personal, caring, and intellectual simultaneously, without a great deal of prestige or recognition. Nursing embodies precisely the sort of roles that should fire up feminists' advocacy engines.
Yet feminist media do not feature articles about support and empowerment of nurses, the largest group of health care providers. A search of, for one, revealed a smattering of articles, mostly about lay midwives (who are not nurses) and breastfeeding. My subscriptions to Bitch and Ms. do nothing to make me feel included in feminism as a professional. As an artist, a woman, a wife, a sexual being, and a daughter - yes. But nothing about life as a nurse.
Nurses' workplace horrors rival those of the most mistreated workers anywhere. We face high rates of work-related injury, suboptimal staffing and mandatory overtime (in addition to the less-avoidable weekend, night and holiday shifts and exposure to hazardous body fluids and chemicals). If feminists supported the 3 million registered nurses in the United States, would it remain a dirty secret that 69 - 85% of nurses report having experienced sexual harassment (mostly by physicians) on the job? (see Valente, 2004).
Nurses are, in many ways, the solution to health care reform. Why aren't feminist organizations telling the public that, for example, better funding for educating advanced practice nurses (APRN) to provide primary care would save health care dollars? APRN students in Seattle undertook a media campaign when the University of Washington increased their tuition to equal that of medical students, but feminist magazines and websites missed the story entirely. No matter that nurses pay our own way through graduate school because of lack of federal funding. No matter that medical residencies receive 375 federal dollars for every 1 dollar spent on nursing residencies (despite the much greater numbers of nurses needed in health care and the 27% rate of one-year turnover among new nursing graduates.)
Even the willingly ignorant cannot help but hearing of the critical nursing shortage . Much of the shortage is attributed to nursing faculty shortages caused by persistently low faculty salaries. A graduate education in nursing does not bring with it proportional increases in compensation. Most nurses remain educated in 2-year community college programs because there is a lack of drive for better-educated professional nurses, even though research shows better patient and organizational outcomes when nurses have more education. Nursing' recent emphasis on doctoral education for advanced practice nurses was met with opposition from the medical community, who apparently consider highly educated nurses a threat.
So, in nursing we have an underfunded, under-appreciated caring profession that gets little recognition and encounters active opposition to efforts to advance our status. Ninety-three percent of us are women. We place ourselves in both physical and psychological danger to nurse. We swim upstream to advance our educations. We work strange hours, skipping meals and breaks because employers do not staff adequately. We are customarily called by our first names, but we call our physician colleagues "doctor." Resistance in the hierarchical systems that exist in health care settings is met by firings, harrassment, and legal action for nurses.
What about this makes the nursing profession worth ignoring to feminists? Are feminists, too, buying into the stereotype of nurse as feckless doctor-servant? Is the whole nursing mess so hard to manage intellectually and emotionally that even the brave and smart are afraid to enter? Or are nurses viewed as so complicit in our own oppression that feminism can hardly be bothered?
Whichever, it's time feminism started paying attention.
Valente, S. M., Bullough, V. (2004). Sexual harassment of nurses in the workplace, Journal of Nursing Care Quality, 19(3), 234-241.