Daring to Care: American Nursing and Second-Wave Feminism

By Susan Gelfand Malka

University of Illinois Press 

Daring to Care is a commentary on how the experience of nurses has changed since the 1940s. In two periods – the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, and the mid-1980s through the present – nurses defined their profession, at first not in step with the 1960s feminist movement and, later, more compatible with second wave feminism. The earlier movement disagreed with the idea of women as specialists in caregiving, a subordinate role. It challenged the apron and rules about what a nurse’s family and figure ought to look like. Nursing students during the ’60s were somewhat at odds with the movement, reporting pride from the cap and apron as symbols of their training.

Imagine a new nurse in her graduation uniform crossing a crowd of students burning aprons. Nurses also reported dismay at the slogan “Why a nurse, why not a doctor?” A few male nurses entered the field, but not enough for the reverse slogan to catch on. The complaints of nurses in the 1960s were not about uniforms or a glass ceiling. Rules forbidding dating on campus, making-out in cars, and marrying were conflicts of interest at this time. And weight requirements were enforced in some hospitals until the late 60s. If one were over a certain size, the nurse couldn’t work. Interviews bring forth double standards that stuck in nursing longer than in most other fields that women worked.

In both movements education changed. Originally nurses’ training was unpaid, repetitive, and on the job. Even before the feminist movement this was being challenged. Students knew they were being exploited and head nurses thought patients would be better served by nurses with more formal education. When nursing colleges began, there was a schism between nurses with hospital diplomas and those with college degrees. This schism widened as some were allowed more responsibilities and as technology in the hospital increased. Later, degrees – such as Masters in Public Health and Nurse Practitioner – allowed for more diversity and autonomy in the application of nurses’ training, and probably added less contention than the first changes did. These created opportunities for nurses to lobby for greater rights and recognition.

More men entered the field, as well. Women who enjoyed applying traditionally feminine roles to nursing did so by choice. So it seems from Malka, second wave feminism was a more pliable context for nursing than the first wave, and the field has flourished since the 1980s, with nurses practicing passionately in innovative ways.

Review by Heather Irvine

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