It’s the largest profession in healthcare. It’s the largest female profession in America. But despite its tremendous importance and impact, most people know very little about contemporary nursing. Public ignorance of the present-day profession, however, pales in comparison with ignorance of nursing’s history. How many of us know that the development of nursing as the first secular profession for respectable women was a major feminist achievement? Or that Florence Nightingale was not, in fact, the “founder” of modern nursing? Or that nurses played a key role in developing the American hospital system, as nursing historian Sioban Nelson has documented in her recent book Say Little, Do Much? How many of us know about the role of nursing in the development of public health and care of the chronically ill and poor? Most important, how many of us recognize that society’s persistent devaluation of nursing–reflected today in the prejudices of many newly liberated female physicians, health policy experts and journalists–is a legacy of longstanding, socially enforced subordination to medicine?
Katrin Schultheiss, an assistant professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is one of a handful of non-nurses who understand what the profession has to teach us about the complex process of female emancipation, as well as about the development of modern healthcare systems. She recounts the tortuous history of how the “professionalization” of nursing in France coincided with anticlericalism and the secularization of the field. Although her story focuses on the forty-year period from 1880 to 1922 and takes place in one country, the gender dilemmas Schultheiss explores have hampered nurses’ ability to care for patients in healthcare systems around the globe, including in the United States.
Her tale begins with the advent of France’s Third Republic and follows political reformers who attacked clerical authority as they tried to modernize the healthcare system. Until that time, nursing outside the home was typically provided by convent-trained nuns. Modern hospital reformers recognized that nursing required more nurses with more systematic education, but therein lay the problem. Since knowledge is power, the acquisition of knowledge was inevitably a challenge to authority.
Physicians, as men, did not welcome women on their terrain. As members of a developing profession–one that did not then command the prestige it enjoys today–doctors were also adamant about defending their field “from irregular or illegal practitioners.”
Even doctors who recognized the need for a more educated nursing work force and who wanted to laicize the care of the sick would not countenance the education of nurses if, in the process, nurses attained the kind of knowledge and stature that would allow them to demand greater authority and autonomy in both the workplace and society. So even lay nursing had to be constructed in altruistic terms that stressed not nurses’ knowledge but their virtue. As Schultheiss writes, “As long as nursing was clearly understood to be a custodial, maternal, or charitable occupation, and as long as nurses were regarded as the social, economic, and educational peers of the patients, rather than the doctors, there would be no ambiguity about who held medical authority within the hospital.”
In Paris, nursing nuns, while obedient and devoted, presented a problem to medical reformers. “The very existence of an autonomous community of women called into question the hierarchy of power within municipal institutions,” Schultheiss notes. Happily, secular authorities found lay nurses, as one reformer commented, to be “infinitely more subordinate than the religious nurses and more scrupulous in the strict execution of doctors’ orders.”