Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Guest Post by Kelsie Champ
A Woman’s Duty
Caring has always been seen as a feminine quality. Women care for their homes, children, and husbands. Taking care of the sick also falls to the family’s women. Most accept this part of their lives as their womanly duty. But what happens to the idea of caring when women starts to get paid for it? Are they revered? As one often sees in women’s history of labor, the answer is no. Instead, as Susan Reverby writes about in her book Order to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing 1850-1945 their work is marginalized [Reverby, Susan M. Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing, 1850-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987. 1-36.]
Nursing really began in family homes. Here mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters stepped up to help take care of ailing family members [Reverby, 11]. Out of concern for those in their care, some women tried to learn as much as they could about healing and how to properly take care of people [Reverby, 12]. As the middle-class grew in wealth the women that were in need of money and who had come to be known as good healers, were employed to take care of other families ill members [Reverby, 11]. These women were often older, widowed, white woman from poor backgrounds [Reverby, 14]. And they were not considered healers but more of a higher domestic worker [Reverby, 15]. Early nurses had no set list of activities they had to do. The matron of the home they were employed in could have them doing everything from actually taking care of her patient to doing housework and cooking [Reverby,15]. Nurses working in the home could be held anywhere from high esteem from their community to some of the lowest members of their community [Reverby, 15].
Women working as nurses in people’s homes could be considered valued members of their community. But for those working in early hospitals this was never the case. Florence Nightingale said that hospital nurses “were too old, too weak, too drunken, too dirty, too stolid, or too bad to do anything else” [Reverby, 22]. This is not total truth. But what is true is that many hospitals of the time were far too disgusting to keep anybody then either the very devoted or the very desperate [Reverby, 28]. Nurses were usually also patients mobile enough to help care for other patients [Reverby, 27]. Not all nurses were “bad” people or patients. If a woman could stick it out long enough she could learn a great deal from experience and doctors [Reverby,32]. As in all things what actually took place in a hospital differed from place to place.
“Ordered to Care” is the best way to put some of America’s early nurses. Caring was tied to being a good women and Christian. But it was also long and grueling when her other duties had to get done as well. When disposable income became a part of an emerging middle class it’s not shocking many looked for help from others to do it for them. It is hard, however, to shake off a sense of duty. While nurses were paid to do this job it was still strongly attached to their identity as women. Because of this one can easily see the lack of respect that is often tied to the profession of nursing. And clearly not the respect that these women deserved for doing the hard job others did not want.