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The image of nursing: Not good enough for a feminist?


In the sixth of our series of blogs on the image of nursing, Sandy and Harry Summers wonder if nursing is a job for modern men and women? Or is it just a sad throwback, suitable only for females with few options?

About the author

This article was written by Sandy and Harry Summers authors of Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All At Risk


In 2008 a lawyer we know explained that a friend’s preschool-age daughter had a serious problem. The poor girl wanted to be a nurse! The girl’s mother, who had a PhD and was married to a physician, was aghast. She told her daughter that she should do the “feminist” thing and be a physician.

Too many people still believe that nursing is not good enough for smart modern women. And of course, a job with that image will not attract many men either. Nursing remains more than 90 percent female. In a 2005 Bernard Hodes Group survey of U.S. men in nursing, “eighty-two percent noted that nursing is plagued by common misconceptions that emphasize the view that nursing is a female profession dominated by women, that men are not suited to it because they are not caring, and that men in nursing are gay.”

These ideas hamper nursing recruitment, retention, and practice. In December 2005, the New Zealand Herald reported that “few secondary school pupils are interested in nursing.” Some career advisers viewed nursing as “less than ideal from a feminist or masculine perspective,” and one discouraged New Zealand Nurses Organization chief Geoff Annals’s own daughter from pursuing nursing instead of medicine.

Some recent media has portrayed nursing as a place for strong women. Anne Perry’s novels about Victorian era detective William Monk feature the formidable Nightingale-trained nurse Hester Latterly. Nurse Jackie’s lead character is an expert clinical leader, and perhaps the most notable recent example of an authoritative woman in nursing.

But much of the popular media created by “feminists” about modern health care has been hostile to nursing. These images appear even in children’s books. In Holly Hobbie’s Fanny (2008), a critical passage features a heroic female “physician” doll surrounded by glamorous assisting “nurse” dolls. Many feminists treat nurses with the same explicit condescension that women in general once experienced. Nurses are the new women!

Of course, globally popular television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and ER have also sought to promote women as health care leaders. ER did at least feature one fairly strong, reasonably bright female nurse character for most of the series, though she and the other nurses were rarely shown to be the clinical peers of the commanding female physicians.

But Grey’s, like House and other popular recent shows, has presented nurses as nasty losers who illustrate what women have to settle for if they are not bright and ambitious like the physician characters. Grey’s physicians Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang seethed in the show’s initial episodes after physician Alex Karev called Meredith a nurse. The female physicians’ priority is not to understand or collaborate with nurses, but to distinguish themselves from what they see as a surly, uneducated servant class.

Recent films reflect similar perspectives. Akeelah and the Bee (2006) portrayed the success of a precocious student from a troubled background and celebrated the idea that today’s promising girls, unlike their bitter mothers, do not have to settle for nursing.

Even the news media shares these assumptions. A December 2005 career column in the Chicago Tribune discussed how women can escape the “pink ghetto” of traditionally female jobs, including nursing, and move into “professional” careers like law and accounting. Of course, fewer nurses means more death. But as employment expert Ebenezer Scrooge once noted, death is a good way to “decrease the surplus population.”

Much of society and its media still regard nursing as women’s work that is not appropriate for men. Even the English language reflects this idea. The terms “matron” and “ward sister” remain common in some nations. And many people wrongly believe that men become nurses only if they’re not intelligent enough to be physicians.

Some media items have been open to the idea of men in nursing. In June 2006, the Belfast Telegraph published “I’m Not a ‘Male Nurse’ — I’m a Nurse and Proud of It,” which focused on “alcohol liaison nurse” Gary Doherty’s pioneering work handling alcohol-related problems at a north Belfast hospital.

Perhaps the best recent Hollywood portrayal of a man in nursing is Belize, the tough, skilled nurse in Mike Nichols’s 2003 film Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s play. As a 1980s AIDS nurse caring for power broker Roy Cohn, Belize returns Cohn’s abuse but also teaches him about his condition and provides him some comfort in his dying days.

In the film Meet the Parents (2000), Chicago nurse Gaylord Focker (yes, that’s his name) tries to persuade prickly ex-CIA agent Jack Byrnes to bless his marriage proposal to Jack’s daughter. Greg has comic misadventures, but he is a smart, resourceful nurse who endures real adversity to win the woman he loves. However, Meet the Fockers (2004) reveals that Greg’s early background reflects what Jack calls “mediocrity.” The film uses nursing as a vehicle to show that being good is as important as pursuing excellence.

New U.S. television shows premiering in 2009 introduced several male nurse characters. The best was Nurse Jackie’s Mo-Mo de la Cruz, a strong, witty, and skilled gay man who was Jackie’s best friend in nursing. But the show dropped the character after its first season, and the remaining male nurse characters are no substitute.

Other Hollywood television shows, including ER and Scrubs, have poked fun at “murses.” And male nurse characters have at times served as vehicles for “feminist” role reversal, obediently taking “orders” from powerful, expert female physicians.

Even some recruiting campaigns reflect traditional assumptions about men in nursing. These efforts stress that “real men” can be nurses, but they do not suggest that it’s wrong to look down on male nurses who are gay or effeminate; just don’t confuse us with them.

Our hope is that people will leave their stereotypes of nursing as lowly women’s work somewhere far from the hospital wards. We hear there is space at the morgue.

*Authors’ note

We use the term “physician” because using the more common “doctor” to refer only to those who practice medicine wrongly implies that they deserve more respect than others.

Nurses and others earn doctoral degrees and make contributions to health and society that are just as valuable as contributions made by physicians. So the honorific should be available to everyone with that degree or to no one.

We also note that “physician” has been used in this way in texts ranging from Shakespeare to recent issues of the British Medical Journal.


Readers' comments (44)

  • Well it is a predominantly female profession.

    it is looked down on by the media.

    The public perception of what nurses do and the qualifications they have is negligible.

    The pay and working hours are mostly rubbish.

    Nurse 'leaders' are not exactly inspirational!

    There is a very clear hierachial place below doctors (both traditionally and in the modern age).

    We are the whipping boys (erm i mean girls) of any government with reform on its mind.

    I don't know about doing the 'feminist' thing. I would say doing the 'right' thing by NOT becoming a nurse would be more accurate.

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  • You want suggestions.

    Oh I have a suggestion.

    Each ward needs a fully armed security guard named Spike to deal with raging angry and drunk visitors who cannot deal with the fact that mother is sharing her Nurse with 20 other patients. The Nurse did not create this horrid situation. And that if she doesn't prioritise her patients's needs exactly right she could be looking at a criminal charge. This means she has to get the airways clear, the blood up, etc etc before she can even think about dressings and commodes.

    The Nurse is forced to take on more patients than she can handle and even when she is working her ass off it can still take her hours and hours to see all of her patients. If the Nurse doesn't stay on top of that paperwork for all 20 of her patients she could be looking at a criminal charge/loss of registration. No she is not "ignoriong patients" because "she wants to do paperwork". Yes she hears your mother's call bell and it is ringing at the same time as 10 other more unwell patient's call lights are ringing. And if she leaves the seizure patient unattended while she answers those bells she could be looking at jail.

    Spike will help them understand. ;)

    I think some visitors need to be dealt with the same exact way that passengers who abuse airline stewardesses are dealt with. They should be jumped and cuffed by security.

    The patients would be a lot safer and better taken care of if the Nursing staff could get on with patient care rather than trying to reason with unreasonable visitors.

    Over the course of my career I have seen many patients die needlessly because their Nurse was tied up with her other patients' demanding visitors. Therefore something got missed or an error was made.

    When have you ever heard of a plane crashing because someone slapped a stewardess? Yet if one did slap a stewardess they would jumped and taken down by an undercover air marshall posing as a passenger.

    Why don't we protect Nurse's in this way? The stakes are higher.

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  • Nurse is a very feminine title. in german speaking countries the equivalent Krankenschwester has now been dropped in favour of Pflegefachfrau and Pflegefacmann - (Pflege = care, Fach = profession). In the 21st centuary maybe Healthcare Professional would be a more appropriate title to replace Nurse and then another label could be found for all the other professional groups in healthcare. Matron and Sister should also be replaced with other more suitable, more professionald and unisex titles. Schwester in German is a remanent of when nurses were nuns.

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  • continunation of above

    Nurse in French is someone who looks after the new born or a Nursery Nurse. Infirmier/Infirmière is the title for male/female nurses. Nurse, Sister, Matron no longe describe the job we do in the 21 centuary.
    If you tell someone French-speaking you are a nurse you are looked at in a very demeaning way.

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  • Anna Lincoln, that's the best post on here for ages, should be copied to all managers, all patients coming through the doors, and then to the goverment who are allowing this situation to occur!

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  • Anna Lincoln | 5-Nov-2010 0:39 am

    "Over the course of my career I have seen many patients die needlessly because their Nurse was tied up with her other patients' demanding visitors. Therefore something got missed or an error was made."


    The media needs to be informed of thisand notices put up in prominent places as well as informing employers, managers, politicians, the RCN and the NMC and anybody else involved. The nursing bodies and the media have a vital role to play in supporting nurses and educating the public and other hospital and workers in areas related to patient care.

    I recently travelled a very long distance to visit a friend dying in hospital, as it turned out on a ward I used to work on. I was extremely worried about her and only had the information that she, and several friends who had spoken with medical staff, had given me of which their understanding seemed sketchy. I was there as a friend and did not wish to intervene on a professional capacity even if only to get information but she and her friends thought that, as a nurse, and with her consent, I might get more accurate information at a professional level which I could then, with more time available to me, further explain and reassure her then she in turn could inform her friends.
    However, although I was there for several hours and voiced my request, the staff were too busy and not prepared to see me although the nurse did ask the house officer a couple of times. I respected this and took their decision as final. I think one of the problems was that she had many visitors and as she was in isolation they were concerned and quite a few of them wished to talk to the doctor taking much of his/her time and who was only able to give them little information. This scant information was then pooled together over a period of time and, to my horror, disseminated by e-mail to her friends (with her consent) but which obviously contained inaccuracies.

    Sadly my friend died not long after this and I never received the information I would have liked but beyond being able to comply to the wishes of my friend I have no regrets that my request was refused and have only respect for the staff looking after her who could say no. I was very concerned, yes, because I was only too familiar with her scenario but without the medical details beyond what she had told me from her own understanding and some questionable snippets from friends which I didn't take much notice of but this was no problem for me. As I said, I was only there to offer my support as a friend in any way I could. Perhaps because of the fact I am a nurse I better understood and was able to accept the viewpoint of the overworked staff who did not have time to speak to me.

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  • Anna you're so reactionary! And yet able to watch what you report above. I'm intrigued. What did you do about it and uphold your responsibility in the situation?

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  • I always had this image in my head that nursing was a noble profession, that the public held great affection and respect for nurses. What a fool I was! Since qualifying never have I ever experienced such a hard, demoralising and dehumanizing job. I say job because that is basically what it has become, I wanted to become a nurse because I genuinely wanted to care for and nurse sick people. What a fool I was.

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  • Anonymous | 9-Nov-2010 9:14 pm

    What a terrible attitude which cannot possibly help patients or even your colleagues. You must have realised this before you qualified - why did you continue?

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  • you obviously work in management, cannot possibly be a frontline worker.

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