I am a psychiatric nurse in Portland, Oregon, and when I walked onto my unit on November 9th last fall, I expected nothing short of collective outcry. Instead there were restrained and unsatisfying exchanges of commiseration…and even some gloating.
Did you hear one of the girls wore a safety pin yesterday?
Yes, so inappropriate. Should I have worn my “I vote right,” pin? I’m starting to call them the generation of soccer mom children—when they don’t get their way they think the world should stop.
Before the month of November, I incorrectly assumed that all nurses, like teachers, stand for equity. It only took a few months in the field and the election to set me straight. Nurses are people. People with jobs who make decisions: personal over collective, security over humanity, us over them.
The current political climate only fuels the interclass, intergenerational tension among our workforce, and last fall it manifested as a blunted response at the nurses’ station. It was a silent tension, showing up in carefully executed deflections that made it clear where one stood on any given issue. This is all to say I did a double take when I saw Pamela Cipriano, President of the American Nurses Association’s, statement regarding the Muslim Ban in my twitter feed last winter. She took a bold stance and spoke out against the ban, calling it outright “unfair” in January. It was a dissent from the diluted, neutral content — and worse, the silence — coming from leading healthcare organizations as the nation realized quickly Trump was not, in fact, just a carnival barker. Surely Cipriano knew there would be backlash (and indeed there was) but by and large her statement fell on deaf ears— and it embodies a more insidious problem.
To be a nurse in the 20th and 21st centuries is to know, intimately, what it’s like to live under a patriarchy. The profession oppressed, in thought and in gesture, because it has been the work of women. Picture the stereotypes of nurses in our society: maternal to sex object, Madonna to whore. Thanks to the worst of this kind of thinking, nursing is, as former Dean of Yale School of Nursing, Donna Diers, once put it, “a metaphor for sex, as having seen and touched the bodies of strangers nurses are thought of as willing and able sexual partners.”
Over time I’ve listened to countless variations of a story from veteran nurses ( including the ones who’ve dubbed my generation the entitled progeny of the soccer-mom). The antagonist is a physician who waltzes into the room and expects everyone around him to stand and offer her chair. In another version he berates someone over a late night page, or silences them without a thought as they advocate for a patient. Despite the many physicians out there who defy this stereotype, he has become a nameless, faceless figure in a white coat, looming around every hospital corner reminding us we are expected to be submissive.
This is all to say that when the words “grabbed her by the pussy” flashed across CNN runners in living rooms throughout America last fall — nurses, whoever they voted for, surely, somewhere inside, were pissed. Donald Trump is the arrogant doctor, the dismissive hand, and the perverse patient — a reminder of everything has held nurses back from speaking up to preserve health equity in this country. His politics divide us, surely, but the misogyny he represents may prove to be a more powerful catalyst for our unity.
Why is this so acutely relevant right now? And why, when Pamela Cipriano made an unprecedented move, was I miffed when my liberal peers — championing physicians, scientists, and politicians at every turn — hardly noticed? Because many patients (even the most left-leaning) are complicit in thinking nurses are meant to be helpful and not heard. Intersectional feminism is flush with new energy, but when it comes to our health and the issue of our mortality we maintain a certain tepidness, a certain blindness. We remain in the shallow end of our radicalism because it’s safe. Or because facing our mortality renders us too vulnerable. Or (and this is most likely) because patriarchy is so engrained into the medical model we can’t even see it, and as a result we’ve stopped noticing the implicit sexism that defines our experiences as patients.
Patients have as much of a stake in this as the nurses who care for them. The delivery of healthcare is foundational to politics, and in this country nurses are the frontline of that delivery. Their oppression translates to higher insurance costs, compromised public health security, and preventable medical errors that result in over 400,000 deaths annually.
We are building a more diverse and resilient workforce every day, but it will take a deliberate paradigm shift — one that requires more of the public — for us to move through the historical and systemic sexism tied up in our work. We can start by acknowledging the unprecedented moves the ANA has made and will continue to make in regards to public policies that threaten individual, communal, and global health.
We need nurses’ insight today, for the precise ways it already mends us, and for navigating the collective trauma we now face as a divided nation. As Adrienne Rich said, “It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful.”
Sana Goldberg is a psychiatric nurse, and the founder of Nightingale. Her book, How to Be a Patient comes out in 2019 (Harper Wave). Artwork by Livien Yin.