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
This blunted, divided response at the nurses’ station might explain the double take when I saw Cipriano’s statement in my twitter feed, speaking out against the Muslim Ban and calling it outright unfair. It was a dissent from the diluted, neutral content—or worse, the silence—coming from leading healthcare organizations as the nation realized Trump was not, in fact, just a carnival barker. Surely Cipriano knew there would be backlash, and it’s no stretch to say she became one of my heroes that day, but the tweet surprised me for another reason, one that 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 primarily 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.”
Many of us, even the most left-leaning, are complicit in thinking nurses are meant to be helpful and not heard.
Over time I’ve listened to countless variations of the same story from veteran nurses–including the ones who’ve dubbed my generation the entitled progeny of the soccer-mom. It’s about a physician who waltzes into the room and expects everyone around him to stand and offer her chair. In another version he berates them over a late night page, or silences them as they advocate for a patient. Despite the incredible physicians I work with day-to-day, the antagonist has become a nameless, faceless figure in a white coat, looming around every corner of the hospital, reminding me we’re 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. Trump’s politics divide us, but the misogyny he embodies may be more powerful. He is the arrogant doctor, the dismissive hand, and the perverse patient—a reminder of what has held nurses back from speaking up to preserve health equity in this country.
Why is this so acutely relevant right now? And why, when Pamela Cipriano, president of the American Nurses Association, made a profoundly brave move, calling the Muslim ban unfair on Twitter, was I miffed when my liberal peers—championing physicians and politicians at every turn—hardly noticed? Because many of us (even the most left-leaning) are complicit in thinking nurses are meant to be helpful and not heard. Think about the pressing political issues of our day, though, and you will be hard pressed to find one that isn’t impacted by the work of a nurse. Insurance. Birth control access. Addiction services. Mental Health Care. Nurses who care for victims of mass shootings, vaccinate refugees when they arrive in the US, and decide if they’ll extend visitation to a gay spouse. We are at your side the day you come into the world, and likely the day you leave it. The delivery of healthcare is foundational to politics and in this country, nurses are the frontline of that delivery.
We are building a more diverse and resilient nursing workforce every day, but it will take a deliberate paradigm shift–one that asks more of the public–for professionals to move through the historical and systemic oppression 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 policy that threatens our personal, communal, and global health security.
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.”