Viewpoint: Stop treating nurses like selfless mothers

Advocating for better working conditions is an especially challenging task for nurses, as they are battling a long history of sexism and false notions about the profession, Stephen Mihm, PhD, wrote in an op-ed published Sept. 16 in Bloomberg.

"A century's worth of sentimental blather about nursing as selfless women's work has left Americans ill-equipped to grasp the severity of the current crisis," said Dr. Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia in Athens.

The modern nursing profession ties back to the Civil War, when women volunteered to care for wounded soldiers, he said. In the decades after, formal nurse training schools gained prominence, and few — if any — admitted men. Typically, female nursing students spent two to three years training on the job in hospitals and lived in dormitories that were run like convents. After graduation, few went into hospital nursing, as most of the work was done by students — who were unpaid, according to Dr. Mihm.

"This arrangement helped cement a public perception that nursing was less a conventional job and career than a selfless endeavor akin to motherhood," he wrote.

Now, amid prevalent staffing shortages, nurses strikes are gaining traction nationwide. Nurses are not just fighting for better working conditions and pay, but also public support, according to Dr. Mihm.  

"The history can help us understand why, unlike workers at Amazon.com or Starbucks Corp., nurses must confront decades of sexist attitudes that have condemned them for being anything other than tireless, self-sacrificing caregivers," he said. 

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