Anne Crowther’s Why Women should be Nurses and not Doctors compare the differences between female doctors and nurses with respect to a classic example of two of the most prominent figures in their respective fields: Florence Nightingale and Sophia Jex-Blake. The paper starts with the author describing how Nightingale, on return from the Crimean war and already a legend in her field, set up the Nightingale school for nurses. Even though the school was never considered a success, it was able to keep up a good reputation in accordance to the reputation she had made amongst the public. Through the article, the author intends on drawing valid comparisons between the two groups of medical professionals. Even though she is slightly biased against women as doctors, the author claims that, through the course of researching for this paper, she encountered many reasonable comparisons which have been depicted in the paper.
It was not easy initially for Florence Nightingale and her team of hand-picked nurses. It was a time of women in the different fields of housekeeping and not particularly in medicine. Medical fields were male dominated in the latter half of the 19th century UK and nursing was always pictured with the popular image of Florence Nightingale1. Florence Nightingale, had by then, established that nursing was a fitting profession for women and might go on to take up significant and important positions in many leading hospitals and administrations. However, Jex-Blake was on a mission to prove that being practicing doctors was no less respectable than being a nurse. In an era where women enjoyed superior positions in the social strata, both ladies adopted strategies that reflected the positions they enjoyed. They had outstanding public personalities and made very good use of the political connections they had, eventually drawing out campaigns that were able to invoke awe in people of both sexes. However, it goes beyond any doubt that in this regard, Florence Nightingale enjoyed a finer recognition. No woman doctor has been able to instantly trigger off memories as has Florence Nightingale’s picture of the Lady with the Lamp.
There was a period of societal injustice towards woman towards the last few decades of the 19th century where many women were discouraged and denied admissions to medical schools. Jex-Blake lead this struggle and with the help of a few well connected ladies, she was able to found a medical school for women in Edinburgh. Many women joined in, attending classes, less for the degree and more for support of the movement. Many prominent women, who held high status in society served on the school board and with the connections they had, they were able to take care of finances, fees, legal costs etc. Even though Florence Nightingale wasn’t a member of the nursing staff, she did come out to support the institution but was careful not to lock horns with the men in a male dominated profession by equating nursing to feminism. This resulted in a lot of insecurity among the men in the profession and many of Jex-Blake’s companions had to face the consequences in the form of riots and controversy2. However, for a feminine driven nursing, Florence Nightingale and her group of nurses didn’t have to face any such hardships in reconciling with the then present ideas of femininity.
However, there was a downside to this arrangement. Many young nurses, mostly young women, were subjugated to inferior positions in the hospitals, positions usually under the command of a male doctor. There was a notion that women doctors never posed a threat to male doctors while sometimes the nurses did. This perhaps led to a belief that among women working in the medical profession, it was the nurses who were more revered than the doctors. The author believes that women doctors had the potential to threaten any male doctor. But, since the number of women doctors was restricted, they were always relegated from any group they could be a part of and denied access to important positions in society. Through some documented references, the author goes on to describe that another reason why there was hostility against women was because of their ability to unionize. There was also a threat from women oriented departments such as obstetrics and gynecology. Many women doctors appealed higher to many other women compared to male doctors leading to rise in tensions and mistrust. It was also a profession that paid particularly well, and many women found this as a means to get financially independent. However, towards the end of the 19th century, with the growing economy and money available to spend, there weren’t enough women in medicine to put up any considerable threat.
The initial studies taken up by doctors, men and women, are the same and are primarily theoretical. Experimental or practical experience is usually gained once the practice begins or as a hospital resident. Many opponents look down upon women taking part in such kinds of activities as they feel that this is detrimental to the task they were designed to perform – reproduction. Dr. Charles Waterhouse, a contemporary of Jex-Blake, goes on to explain what his views on life and the whole issue were. According to him, educating women to such high levels reduced their capacity for motherhood and matrimony just like a plant farmed artificially, loses its natural use. But on the other hand, Dr. Waterhouse looks upon Nightingale as the quintessence of womanhood since he believed that nursing was the role women were cut out to do. Waterhouse also assumed that trained nurses were perfect spouses in any marriage while spinsters turn out good in caring for the sick. His arguments are based on the assumed instincts women in this profession possessed.
According to the author, a woman’s penchant towards nurturing and caregiving preceded her sensitive nature as seen by Florence Nightingale’s heroism among soldiers at war. The author feels that this should be an inspiration for even women doctors with respect to steeling themselves up in order to save lives by overcoming the different horror death presents itself with. Apparently there is still no concrete agreement that lays to rest the reason why women doctors were subjected to women and children and that nurses had to perform the most arduous of male oriented tasks. Through statements made by different prominent personalities, the author goes on to describe how suitable women nurses find their professions with respect to handling the male body. The author attributes the differences in attitudes towards women doctors and nurses to a kind of sexual stereotyping. Florence Nightingale had set high standards and morality for women in the nursing profession, ensuring they had and maintained a ‘ladylike’ appearance all the time. This kind of stereotyping persists even today as can be seen from various movies and television series. Even though women doctors do find a place in popular fiction, their roles are never as dominant as that of the men. Nurses were revered as more of a mother-figure, having a right to handle the male body in sickness that went unquestioned.
Thus, while nurses adorned many roles such as mothers, future wives and sometimes as objects of desire, women doctors lived independently, surviving on independent income. The only feminism they enjoyed was due to some of Jex-Blake followers who were very active in campaigning for them5. Even though the author feels nurses never completely fitted the stereotyping they were subjected to, just as Florence Nightingale has to adopt the different images the public had set for her, a vast majority of the nurses had to accept the stereotyping they had been subject to. Some relief from this came during the onset and through the course of the Second World War. Even though many countries had strong views against women in medicine, they started taking in women doctors through special quotas. The author feels that in recent times, there has been reconciliation between doctors and the nurses compared to the viciousness with which they would treat each other.
Effects of Women Practitioners in Healthcare:
Being a healthcare professional, I feel that it is absurd having discrimination based on sex. One should understand a lady doctor has had to go through the same kind of training as any other male doctor has. Even the clinic duties they have conducted are entirely the same with the males. Yes, there might be areas such as gynecology and obstetrics where many patients would prefer to be treated by women, thereby leading to a vast number of women doctor specializing in these fields. However, that must not take away the qualification and experience a woman doctor has in cardiology or endocrinology, both highly specialized departments. They might be able bring a calming and soothing effect to a surgery table, instill confidence in a patient during clinic consultation, might be able to connect with women and children on a more profound level. This is essential being a part of any health care institution.
It is possible that female doctors spend more time with their patients and there are studies which corroborate this. They can also be more encouraging and assuring when it comes to dealing with patients. But more often than not, patients react differently to women in white coats. Women are more assertive with their patients than many of their male colleagues. They interrupt more, ask more questions and have always a better diagnosis as a result of this. They invariably prescribe the right medication and have reported to have referred more patients for further tests. However, in terms of productivity, male doctors are more productive just because of the more number of patients that they treat.
The discrimination between male and female doctors has diminished over the years. However, it is still evident that many women practitioners get a lowly hourly wage compared to male doctors. Studies have also shown that over a year, they earn up to $50,000 less. However whatever studies have been conducted citing the advantages of having female practitioners in a hospital, they should not be over interpreted. While it is a good practice to take time and ask patients more questions, this risks the possibilities of a patient not returning for over a month. Thus, the hospitals must also take into consideration what seems more profitable and at times women doctors might not be the right answer.
Besides this, there is the possibility of women taking long leaves of absence to start families. Besides this, when these doctors balance their professional lives with motherhood, they tend to spend less hours at work. Inevitably, this causes an effect in the management of resources. All these factors have to be carefully evaluated while recruiting women doctors. However, on a personal note, I feel it is essential that there be a balance between the number of women practitioners and the male practitioners. While today, many women are becoming more and more career-minded, we see a more number of women spending late hours at work, working extra time, extending their familial ties. Because of the advantages a woman can bring about in healthcare such as closer attentiveness, motherly instincts, a more caring attitude etc. I feel that having women is imperative for optimal healthcare.
Monica Baly, 'The Nightingale nurses: the myth and the reality,' in C. Maggs, (ed), Nursing History, the state of the art (Croom Helm 1987), 33-59
Melmoth, John. "Sophia Jex-Blake." BMJ: British Medical Journal 308, no. 6937 (1994): 1172.
Keir Waddington, Charity and the London hospitals 1850-1898 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Royal Historical Society, 2000), 177-85
Roberts, Shirley, 2005. Sophia Jex-Blake: A woman pioneer in nineteenth century medical reform. Routledge
Hume, Ruth Fox, 1964. Great women of medicine. Random House Childrens Books.
Marland, Hilary, ed, 2005. The art of midwifery: early modern midwives in Europe. Routledge,.