How Did Ideologies of Gender and Professionalism Intersect in the History of Nursing in Oregon?
Throughout the history of nursing in the United States, nurses have been stratified by educational level, licensure status, and specialty, hierarchies that have both drawn on and reinforced status lines drawn by race, class, ethnicity, and citizenship. Yet at the same time, women from many different walks of life have found in nursing and nurse professionalism a powerful way to disrupt social hierarchy and achieve economic mobility, personal satisfaction, and a fulfilling career. The struggles around these styles of professionalism within nursing are visible in three distinct phases in Oregon. In the first phase, elitist nurse leaders strove to reinforce hierarchy and exclusion in nursing using class, status, and educational attainment in order to raise the social standing and political effectiveness of nurses. In the second phase, between 1960 and 1980, the ONA systematically integrated unionization into the mix of its mission. This effort strained the simmering class and ideological tensions among Oregon nurses to the breaking point, epitomized by the rejection of AFL-CIO affiliation at a stormy meeting of the ONA's House of Delegates meeting in 1981. From the 1980s to the present, the rearticulation of nurse solidarities along new lines of identification that include professional specialization, race or ethnicity, and the bargaining unit has created a new mosaic whose pieces touch each other at some level through the ONA but do not quite fit together in one vision yet. The question here is how the thrust of professionalism--that is, the claiming and uses of social power--could divide as much unite nurses. The records of the Oregon Nurses Association and interviews with nurses who were active in the last fifty-plus years across the state suggest new and exciting paths for tracing the politics of nurse professionalism well beyond the nurse-doctor dyad.
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