The Woman Alone

Endpaper drawing, 1919, Helen Turner

In researching the history of homelessness in Seattle as it has affected girls and women, I ran across this cringe-worthy magazine article/opinion piece. As it is unlikely to make its way into the book chapter I am writing—and since it provides some perspective on why we still have a women’s movement, I will share it here. The drawing (above) by Helen Turner (my paternal grandmother) is from the last page of her Georgia Normal Industrial College yearbook of her senior year. She wanted to be a teacher and an artist but instead, she married and raised three sons mostly on her own.

“Motherhood is the acme of motherhood. The girl alone can never be a mother, nor sit the queen of a happy home. The girl alone is a sinful, selfish, miserable, abhorred, ugly, wretched, hideous creature, whom to know is to shun and to meet is to pass by. She is an outcast and a social parasite.” (source: Honor L. Wilhelm in The Coast magazine, January 1901, p. 74)

I am grateful for the hard work of the many women on whose shoulders I stand. And I know that we all have much more work to do to make this world a safer, healthier place for all girls and women.

Feminist Nurse: Not An Oxymoron

Nurses Build Trust Not Walls. Women’s March on Seattle, 2017.

One of my first patients was a suffragette poet. She was 102 in 1981 when I cared for her in a Presbyterian nursing home in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I was a recent Harvard Divinity School drop-out working full-time as a nursing assistant, wrestling with the decision of whether or not I wanted to be a nurse. I was—and still am—a feminist. I was not sure I could be both a feminist and a nurse. Nursing seemed anti-feminist, steeped in the traditional subservient roles to which women were relegated.

I’ll call her Lillian because in my memory she stands out as steely kind and sharply intelligent as I imagine Lillian Wald, the founder of public health nursing, to have been. As a young woman “my” Lillian had met and worked with Susan B. Anthony. “My” Lillian had marched in suffragette demonstrations in Washington, DC and had written suffragette tracts and poetry and lobbied hard for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 that finally granted women full voting rights. She never married and spent the rest of her life as a Presbyterian missionary in various African countries. Being a missionary was one of the few acceptable roles for single women at that time, along with nursing and teaching. (The drawing below is from my paternal grandmother’s 1919 college journal showing the “choices” she was considering for her life—ranging from Old Maid to Bride.)

In my research this past week I ran into an article written in 1904 in Seattle by a man named Honor L. Wilhelm. In between his serialized stories of his honeymoon to Victoria, BC, and guest articles on Native Americans, he wrote a piece titled “The Girl Alone” that made my feminist blood boil. He stated, “Motherhood is the acme of womanhood. The girl alone is a sinful, selfish, miserable, abhorred, ugly, wretched, hideous creature, whom to know is to shun and to meet is to pass by. She is an outcaste and a social parasite.” (p. 74, The Coast: Volumes 7-10, 1904)

The elderly suffragette poet I was fortunate to have had in my young adult life helped convince me that in becoming a nurse I did not have to trade in my feminist ideals and identity. I mainly worked evening shift at the nursing home. Late at night, once I had completed all my work, I sat beside her bed while she told me stories of her life and read drafts of poems she was working on. She gave me a hand-written poem which I treasure—a talisman of feminism.

A year later when I went back to school for my bachelor’s degree in nursing, I had no feminist nurse professors or role models. The sole feminist nursing student I knew dropped out of school in disgust after our first semester. I wish I had known about the work of feminist nurse Peggy Chinn and her colleagues who had just started Cassandra: Radical Feminist Nurses Network. Dr. Chinn’s work continues, including through her NurseManifest Nursing Activism Project. And the next generation of feminist nurse activists have started the Radical Nurses group.

March on. We still have so much work to do to help make our world a safer, healthier, more equitable place for all.

Dear Angry White Man

IMG_5142Dear Angry White Man,

You do not get to have the last word. Even though another white male leader (of an ostensibly social justice-minded weeklong activist writing retreat) handed you the microphone on the last day so you could defend all generic white men from the “trigger words” (your term) of white male privilege. I do realize that you live in the whitest state in our country and in one of the remotest areas of that state (Oregon, in case people don’t know). I do realize that you have a fragile white male ego and that it would be devastating for you to admit that you have in the past and continue to benefit from nothing more than the (socially constructed) pale color of your skin and the fact that you are male. Devastating, because to admit that would be what? Humiliating? Humbling?

You do not get to have the last word. Do you realize how creepy and inappropriate it is to tell us (an otherwise all-female small writing workshop group) that you have “been closely observing us all week”? Especially when there were a significant number of young women emerging writers in our group? I chose to turn my back to you and to literally walk away at both of these times. For me, that was the appropriate choice given the circumstances. I do not regret that choice. What I do regret is ever having participated in praising your bravery in being in an otherwise all-female writing workshop and for (your words) being there “to work on my white male privilege.” I realize now that was a ruse. I regret that I fell for it early on. I do not fall for it now. You were not there to work on it; you were there to assert it even more.

Dear ostensibly social justice-minded activist writing retreat leaders wherever you are:

Please be mindful of who you hand the microphone to. Please be mindful of who walks away (and why). Please be more careful. Please be more skillful and educated in how to facilitate productive and respectful difficult conversations. Our world, and especially our very broken country, needs you to be more mindful, more careful.


Looking Back

img_9790I learned to row in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, with a middle-aged ophthalmologist coxswain who refused to wear his glasses. Richmond is not a rower’s city; rowing is not a Southern sport. We were the only masters (older than collegiate) rowing club for at least 200 miles. There were twelve of us in the club, including a wiry plumber, a plump opera singer, a deeply wrinkled cigarette factory worker, a burly real estate agent, and a handful of bored doctors and lawyers.

Our boathouse was carved into the basement of a civil-war era warehouse on the banks of the James River below the falls, across from the city’s water-treatment center. The damp morning air we breathed while rowing smelled of sticky sycamore trees, stale tobacco, and pee. After heavy summer thunderstorms, the overflow raw sewage would fill the river with flotsam of used plastic syringes, crack cocaine bottles, condoms, and diapers.

We usually rowed a mixed eight with four men in the stern of the boat and four women in the bow. The plumber rowed “strokes” seat #8 since he had the best combination of rhythm and strength to set the pace for the boat. In seats # 5/6/7, the “engine room,” we had a couple of strong tall lawyers. The opera singer, the cigarette factory worker, and a doctor (all women) followed in seats #2/3/4. I was the smallest person in the boat, so I rowed bow. I was a nurse. Bowspersons have a strange sense of humor since they would be the first person to hit anything in the water.

We were dedicated rowers who trusted our coxswain to navigate us safely through the winding river, around barges and tugs. When you are sweep rowing and have a coxswain to guide the boat, you don’t look at where you are going, but rather at where you have been. You concentrate on the stroke and rhythm of the boat, look straight ahead, and count on the coxswain to see. Our middle-aged coxswain who refused to wear his glasses had a pleasant personality, but he had blind spots.

We didn’t know about our coxswain’s visual problem until he hit a green channel buoy—one of those iron eight-foot anchored ones—when we were rowing full force. “Weigh-nuff!” (rowing-speak for “Stop!”) he yelled. Somehow I didn’t get hit in the bow, but the woman in front of me did. The opera singer’s port oar hit the buoy—thwack!—and the force of it catapulted her out of the boat into the middle of the river. “Oh my God!” she screamed in an amazing octave as she flew through the air. She bobbed to the surface, sputtering but unhurt. Luckily, we were upstream from the water treatment plant.

We didn’t say anything to him after that row, but we wondered about our coxswain. A few weeks later he was again coxswaining the eight. While into a power-up stretch, we heard a rumble under the bottom of the boat. “Weigh-nuff! I think we hit something!” Sitting up in the boat holding our heavy wooden oars flat on the water, the boat took on water and then slowly began to sink below the surface. We had collided with a partially submerged sycamore tree. Our coxswain held his hospital pager overhead to keep it dry as a nearby fisherman in his motorboat rescued us. After we pulled the wrecked boat up on land and dried ourselves, we met as a team in the boathouse.

“Ahhhh—so what happened out there—didn’t you see that tree?” the plumber asked.

“It was dark. But I guess I need to start wearing my glasses. You know it’s no fun getting older,” he said, followed by a strained laugh. I was in my 20s at the time and thought this was pathetic.

I took up sculling a single after that so I could be responsible for my own navigation. I’ve rowed on some beautiful rivers including the Amstel in Amsterdam and the Chao Phraya in Bangkok. Rowing a single on the Amstel with my Dutch boyfriend rowing beside me was like being inside a Rembrandt painting, with billowing grey clouds and bursts of sun glancing off the water. In Bangkok, I didn’t row so much as paddled, being on the US Women’s Swan Boat team. Our team had practiced for a year in a makeshift boat on the majestic Potomac River in Washington, DC. The boat we practiced in was a flat, stable Dragon Boat. In contrast, Swan Boats are graceful 3-ton teakwood round-bottom boats. When our team entered our first Swan Boat on the Chao Phyraya River in Bangkok, we almost tipped over. It was the end of the rainy season. In amongst the water hyacinths, a bloated dead pig floated by belly up. We quickly regained our collective balance in the boat. In the race we came in second, beaten by a rugged team of Thai female farmers who were used to flooding and dead pigs. I was glad they won.

I moved to a West-coast city that is a rowing mecca. Rowing a single into middle age can get lonely, so I joined an older women’s rowing team. On a recent morning I rowed bow in a four, with three strong women who have survived working for Microsoft. We were rowing on Lake Washington with a fifty-five-year old coxswain who has a pierced nose, tattooed neck and shaved head. She makes frequent references to S&M and bondage while we are rowing: “Feel the burn! You know you want more!” This can be disconcerting until you get used to it. She has perfect eyesight and as far as I know she’s never hit anything in a boat.

The early morning sun was turning Mount Rainier pink, and salmon were jumping in the water. There were no used syringes, cigarettes, or dead farm animals in the water, but I caught a whiff of sycamore tree. The smell evoked a pang of longing for the James River, for the ragged team I learned to row with, and even for the blind coxswain. It occurred to me how much we miss seeing when we’re young. It is nice to have all those miles of water to gaze back upon.


Note:  I wrote this brief essay almost ten years ago, and I now row mostly on my home rowing machine. I do, however, still feel that pang of longing for the James River in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I look forward to visiting it again in a few weeks when I return there for a reading of Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, on Tuesday October 11th 6:30-8pm at the Fountain Bookstore. My former colleague and immediate past president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Sheila Crowley, will join me. It is also a benefit for The Daily Planet, Richmond’s Health Care for the Homeless and safety net Clinic. Going home.

Nursing Ambivalence

The Poor Poet, by Carl Spitzweg, 1839. (Neue P...
Image via Wikipedia

As Phillip Lopate says, “If you have ambivalence, you already have two paragraphs.”

I have always been ambivalent about nursing: more than two paragraphs worth of ambivalence. There have been numerous times in my life when I have listed out the pros and cons of nursing. It started, of course, when I first began contemplating nursing as a viable career option, when I found myself a Harvard graduate school dropout and without job prospects. My ambivalence accelerated greatly while I was in nursing school: I despised nursing school and almost flunked out until I got to the graduate nursing school part where people—and their testing methods—were somewhat saner. It has continued throughout my 27 years as a nurse. The unexamined life is not worth living. Unexamined nursing is not worth doing.

Recently, my ambivalence about nursing increased. I sought career counseling with an excellent expert in this area. Three sessions and five standardized career tests later, her conclusion was that I have neither the aptitude nor the personality to be a nurse. According to the test results and her interpretation of them, I was meant to be an artist—an activist artist to be precise. My mother, who was an artist, turned over in her grave with this news. As I spent a lot of hard-earned money on the career counseling, I decided to take it seriously. But with a son in graduate school, I have no intention of chucking nursing to become a starving artist. So I am back to sorting out the pros and cons of nursing.

Here’s my current list, in no particular order.

Positives of nursing: I like nursing’s emphasis on caring vs. curing. I like the down-to-earth, no-nonsense aspect of it—the dirtiness and realness of it as opposed to the loftier, detached way that doctoring can have. I especially like public health/community nursing, working with underserved populations where they live. I like that nursing is generally closer socio-economically to “real” people than is medicine. Solidarity can ward off disdain. I like the diversity of working opportunities—the range of what you can do with a nursing degree. I like that it is easier to move into various different jobs and roles and even to get out of working as a nurse, and still have the nursing part inform other work. I like that nursing is generally well regarded by the public—at least in terms of trustworthiness. I like that it requires less time and money to become a nurse (compared with becoming a physician).

Negatives of nursing: There are too many women in nursing: cat fights, back-stabbing, high school-type bullying gossip (and yes, even in nursing education). Too much estrogen is not a healthy thing. We need more men in nursing for so many reasons. I don’t like the sanctimonious, dogmatic, missionary, religious, preachy, bossy ways of nursing. I don’t like the Pollyanna-propensity of nursing. I don’t like the servant role it assumes in reference to physicians and even to patients—the self-effacing, self-sacrificing, subservient way of nursing. I dislike this more than I do the sexy naughty nurse/angel in white motif (Not politically correct, but I also see the humor in these—a future blog post topic). I think I am enough of a feminist to see through these gendered stereotypes. But I am also enough of a feminist to recognize that traditional female roles are not something to reject out of hand—that it is possible to be a feminist nurse, just as it is possible to be a feminist mother, or a feminist teacher, or a feminist flight attendant. I don’t like the anti-intellectualism of much of nursing. I dislike the dominant discourse/narrative within nursing of whining victim—the inferiority complex. I dislike that nursing has developed its identity around the medical model, that it compares itself to and tries to differentiate itself from the physician role. This can lead to some bizarre and flakey things like nursing care plans, nursing diagnoses (“alteration in bowel elimination” instead of “diarrhea” anyone?), and therapeutic touch. It also has reinforced an emphasis on hospital-based nursing, and the rigid health care hierarchy inherent in that factory type model—keeping nurses in the ‘functional doer’ role.

For me, measured in sheer number of words in my lists, the cons of nursing win.

Early in my career as a nurse practitioner, I interviewed for a job with a crusty but astute psychiatrist, an expert in substance abuse disorders at a public east-coast university hospital. He interviewed me three times over the course of more than a month. I didn’t get the job and I couldn’t figure out why. A physician friend of mine who worked with the psychiatrist told me he’d concluded, “She’s not enough of a nurse to be a nurse practitioner.” It hurt my feelings at the time, and is a rankling statement that has stayed with me over the years. At the time, I thought he meant that I hadn’t been a nurse long enough to merit becoming a nurse practitioner. I was overly sensitive to that sort of thing since I had gone straight through nursing school to become a nurse practitioner. It was the only type of nurse I wanted to be—but I caught flack for it by other nurse practitioners, other nurses, and physicians. It wasn’t as common a track as it is now, although my accelerated nursing program students tell me they still get hassled about their lack of experience as nurses. But now I am wondering if what the psychiatrist really meant was that I did not have the personality of a nurse—that I was too ambivalent about nursing in general—to make a good nurse for his research project.

And the irony, of course, is that I teach nursing. Luckily, I have yet to be asked to teach any courses that require nursing care plans, nursing diagnoses, or therapeutic touch. As with teaching nursing research, I’d have to decline. I’d rather be a starving artist.