the Manly Art of
How the lady with the lamp unwittingly
led us astray.
Men are under-represented in the ranks of registered nurses. Okay, well, so what? There aren’t many male dental hygienists either, and women are
rather rare on the oil rigs.
Most of us aren’t concerned that only seven per cent
of professional nurses in North America are male. We
simply assume the nurse who tends our bedside or dispenses daily dosages to our aging parents will be a woman.
Female doctors are way more common
than male nurses.
Not that any of us would say a nurse
has to be a woman. That wouldn’t
sound right in our culture. But most of
us still do distinguish between “nurses”
and “male nurses.”
The typecasting of women as the specialists trained to
look after the sick and wounded is relatively recent. It dates
back to the 19th century when Florence Nightingale bull-
dozed her way through a maze of gender stereotypes and
founded the modern nursing profession.
Nightingale wasn’t a feminist ideologue – she was a
dedicated worker whose experience in the Crimean War
prompted her to lay the groundwork for standard nursing
practices. She went on to start schools, and recruited and
trained women to tend to the needs of both men and women.
Nursing was then low-status work performed largely by
people unable to hold down a better job. The asylums and
infirmaries of Dickensian England were gender separated
with inmates usually looking after each other.
According to historian Brian Abel-Smith, “In the male
wards, they were usually old men who had been perhaps
artisans or labourers whence come to destitution by vice,
general incapacity, imbecility, or sickness and infirmity.”
It hadn’t always been that way. Centuries earlier, male-
dominated religious orders developed the first hospitals,
and monks routinely did the work of caring for the sick,
infirm, aged and handicapped. Meanwhile, the male bas-
tions of militaries also pioneered medical services for sick
and injured soldiers.
Despite these precedents, the nursing workforce today
is not just female dependent, but female defined.
It doesn’t occur to most men that nursing might be a
healthy calling and viable occupation. Not many little boys
play with stethoscopes and bandages. Why would they?
Male nurses must often endure having their masculinity
Most of us still distinguish
and “male nurses.”
doUg KooP of Winnipeg is managing editor of Seven, a
Christian magazine for Canadian men, and the former
editorial director of Christian Week. This column, named
after the opening of Psalm 1, is first in a new series.