Feminism and Public Health Nursing: Partners for Health

Article excerpt

It is a well-known fact that nursing and feminism have enjoyed an uneasy alliance. In recent years, however, nursing has begun to recognize the importance of feminism. Nevertheless, the literature still rarely addresses the relevance of feminism for public health nursing. In this article, I articulate the relevance of feminism for public health nursing knowledge and practice. First, I define and describe feminism and public health nursing and then I discuss the importance of feminism for public health nursing practice. The importance of feminism for the metaparadigm concepts of public health nursing is then reviewed. Finally, I examine several existing challenges relating to feminism and public health nursing research, education, and practice. The thesis of this article is that feminism is vitally important for the development of public health nursing and for public health care.

Nursing and feminism have enjoyed an uneasy alliance (Vance, Talbott, McBride, & Mason, 1985). Although feminism is increasingly recognized as critically important for nursing (Keddy, 1992), the relevance of feminism for public health nursing has seldom been discussed. This article seeks to contribute to the articulation and clarification of the relevance of feminism for public health nursing. The thesis of this article is that feminism is highly relevant and vitally important for the development of public health nursing and for health care. Throughout this article, the terms public health nursing and community health nursing are used synonymously.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF FEMINISM AND NURSING

In the early years of this century, nursing was profoundly influenced by the suffragettes, the feminists of the day, who sought political equality for women (Bunting & Campbell, 1990; Ross Kerr, 1996). Nursing leaders were able to achieve important goals, such as nursing registration legislation in Canada, as a result of their feminist political activities (Ross Kerr, 1996). Public health nurses in the United States, such as Lavinia Dock and Lillian Wald, were particularly active within feminist-oriented women's liberation movements (Bunting & Campbell, 1990). Over the years, however, as nursing became situated within male-dominated, patriarchal systems that grew out of church, military, and hospital establishments, nurses moved away from feminist-oriented perspectives and activities as they adapted to new environments (Bunting & Campbell, 1990).

Some nurses in our present time still have not embraced feminism. The ideology of feminism may be threatening to some nurses because of its departure from current status quo ways of thinking (Ross Kerr, 1996). Feminism causes one to critically question issues related to caring, autonomy, and personal and professional philosophy (Keddy, 1993). As a result, feminism causes nurses to confront uncomfortable personal and professional issues. Some nurses may misunderstand feminism to be opposed to men and families, when in fact feminism's fundamental egalitarian ideas espouse valuing both women and men (Tong, 1998). Although some nurses still subscribe to these and other negative attitudes toward feminism, greater understanding of the value of both nursing and feminism has helped decrease the uneasiness between them.

FEMINISM: WHAT IS IT?

Although no universal definition of feminism exists, some authors have attempted to isolate common elements of its usual meaning. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Blackburn, 1996) defines feminism as "the approach to social life, philosophy, and ethics that commits itself to correcting biases leading to the subordination of women or the disparagement of women's particular experience" (p. 137). Chinn and Wheeler (1985) define feminism as "a world view that values women and that confronts systematic injustices based on gender" (p. 74).

Harding (1987) noted in defining feminism that women's experiences are pluralistic, and that there is no universal women's experience. …