Attending a most inspiring international nursing history conference in Stuttgart, Germany, in September 2006 gave me much food for thought about the meaning of international nursing history. Why raise that question, you may wonder. Are we not already writing international history? Over the last decade, much nursing history scholarship of international importance has appeared, seeking to explore issues of gender, class, race, religion, nation, and ethnicity in diverse international and (post)colonial contexts.1 The Nursing History Review regularly publishes contributions from scholars from many different countries exploring one or more of these categories. To some extent, then, yes, we do have an international nursing history. But who constitutes the we is an important question that does need more explicit consideration.
About a decade ago, I was involved in an international nursing history project: writing the history of the International Council of Nurses (ICN), published on the occasion of the ICN's centennial celebration in 1999.2 We called our book Nurses of All Nations, but as a group of international nursing history scholars we were painfully aware that, as authors, we represented very particular subject locations. For one, we were all English speaking, albeit not necessarily speaking English as our first language. We also wrote in English. Likewise, the organization we studied had emerged as an initiative centered in western Europe and North America, reflecting the dominant cultural power relations at the time. In seeking to establish an international perspective, we did not write a history of all individual national nursing organizations, but we explored professional identity and diversity in the context of larger social changes in nursing and health care. While we sought to go beyond national borders and cultural boundaries, we could do so only to a certain extent.
What we call "international" comes with its limitations. No matter what perspective we offer, it is always situated. International nursing history involves complex issues of translation, language being one of them. Making myself and my historical analyses understandable and accessible in an international context may imply writing in a language that is not my own-and inherently, a culture that is not my own. Learning to write in another language opens up opportunities to learn in and about other ways of existing, but it also implies giving up some of my own history. Having to articulate my ideas in another language means that some things get lost. Some culturally embedded words or experiences are very hard to get across, just because they don't exist in the same way in the other language (and culture).
The experience of expressing myself in another language is only the tip of an iceberg, floating on a much larger, stronger undercurrent of "being different." As an example, the ICN, in order to be meaningful to nurses around the world, has adopted three formal languages, English, French, and Spanish, but not Mandarin, Arabic, Swahili, or German-let alone Dutch, or Frisian, my mother tongue. The choice of these three languages over others represents a particular colonial past. The choice comes with a cost: we remain understandable only in a particular way. How much of the individual experience, the individual identity of one nurse, practicing in one particular local context, can we put in perspective in international nursing history? …