Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

Gender and Class Tensions between Psychiatric Nurses and the General Nursing Profession in Mid-Twentieth Century New Zealand

Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

Gender and Class Tensions between Psychiatric Nurses and the General Nursing Profession in Mid-Twentieth Century New Zealand

Article excerpt

A mental hospital is not merely a different kind of general hospital; it is something quite different.

(PSA 1957a)


Histories of nursing usually assume that nursing is a female-dominated occupation with 'general nursing' the norm. Mental health nursing has no part in such histories; it is simply ignored as not 'real nursing', or because it does not fit the image. In most Western countries, psychiatric nursing originated from a culture in asylums where 'maleness and attendance' rather the 'femaleness and nursing' were the norm. Historical inquiry that acknowledges the uniqueness of psychiatric nursing creates space for a very different perspective on nursing history than that which is usually presented.

This paper explores the tensions between New Zealand psychiatric nurses (otherwise known as mental nurses and mental attendants) and the general nursing profession between 1939 and 1959. It particularly focuses on the role of the male attendants who comprised more than half the workforce. During these two decades, the general nursing profession, through the Nurses and Midwives Board and the New Zealand Registered Nurses Association, increased its authority over mental hospital nursing staff. At first, this had little effect on the attendants' working-class, male-only world; they related far more closely to their union than to any professional organisation. By the late 1950s, however, it was clear that the middleclass women who led the nursing profession were making decisions that potentially affected the attendants' working conditions. Two very different cultures were beginning to overlap. This paper uses archival material and oral history interviews to investigate how male attendants responded to these changes, and draws on the findings of my PhD thesis (Prebble 2007). Ethical approval for the use of individual nurses' oral history data in the thesis a subsequent publications was given by the Human Subjects Ethics Committee of the University of Auckland.


For much of the twentieth century, public mental hospitals administered by a central government department were the mainstay of psychiatric care in New Zealand. When the Lunacy Department was established in 1876, it took over the responsibility for eight provincial asylums that later became mental hospitals (Brunton 2001).These institutions, built in the style of nineteenth-century British asylums were double- or triple-storey brick structures with a central administration area separating the male and female 'sides' (see Figure 1). Newer hospitals added in the twentieth century were built along 'villa' lines - relatively small, standalone units housing up to 50 patients each (Brunton 2001). Gender separation was sustained by the positioning of villas in hospital grounds. At Ngawhatu Hospital (see Figure 1), for example, designers made use of the natural contours of the land to situate the male and female villas in separate valleys. By 1939, although some of the older institutions had closed and new ones had opened, there were still eight mental hospitals and 'mental deficiency' institutions under the now-named Department of Mental Hospitals. Another four were added during the next 20 years.

Although the term 'asylum' had been replaced by 'hospital' in legislation and administration in the early 1900s, many aspects of asylum life continued well into the twentieth century.1 This 'enduring asylum' phenomenon was not unique to New Zealand. The term, 'enduring asylum' was coined by David Rothman (1985: 41-69) in relation to mental hospitals in the United States. It has also been described in relation to twentieth-century British hospitals by historians such as Diana Gittins (1998) and John Hopton (1997: 27-39). Asylum-type conditions shaped the collective culture and identity of New Zealand mental hospital nurses which persisted into the 1940s and 1950s.

In a tradition that harked back to British asylums, the Department of Mental Hospitals employed two distinct groups of workers: mental attendants to work with male patients and mental nurses to work with female patients. …

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