Monday, 6 April 2009

Nursing as a Profession for Women

The number of women in the United Kingdom who earn their living as attendants on the sick has been estimated as 20,000. Of these, about 15,000 earn only from £20 to £25 a year, and probably not more than 200 earn over £100 a year; so that at first sight nursing does not seem to offer great monetary advantages. The "plums" of the profession are very, very few. What, then, is the attraction which causes some hundreds of women to apply for every vacancy for a probationer which offers at a good nurse-training school? The chief attraction, doubtless, is the universal esteem in which attendance on the sick is held, and has ever been held, by all sorts and conditions of men. George Eliot expresses this very finely when she writes: "Here is a duty about which all creeds and all philosophies are at one; here you may begin to act without settling one preliminary question. As we bend over the sick-bed, all the forces of our nature rush towards the channel of pity, of patience, and of love, and sweep down the miserable, choking drift of our quarrels, our debates, our would-be wisdom, and our clamorous selfish desires. This is one source of the sweet calm which is often felt by the watcher in the sick-room, even when the duties there are of a hard and terrible kind." Then, not only is the work satisfactory in itself, but it is pre-eminently woman's work. There is no competition with men, no thought of lowering the wages of male breadwinners, or facing black looks from students of the other sex. And if the actual pay of nurses is small, it is nearly always a case with them of "everything found," so that save for their annual holiday and their personal clothing they have no expenses. The last advantage of the profession, but by no means the least, is that there is not necessarily any premium required, or any previous training. If a woman will consent to bind herself for three years to serve in a hospital, she is taught her profession for nothing, and is independent from the moment of entering the hospital doors. For instance, at the Middlesex Hospital, Mortimer Street, the probationers are paid £12, £18, and £20 for the first three years; after that, the wages of nurses rise to £25, or of sisters to £30. these payments are typical of those existing in other hospitals. Be it noted in passing that the term "sister" has no religious signification whatever in hospital life; it is merely the name given to distinguish the head nurse who has charge of a ward, from her subordinates.

Of course there are hospitals where paying probationers are taken - ladies who pay a guinea a week for the privilege of learning a little about nursing without having to bind themselves for a lengthy period. If a would-be nurse can afford it, this is an excellent way of gaining an insight into hospital life, and finding out if the work is agreeable and possible. For nursing is very trying and serious labour for both heart and hand. It is impossible to minister constantly wearied in body and distressed in mind. And yet a nurse must be ever cheerful and bright; to be attended when ill by a listless and spiritless person is to sap the little bit of life and hope out of one; therefore no one should attempt to be a nurse who is not naturally strong both physically and mentally. Also young girls should never be allowed to become nurses; twenty-one for a children's hospital, or twenty-five for a general hospital, should be the age limits.
The Young Woman, January, 1893.

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