This is a lengthier version of an editorial published in this month’s Kai Tiaki New Zealand Nursing Journal. It is based on an invited address I gave at the 10th Annual Conference of the Women’s Health Section:’Divine Secrets of the Sisterhood’ on April 26th 2012.
I recently spoke at the NZNO Women’s health conference about sisterhood. Not that I don’t care about men (I do deeply), but as one of three sisters and as a woman who has spent most of my adult life working in the female dominated profession of nursing, relationships between women are of great personal and professional interest. The call to action in the women’s movement almost thirty years ago emphasised sisterhood and demanded the end of oppression and the commitment to women as a social group (Klein & Hawthorne, 1994). However, the movement also raised questions of difference. Many suggested that in order to understand what women had in common they also needed to pay attention to what they didn’t have in common such as race, gender and sexuality. Focusing on similarity erased and overlooked important differences, but only focusing on difference led to the “othering” of others, stereotyping and pushing people away.
I believe these questions remain important for nursing, because I think our differences can make nursing stronger. An understanding of our differences can help us to better understand our similarities. As Audre Lorde points out “it is within our differences that we are both most powerful and most vulnerable, and some of the most difficult tasks of our lives are the claiming of differences and learning to use those differences for bridges rather than as barriers between us”. So I believe an important question for nurses is how can we capitalise on the energy and movement in difference and resist the coercive force of sameness?
One of the challenges is that differences raise critical issues of power, because differences are often institutionalised (Crenshaw,1994, p.411). Take the idea of the implicit ideal nurse-typically the ideal nurse is female, white, middle class, heterosexual, able bodied, nice, obedient and nurturing (Giddings, 2005; Reverby, 2001). Those nurses that fit the norm experience privilege and those that don’t are marginalised. Internationally, women of colour are present in practice settings with less prestige, lower wages, less security, and less professional autonomy (Gustafson, 2007). While, a disproportionate number of white men and women are ensconced in nursing management, academia and research, whose world view is supported by the dominance of white, Western, biomedical interpretations of health and illness. Grada Kilomba defines whiteness as “a political definition, which represents historical, political and social privileges of a certain group that has access to dominant structures and institutions of society”. As Ang-Lygate (1997, p,2) points out “political sisterhood is suspect unless those sisters who enjoy privileges denied to other sisters are seen to share the responsibility of dismantling the differences”.
This dominance of whiteness in our workforce and our ideas about health and illness are present in nursing in New Zealand too. We are undergoing a period of unprecedented diversity. Transitioning from largely New Zealand-born European to being increasingly ethnically diverse, our dependence on overseas-born migrant nurses is evident in their composition of 29% of the workforce- one of the highest proportions in the OECD. At the same time Māori and Pacific Islands nurses are under-represented in our workforce while these communities experience the greatest health need. This inequity is challenging and as Margaret Southwick notes provides “justification (if one be needed) for the claim that nursing needs to take seriously the challenge of working with diverse and marginalised groups within society is to be found in the health status of these very same groups of people.” (Southwick, 2001).
So given the diversities in nursing and the health inequities that confront our communities, new strategies are necessary. I’m proposing moving away from sisterhood which implies the shared experience of being a woman and experiencing gender oppression to consider a new metaphor that allows greater consideration of our differences so that we can better articulate our similarities (Simmonds, 1997). There’s friendship for a start, a relationship based on equals who have affection, and interest in each other (Friedman, 1993, p.189). Its etymology is in the word free. It means to love, to love our own freedom, and to love and encourage the freedom of the other (Mary Daly, 1987). Friendship allows us to work in each other’s interests because part of what is compelling is our differences.
The notion of friendship as an alliance within the context of difference can be seen in this brilliant blog post entitled Queer Sisters Keep Saving Me: The Brilliantly Selfish Act of Being an Ally by Black Artemis
Heterosexual people especially women owe a tremendous debt to the LGBTQ struggle for some of the sexual freedoms we enjoy…the boundaries queer people bend and bust at the risk of their own lives in many ways expand our heteronormative privilege. Their radical decision to be simply who they are makes it much safer for the rest of us to redefine who we may want to be. We have a broader range of acceptable sexual expression because of the queer liberation movement for every time they push the envelope, they set a new “normal,” and it’s not even they who benefit the most for their courage. Rather it is those of us whose sexual identity is already validated.
If we are going to use the metaphor of sisterhood we consider the idea of a “chosen family” used by LGBTQ communities or the Māori concept of whānau. It too is based on love rather than biology and includes people as who are a source of love and support outside the heteronormative idea of family.
I’d like us to strengthen nursing by strengthening ourselves, for creating space for all nurses to be able to come together with our diverse traditions and values, to be united based on solidarity not sameness. I’d like us to be able to articulate our shared beliefs and practices while acknowledging how we differ.
I’m proud to be a nurse in New Zealand, I value the shared commitment to caring and to social justice in the shape of cultural safety. I’d like to build on our legacy and see nurses critically examine the values, goals, and intents shaping our profession. I’d like us to have some challenging conversations about power and privilege, to deconstruct our own classism, racism, and homophobia and to think about recognition and reparation. I leave my final words to Audre Lorde:
So this is a call for each of you to remember herself and himself, to reach for new definitions of that self, and to live intensely. To not settle for the safety of pretended sameness and the false security that sameness seems to offer. To feel the consequences of who you wish to be, lest you bring nothing of lasting worth because you have withheld some piece of the essential, which is you.
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REVERBY, S. 2001. A caring dilemma: Womanhood and nursing in historical perspective. In: HEIN, E. C. (ed.) Nursing issues in the twenty-first century: Perspectives from the literature. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.
SIMMONDS, F. N. 1997. Who Are the Sisters? Difference, Feminism, and Friendship. 19-30. In ANG-LYGATE, M., CORRIN, C. & HENRY, M. S. 1997. Desperately seeking sisterhood: Still challenging and building, London, Taylor and Francis.
SIMMONDS, F. N. 1997. Who Are the Sisters? Difference, Feminism, and Friendship. Desperately Seeking Sisterhood: Still challenging and building, 19-30.
SOUTHWICK, M. R. 2001. Pacific women’s stories of becoming a nurse in New Zealand: A radical hermeneutic reconstruction of marginality. Unpublished Doctoral thesis, Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington.