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You've come a long way, nurse's baby

July 5, 2004 -- Anti-feminist Caitlin Flanagan's "To Hell with All That," in this week's New Yorker, presents the author's mother's decision to return to her nursing career when the author was 12 years old as an early example of the often-wrenching career vs. home dilemma mothers like Flanagan herself face today. Unfortunately, while the piece shows a general appreciation for what Flanagan's mother's work meant to her--including a striking photo of her in her 1940's nursing uniform--it also seems to reflect the usual successful elite female's lack of understanding or respect for nursing as a profession.

Flanagan, who has caused a stir with her attacks on feminists, seems to share at least their enthusiasm for diverse career choices. As a sensitive child she resented her mother's 1973 decision to return to work, and she seems to have suffered as a "latchkey child," but she can see how critical it was for her mother to find something more than the "domestic life"--as the magazine's heading calls it--she had created with the author and the author's father. Commendably, Flanagan notes that among the things her mother was saying "to hell with" (her mother's phrase) was failing to use her education: "Hadn't she sailed through nursing school on a sea of A's? Wasn't she still consulted about ailments and remedies by half the people she knew?"

Nervous at first about going back to nursing after nearly twenty years, Flanagan's mother found a job as a medical claims adjuster at a Bay Area insurance company, then a nursing job at a "convalescent hospital," and later a better nursing job at an Oakland hospital. At the "convalescent hospital," she took Flanagan to work with her after school for some time, in order to calm her daughter's "terror of kidnappers and burglars," putting her to work on tasks such as wheeling patients around. This did not last, in part because it was hard for Flanagan's mother "to do her job" while being pestered to knock off early and get milk shakes. Ultimately, the author's college professor father became a successful novelist, and her mother left nursing to become "a combination of glamorous literary wife and girl Friday," though the author has always assumed it was at least partly because of her own "whining and balking."

Drawing on the work of Betty Friedan and Dr. Spock, Flanagan proceeds to set her mother's decision in a larger social and cultural context. She ultimately links it to her own struggle, and that of her upper middle class friends, to find the right balance between career and child-rearing. She includes some telling anecdotes about the mix of contempt and guilt women on each side of that divide seem to feel. It is here--despite the author's surprisingly nuanced insights and candid self-analysis--that she gets into trouble. Describing the difficulty today's women face in balancing family and career, she opines:

It's even harder today than it was in my mother's era, because the modern professional-class mother is not pursuing the kind of women's work for which my mother and her friends had been trained, and to which they eventually returned: nursing and elementary-school teaching and secretarial work and the like. These were posts that could be abandoned and returned to without a significant loss of stature, and were usually predictable in terms of both hours and workload.

Today's career moms are often trying to make partner or become regional sales manager or executive editor, jobs that require a tremendous number of hours and a willingness to allow urgent appeals, via Blackberry or cell phone, to interrupt even the best-laid plans for family time.

There are valid points here, but it's important to separate those from the uninformed bias. It's true that women today have the opportunity to pursue careers that demand more of their time, and that those who leave some such careers for significant periods face a greater loss of "stature." Undoubtedly this makes the middle class career/family balance more complex, and perhaps "harder," though it seems to us that it could also be pretty hard to live with the idea that your career choices can be counted on one hand, to be told you can't have a given job because you're a woman and have no legal recourse, or to face open contempt from people who feel you have no business working under any circumstances, even without children.

Our main problem is the underlying message Flanagan is sending about "women's work" like nursing. Strictly speaking, she is comparing those jobs decades ago with women's current career options, but readers are likely to come away with their ugliest present day stereotypes confirmed. In the past, she's suggesting, women could only pursue shift work of limited responsibility and significance. But "modern professional-class women" can become "partner" or "regional sales manager" (eat your heart out, Claire Fagin). The obvious implication is that able women today would never dream of lowering themselves to stereotypical "women's work" like nursing or elementary school teaching, jobs that we can conveniently assign to the dustbin of smart girl history.

In fact, perhaps unbeknownst to this daughter of a nurse, nursing is a modern scientific profession, one that requires years of college training (and we believe most teaching jobs now require a bachelor's degree or higher). Nearly a million U.S. nurses have bachelor's degrees in nursing, and about three hundred thousand have master's or doctoral degrees. Graduate-prepared nurses, who include nurse practitioners, scholars, and policy makers, typically face "hours and workload" that may not be so predictable, and a clear loss of "stature" if they "abandon" their careers. Moreover, the hundreds of thousands of nurses who struggle through the crush of short-staffing and mandatory overtime in the current shortage would be surprised by the suggestion that their jobs are "predictable in terms of hours and workload," or that they don't "interrupt even the best-laid plans for family times." Staff nurses also need considerable refresher training if they leave nursing for a significant time. Flanagan may realize that nursing is not "women's work," but her casual use of the phrase here does nothing to dispel the still-common and very damaging perception that it is. And we'll go out on a limb and speculate that Flanagan will not be encouraging her sons to consider a nursing career.

Flanagan concludes on a poignant note, describing her mother's memorial service, at which an overflow crowd remembered her encouragement of family and friends and other fine qualities, then noting: "Sitting on her writing desk in a corner, unnoticed and unremarked upon, was her old nursing-school portrait, which had been taken in a photographer's studio more than half a century earlier, and which she had paid for with her very first wages."

Send your letters to Caitlin Flanagan and the editor of The New Yorker at and please blind carbon copy the Center at Also, please post your letters and comments on our discussion board. Thank you.


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