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Girlie men? Manly girls? The Governator and nursing's gender issues

CNN logoFebruary 22, 2005 -- Today CNN's web site posted an unsigned AP story about recent charges by California nurses and teachers that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's policies and attitude toward them--including his references to them as "special interests"--reflect an ingrained hostility to women and "women's occupations." Probably unintentionally, the piece raises difficult questions about how society sees nursing, and how nurses advocate for their profession, including the pros and cons of using the profession's predominant gender as a political weapon.

Arnold Schwarzenegger photo"Nurses, teachers take on Schwarzenegger" begins by wondering whether the Governor could "have another 'woman problem' on his hands." It links some of his recent pushes for budget cuts and "reform" that affect nursing and teaching, along with his "turbocharged rhetoric," to his alleged sexual abuse of women on movie sets during his years as a Hollywood actor. This has led to "charges that his views on women are demeaning and macho." In particular, the piece points to Schwarzenegger's references to opponents as "girlie men," and his December 2004 comment about a group of nurses protesting his move to delay full implementation of California's nurse safe staffing law: "The special interests don't like me in Sacramento because I am always kicking their butts."

California Nurses Association executive director Rose Ann De Moro is quoted as saying that the Governor "behaves like an arrogant patriarch with respect to women's occupations," that it's "vulgar how he's run roughshod over them," and that he's "arrogant" and "a bully." A consumer advocate points to the "arrogance" of taking on "professions where women are underpaid, overworked and vital to society," and that it's natural for someone like Schwarzenegger, who "treats women as objects," to tend to "disregard and devalue professions that are made up of women." (Did we mention that he was arrogant?) Recently, the CNA and the California Teachers Association have staged protests and placed ads denouncing Schwarzenegger. The CNA in particular has focused on his reference to them as "special interests," arguing that his corporate campaign donors are the real special interests. De Moro sees a "mass movement" developing, noting that it's "fascinating to see women coming together." Schwarzenegger's supporters deny his policies have anything to do with gender. A California Republican Party spokeswoman is quoted as saying that he's "exposing organized labor unions who have used their influence and set policies that have created multi-billion dollar deficits both statewide and nationally." (The story might have benefited from a response to the notion that nurses and teachers are responsible for the federal budget deficit.) The story closes with material from a political analyst about the political danger to Schwarzenegger because of the "widespread public fondness" for teachers and nurses, regardless of the level of fondness for their unions.

Obviously, this is politics, and each side's arguments are a coordinated effort to push people's buttons, whether about Schwarzenegger's "woman problem" or the baleful influence of "organized labor." The aggressive push to identify the interests of nurses and their patients with the gender of nurses would appear to have potential benefits and drawbacks. Of course, over 90% of U.S. nurses are female, this is clearly a factor in the profession's ongoing undervaluation, and it's not hard to see any effort to reduce the resources and influence of nurses as at least in part a reflection of this overall societal gender bias. This is indeed, as some have noted, the unfinished business of feminism. And Schwarzenegger's past and his macho rhetoric make this an obvious ground on which to go after him. The term "girlie men," which equates femininity and weakness, is misogynous. The California nurses may well make progress on critical patient safety and nursing shortage issues by framing the disputes this way. The AP and CNN deserve credit for highlighted what really is an important women's issue, with overtones of public health and wellbeing.

However, the article might have also considered other issues with the approach the Schwarzenegger opponents are taking. Framing the dispute solely in terms of nurses' predominant gender firmly reinforces that gender in the public's mind. It confirms that nursing is for women, and it may well deter potential male nurses. (Teaching has had similar problems attracting men in recent decades, though there are still far more male teachers (about 20%) than nurses.) Moreover, some of the language above paints nurses as female victims of an arrogant, vulgar patriarch who runs roughshod over them, which may strike some as an image of excessive helplessness. Of course, the activities of the CNA itself show that nurses are not helpless.

Nurses may take offense at being called a "special interest," but they may wish to consider the alternatives. Any organized group of constituents can accurately be described as a "special interest," including members of the health professions, even though their work benefits society as a whole. Making that the issue encourages the public to think of nurses as both more and less than other professions. Perhaps they are not "special interests" because they are so selfless and devoted to their patients, but if that is the case, why do they need better working conditions and more clinical and educational resources? Aren't they self-sacrificing angels whose work is mainly emotional and spiritual? Thus, there is a "public fondness" for nurses, but not their unions, suggesting that the fondness does not extend to treating them with respect in tangible ways that cost money. Of course, it's not wrong to leverage the accurate public view that most nurses are more interested in improving health than in money, power or status, and an obvious response to the Governor's comments would be to ask why he doesn't seem to be doing anything about the powerful corporate "special interests" who oppose the safe staffing ratios.

But it's not clear from this article that Schwarzenegger's position on nursing staffing shows any more anti-women bias than the position of the hospitals. The piece includes no example of a profession not dominated by women that has presented a comparable political problem for the Republican governor but that he has treated more deferentially. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Schwarzenegger is actually showing nurses some respect by treating them as he would probably treat any other group standing in the way of his agenda. Would it serve nurses' interests better if, instead of his usual butt-kicking approach, the Governor announced his opposition to the staffing implementation at the same time he declared a statewide "nurses are wonderful" day and made gentle cooing sounds?

It's probably not fair to expect the AP article to explore much of this, with one exception: the piece does not question the assumption that nursing and teaching are "women's occupations." It might have sought comment from a male nurse or teacher, or at least noted that they exist.

See the AP story on CNN.

Also see a Time article on the persistent activism by Caiformia nurses.

March 3, 2005 -- A Sacramento Superior Court judge sided with the California Nurses Association and ruled that "the Schwarzenegger administration exceeded its authority in suspending parts of the state’s new nurse staffing law." See Laurence Darmiento's article "Judge: Schwarzenegger Erred in Suspending Parts of Nurse Staffing Law" in the March 3, 2005 edition of the Los Angeles Business Journal.


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