Nursing and the History of the Emotions

 Sarah Chaney 15 Feb 2019 Library

Nursing and the history of emotions

Tell us a bit about yourself – what brought you to the exhibition project and what work will you be doing towards it?

As well as managing the events and exhibitions programme at the RCN, I’m also a researcher at Queen Mary, University of London. I work in the Centre for the History of the Emotions, a name that always intrigues people! Do emotions have a history, they often ask? Well, the words we use to describe them have certainly changed over time. So have the ways we express different feelings (or try not to), and our expectations about what we should or should not feel. If, as many cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists believe, emotions are part physiological and part learned, then our very feelings themselves will alter depending on these expectations.

Certainly, the way people think about emotions as a group has changed over the last 300 years. In the sentimental eighteenth century the ‘man of feeling’ was widely respected and the expression of intense emotion seen as a sign of good taste and breeding. The Victorians, meanwhile, were rather suspicious of emotion, which they cast as the opposite of reason. Women, children and ‘savages’ were emotional, Victorian scientists claimed, while men’s superiority was marked by their reliance on intellect. In the twentieth century, both of these attitudes have lingered, conflicting awkwardly with later psychological ideas about the unhealthy repression of emotions, the need for emotional intelligence and, most recently, an emphasis on our emotional health. >>The project I’m working on is calling ‘Living With Feeling’, and is funded by the Wellcome Trust. We’re looking at ideas about emotional health and wellbeing across different historical periods. How did these ideas come to be the focus of modern health policies? And, in my own research, what do they have to do with nursing?

Could you tell us a bit about how you’ve approached the project so far? 

Throughout much of its history, nursing has been associated with women. Indeed, in the late Victorian era nursing was one of very few areas in which a woman could have a career. Late Victorian and Edwardian matrons claimed the profession for their gender by emphasising female attributes. “True womanly pity and tenderness”, as Eva Lückes, matron of St Thomas’ Hospital put it in 1884, was a vital element of care. Nurses’ emotions and intuition helped them ensure that patients slept and ate well and could manage their own feelings. This was not to say that knowledge and clinical skills were not important; they simply weren’t specific to nursing. Male doctors also possessed these skills, but that didn’t – or so these matrons claimed – make them a good judge of nursing. This meant that hospital nurses should be managed by a female matron and certainly not by a male superintendent.

Lückes and her fellow matrons, however, accepted the prevailing view of their time about gender differences, and even male superiority. So it is interesting to see what elements of their view of nursing have nonetheless lingered. We now tend to think that there are rather fewer differences between men and women than the Victorians assumed there were. Yet emotion is still often seen as the opposite of rationality, or simply not as important. This means the people-managing aspects of care may become viewed as a lesser skill than, say, catheterising someone. In my research, I’m exploring the assumptions and characterisations of emotions in nursing in depth. I think this will lead to a better understanding of why certain perceptions and stereotypes of nursing are common today, even where they have little to do with nursing work. And perhaps why nursing remains, in the UK at least, a disproportionately female profession.

You mention that you’ve come across some case studies already – could you tell us a bit about some of those?

I’ve been very interested in the idealised picture of nursing common in the decade after the First World War. When Welsh stained glass artist John Dudley Forsyth was commissioned to create three stained glass windows for the College of Nursing in 1925, these ‘allegorical paintings of nursing’ displayed three traits: Faith, fortitude and love. This was a common depiction of nurses in the First World War, as angelic heroes, whose fortitude and sacrifice was overwhelming. They were often idealised pictures of womanhood, referred to as providing motherly comfort. Postcards and prints showed angelic, stylised depictions of nurses; romanticised images that bore little resemblance to the realities of day-to-day life and work for these women.

Reactions to the death of Edith Cavell sums up this attitude. Cavell was executed in October 1915 for helping allied soldiers to escape occupied Belgium. Her death became a rallying call for the allied forces. “Murdered by the Huns!” read an Essex County recruitment poster, which featured a photograph of Cavell, “Enlist in the 99th and help stop such atrocities.” The portraits of nurses in action tended to suggest they were passive victims, swept up helplessly in the surrounding conflict. Cavell’s monument does not record her behaviour as an active decision to aid soldiers escape occupied Belgium, but instead depicts her ‘fortitude, devotion, sacrifice and humanity’. The perceived qualities of the nurse became more important than her actions.

Our exhibition starts from this idealised depiction of nursing, unpicking the different ways in which these emotions became bound up in the practice of care.

Page last updated - 15/02/2019