RCN explores women’s history in new exhibition

Wandering Womb exhibition launched

Press Release 18/10/2018

RCN celebrates history of women's health and nurses' role in championing better health care for women

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is celebrating the leading role of nurses, past and present, in championing better health care for women at the launch of its new exhibition.

The Wandering Womb, Women’s health nursing past and present, highlights key health issues affecting women throughout history, such as menstruation, contraception and miscarriage. It explores how these have often been linked to cultural expectations of women and the leading role nurses have had in challenging generalisations about women’s health.

The exhibition charts the evolution of women’s health care from ancient amulets to prevent miscarriage to present day hormone replacement therapies.  It also highlights the social effects of historical thinking about women’s health, such as menstruation and childbearing which were thought to make women weaker and less rational than men, by featuring John Hooper’s ‘anti-hysteria pills’ and Dr William’s ‘Pink Pills for Pale People’.

Launching tonight (Thursday) on World Menopause Day, the RCN’s Women’s Health Forum in collaboration with the Vagina Museum will host activities and talks at the RCN Library and Heritage Centre. Guest speakers, Katharine Gale, Nurse Consultant in Gynaecology, Dr Anne Hanley, Lecturer in History of Science and Medicine at Birkbeck, University of London, Dr Tracey Loughran, Reader in History and Deputy Dean (Research) in Humanities at the University of Essex, will share their reflections on gender, medicine and the clinical experiences of women.

The exhibition also reveals the significant changes to the way women’s health is treated by medical practitioners, including when Dublin nurse Alice Beatty took her surgeon Charles Cullingworth to court in 1895. Cullingworth operated on Beatty for ‘ovarian disease’ but removed both her ovaries rather than the one she had consented to. Beatty, engaged to be married and keen to start a family, lost her case claiming damages for a wrongly performed operation despite arguing for "a right over my own body".

The RCN will host further events inspired by the exhibition until it closes next March, including a community fundraiser to raise awareness of period poverty in February, a comedy night in which female comedians discuss their periods, a debate on the availability of fertility treatments and a discussion with cancer nurse specialists on the history and modern day treatment of female cancers.

Debra Holloway, Chair of the Royal College of Nursing’s Women’s Health Forum, speaking at the launch, will say:

“This exhibition shines a light on the barriers women faced to understanding how their bodies worked and to challenging how they should be treated by society and in health care.

“It recognises the pivotal role of nurses in changing opinions about how women’s health is understood from embracing and delivering new treatments to supporting them to make decisions about their own care.

“Myths and misconceptions about women’s bodies remain widespread and in a field previously dominated by the perspectives of male doctors and physicians, all nurses now have a responsibility to advocate for women today.”


Notes to Editors

The exhibition is open to the public at the RCN Library and Heritage Centre from 18 October 2018 until 15 March 2019.

Press Office Contacts

Katherine Jarman, Head of Media
020 7647 3484 / 077186 96838

Daniel Sutherland, Senior Media Officer
020 7647 3695

Nick Spears, Senior Media Officer
020 7647 3696

Out of hours duty press officer
020 7647 3633