teaching, nursing, and second wave feminism

I am deeply grateful for all that was accomplished by second wave feminism. I love living in a world in which my job opportunities are not constrained because of what’s between my legs. That said, I also struggle with the externalities of the accomplishments in the 1970s. This week, I found myself thinking about the role of teaching and nursing in society and the relationship between feminism and those professions.

When my mother was entering the professional world, there were pretty much three options for women: teacher, nurse, secretary. Many women did not work and those who did were highly motivated, passionate, and underpaid. When barriers were eradicated, women left these professions to seek jobs in other fields that were better respected. Nurses were often just as knowledgeable about medicine as doctors and yet doctors were more greatly valued. Not surprisingly, as the years went b, many women who wanted to enter medicine chose to become doctors instead of nurses because the professional rewards were so much greater. When the sex barriers collapsed, women sought out “men’s jobs” because they were higher paying, higher prestige, and more flexible.

Since the 1970s, the number of brilliant, motivated individuals working as teachers and nurses in particular declined rapidly. Many women left these professions because they had many more opportunities and many men refused to do “women’s work.” Don’t get me wrong – there are some amazing teachers and nurses out there, but sexist constraint meant that the most brilliant, most passionate women inevitably went to these professions while that is no longer the case.

The problem is what has happened since then. I certainly don’t want to go back to the dark ages where women had no choice. But while we’ve opened up doors for women, we haven’t addressed how sexism framed nursing and teaching in ways that are causing us tremendous headaches in society today. Teachers are underpaid and undervalued because we took women’s work for granted. When teaching stopped being women’s work, we didn’t rework our thinking about teaching. As a society, we still have little respect for teachers and nurses and we pay them abysmally. This is deeply rooted in the sexism of the past but the ripple effects today are costly.

Let me addressing education specifically for a moment. Rather than addressing the issue head-on and finding market solutions that value teachers, we have created a cultural expectation of altruistic teachers. We run long NYTimes stories on individuals who grew miserable in their first career and came to teaching to make a difference. In fact, good teachers are almost always discussed as saints who gave up everything for the good of the students. While those individuals should be commended, shouldn’t this also be discussed as market failure? For each brilliant, highly motivated teacher out there, how many are there who aren’t particularly qualified or good at their job? And, more importantly, what are the costs of not incentivizing potentially amazing teachers to enter the profession by any means other than guilt?

I get uncomfortable thinking about the societal consequences of second wave feminism, especially since I’ve personally benefited from it so much. I don’t blame the feminists or the women who pushed forward to make change. But I do blame society as a whole for not taking stock of what was implicitly devalued and making strides to rework things. Even when nursing and teaching were “women’s work,” they were challenging professions that contributed greatly to society. I’m glad that women are not limited to just those jobs today, but it’s not because those jobs are worthless. We desperately need them and we need to rework our value systems to actually value such jobs. While women have made tremendous strides in the last 30 years, society has not done nearly as good of a job reworking how it thinks of historically women’s work.

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18 thoughts on “teaching, nursing, and second wave feminism

  1. Derrinyet

    I agree completely that education is subject to market failure, though none of the current technocratic and free market solutions seem to be solving this problem. A bad teacher is arguably worse than a bad doctor – s/he might ruin more lives a year.

    Dan Pallotta had an interesting piece on the Harvard Business school blogs called “The ‘Psychic Benefits’ of Nonprofit Work Are Overrated” that addresses some of the problems with how we treat “noble” work, though without the feminist perspective.

  2. Bertil Hatt

    I’ve been thinking about both for different reasons:

    As a teacher on a area that had little time to train enough experts (digital economics) I’ve been expecting to face massive demands (in vain so far); I’ve been thinking about how to teach far more people then what I can with the usual room-based format. The classic industrialist reply is: through automation. I would argue in favor of a recorded class (think about great content, i.e. a TV-like skill) with automated exams (Multiple Choice Question, word-recognition in open text answers and semantically pre-corrected essays) and valuing separately the role of a answers through a tutor-like system. This was mostly because my students tend to be late and I didn’t want them to miss the first slides, but also because they tend to hesitate to ask questions, often leaving me with vast puzzles: “What did you not understand? — Nothing… — Nothing at all?! — Nope… — So I have to do everything from the start? — …”

    With a bright red button to click whenever thinkgs get tricky, one can spot the issues & resolve misunderstandings more easily.

    That way, each role can be valued differently. The ability to reply to someone’s question, listening to it (a ‘feminine’ skill) won’t be a side-skill, second-rate to the capability to construct a curriculum. Although one might expect stardom in the presentation-making business, the local answer-person would have a greater influence though her choice of content that she accepts to support (not unlike local plumbers and keysmiths have influence over hardware choice).

    Nursing can’t go through the same industrialisation, but the skill-specialisation could be the same. I’ve been working on a website for care-givers, and the unfair treatment of nurses appeared quite clearly to me (although it’s not as strong are the one against professional caregivers). When you talk to doctors, they usually argue that they studied longer then business men, have to often attend at nights and therefore should be better paid. (The idea that a manager leverage his skills over thousands of workers is usually missed on them.) The only way to compensate that is through valuing the expertises of pharmacists, nurses, etc. by pointing out questions that are not part of the diagnostic framework and insisting Medecine became a complex process, not unlike pencil-making (See the classic esasy “I, pencil”). Most jobs rely the ambiguities of such specialisation — but if needed, presenting a star nurse, better paid then most doctors, working for VIP (and not a brave TV-nurse whose commitment is dependent on her being scarsely paid) would help. Prizes can be great, too: France maintained vivid craftmanship through competitions in every possible area (although competition probably won’t match so well with feminine values).

    One easy argument to leverage the value of nursing: most neurologists whom I’ve asked don’t seem to know how to talk to someone with Parkinson’s disease without upsetting them: they tend to talk to the spouse or children. Usually, lowering your eyes, maintaining physical contact, and repeating who you are help; all care-givers depend on such “tricks”, aka expertise.

  3. Caroline


    I completely agree. We have given women the opportunities to benefit from “mens work” and to a great extent, even gender-neutralized it. But the 2nd wave didn’t help to VALUE women’s work. It’s sort of like when you see “strong female characters” in the media wielding a sword or throwing punches. Congrats, I’m glad that now we can do what “strong” men do, but we need to appreciate women for the things that (traditionally!) make strong women so wonderful.

    Additionally, MOTHERHOOD is about the least appreciated job – women’s work- that I can think of. Rearing the next generation should be valued, but as I heard on Marketplace Money yesterday on NPR, in the workplace, maternity is a “disability”, and pregnancy is a “pre-existing condition”! Men’s lives are still the gold standard: women’s lives and lifestyles are still forced into a male mold. Our culture should recognise the long-view, that motherhood *is* contributing to our GNP, and we need to respect motherhood as a valuable JOB, not force women into taking all kinds of financial & professional hits for it!

    –in case you are interested, I am helping on a freshly-launched site SpeakHealth.org. We are exploring our cultural view of health, medicine and healthcare. Obviously, you realise just how broad a subject this can be, necessarily encompassing various other topics (gender, technology, politics etc.)! I’d love it if you would bring your views & ideas to our audience.


  4. Andromeda

    As someone who taught for five years, and it’s any more…

    It’s not just that we incentivize people through guilt (or pedestals of sainthood which won’t then get backed up by other forms of respect). It’s that, when you create a profession that is based on altruism, you create a context where it’s OK to not talk about paying teachers more. Because, I mean, they should be doing it for love, right? You create a context where it’s OK to have a job description which cannot be done well in anywhere close to 40 hours a week. Even just planning and delivering five-ish lessons per day, plus the attendant grading, cannot be done by novices in that time (nor by some experts). But that’s never the job — then you’re also expected to chaperone this and sponsor that and teach all these things that are far beyond your subject that you never got trained for and be parents to kids who basically don’t have any and really? In a forty-hour week? Competently?

    There are, of course, plenty of jobs where people are widely expected to work more hours than that, but those tend to be repaid with social cachet and big salaries. But in teaching you do it because you love the children, and if you love other things (hobbies, sleep, your own children), that’s a problem.

    I read those stories of the hero-teachers. But I hate them. Because if our plan for fixing education is stocking everyone’s class with hero teachers and washing our hands of it and blaming people who aren’t that hero — if our plan doesn’t depend on things that can be done by normal humans — it’s not scalable. It’s not a plan.

  5. Ugarte

    As a son of a french second wave feminist, i would like to insit on two issues : a) thank you for using the word “abysmally”, i enjoy it so much b) as women leave the “nursing” jobs, their behaviour as women, within their couple, do change accordingly (for example their revenue is no more ten times smaller than the revenue of their husbands), and i am not completeley sure that the male exist to answer their new needs. The balance has been broken, kind of. Of course, their mother might have educated them (the new males), but they have not, it’s not that easy and takes at leats two or three generations. So what they gained as a … sacrifice, they might have lost on a more personal issue.

    By the way you forgot “librarian” in your list 🙂

  6. Gavin Baker

    Ugarte beat me to the punch: librarianship falls in this category, too.

    This is problematic, I think, when we consider the issues confronting libraries with the rise of digital information. I am certain that we, as a society, under-resource libraries and lower our expectations of them in part because our image of librarians as the nice ladies who helped us find a book on dinosaurs when we were children, rather than professionals dedicated to organizing, preserving, and providing access to information — tasks that, as we enter the era of information (over-)abundance, are as vital as ever.

  7. Nilva

    What I have noticed is that more men appear to choose nursing as a career path then they would have previously and then climb the hierarchy much faster then their female counterpart. Just anecdotal observation from having been in health since 1980’s.

    May be the argument could be as simple as women who choose not to nurse shouldn’t be in nursing.I wouldn’t want to be nursed by a ‘brilliant’ person who has been incentivised to work in the nursing field and then doesn’t provide the care I need. Perhaps it is about retention and keeping the people who choose to work in nursing eg looking at the patient to nurse ratio.So one can look at second wave feminism as being a good thing for nursing….it got rid of women who should never have been nurses.Apologies for being so blunt.

  8. Andromeda

    And as I see the comments have gone in that direction…

    I’m in grad school now to career-change to librarianship — not sure exactly which version of it yet, as it turns out there’s an awful lot of things you can do with the degree. But I notice that, persistently, the bits that actually pay pretty good money (e.g. working for corporations — law librarians, medical librarians, things that may not even have “library” in their title like knowledge management or content management or what-have-you) — these things are disproportionately done by males. (And there are *very* few men in librarianship — my program as a whole is 80, 90 percent female — but in my corporate libraries class, or my databases class? You know, the ones with material for which you might someday get paid? Around 50/50.)

    Cause? Effect? Persistent fractal reproduction of society? I dunno. But me, whatever subfield I go into, it will be one of the ones that pays this time, kthx.

  9. Lawrence Krubner

    The larger context is the erosion of wages in America from 1973 to 1995, and then again from 2001. It would be easier for America to complete its social transformation if only the economy could recover the vigor it enjoyed 1945-1973, when wages were rising rapidly for both men and women. America’s social transformation is likely to remain partial, incomplete and broken till such time as the economy recovers its health. And by “health” I am not referring to the short-term crisis of the current recession, but to the long-term crisis that has seen the broad collapse of America’s once secure middle class.

  10. Lawrence Krubner

    The more I think about it, the more I am troubled by the title of this post:

    teaching, nursing, and second wave feminism

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to title this:

    teaching, nursing, and sexism

    I mean, the problem isn’t feminism, right? The problem is sexism.

  11. Missiy

    I am in my last year of college to become a teacher. I am also a single mother to a 2 year old boy. For a split second after I made the decision to become an educator, I had some guilt that I was being a bad feminist. I felt that I should be pursuing a job in a field that was had been off limits before in order to be a true feminist. It took me a minute to realize that feminism isn’t about moving up in the job market, but having the choice to do so. I have chose to become a teacher because that is what I want to do and I am proud of the women who have come before me in this field.

  12. Ted

    Actually nurses aren’t that badly paid, at least in some areas. (I’m married to one and I get to deposit her paycheck.) In California they’ve leveraged the combination of a labor shortage and a strong, innovative union into some decent wages and benefits, by and large. Teachers have been pretty successful at organizing for fair pay too — so much so that here in San Francisco, until recently, they were expected to spend part of their own wages on classroom supplies that the school authorities couldn’t or wouldn’t budget for.
    For every one of those heroic women in real life, there must have been about 1000 in the uplifting literature. In the real world, until the 1940s and 50s, most nurses (and teachers and librarians too, I hate to break it to you) were beaten-down conscripts. If you look around, you can’t help noticing that brilliance and motivation are more widespread than ever in all three of those professions now. Being able to count on a decent paycheck and health insurance frees you up to do good work day in and day out, without all that exhausting drama around heroism.

  13. kjack

    The average salary for teachers in California is pretty high compared to teachers in other states, so you can’t assume that all teachers (and nurses and librarians) are doing as well.

    Even with that in mind, you said that the teachers were expected to purchase school/classroom supplies out of their own pocket.

    The idea is to put more societal value on these people and positions.

  14. kjack


    you said that, “May be the argument could be as simple as women who choose not to nurse shouldn’t be in nursing.I wouldn’t want to be nursed by a ‘brilliant’ person who has been incentivised to work in the nursing field and then doesn’t provide the care I need.”

    but the argument is not about whether or not people want to be a nurse, it’s about how society undervalues women that hold positions as nurses, teacher, and any careers that are considered “womens work”.

  15. Lisa

    I just came across your article when I searched “why women make lousy nurses and teachers.” I have been in both professions and have to say that most women complain all the time and backbite. The men I have met in these professions were much more professional, compassionate and respected. Maybe women do just need to “go home.” They seem to be unhappy most of the time and most I know are on anti-depressants. Most cannot compete in a “man’s world” either without great quantities of “faking it” — behind closed doors you see them fall apart. Sorry to be so negative about it. I think that the future belongs to gay men… in fact those are the people I know who seem to be flourishing at work and at home.

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