‘Surely a nice occupation for a girl?’
Stories of nursing, gender, violence and mental illness in British asylums, 1914-30
in Mental health nursing
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This chapter concentrates on the early twentieth century, when psychiatric attendants were often represented as custodians charged with the control of violent and deviant inmates. Thus unlike general nursing, which was seen as a suitable occupation for women, the care and control of asylum inmates was delegated to attendants of the same sex as the patients. The National Asylum Workers’ Union, which represented both male and female asylum attendants, frequently capitalised on this image of dangerous patients to bolster its claims for better conditions for its members. During and after the First World War the Union exploited patriarchal ideas that men should safeguard women in the workplace, and patriotic sentiment that ex-servicemen should be entitled to jobs currently undertaken by women, to contrive a scandal regarding women nursing insane male patients in the press. These tactics backfired when shell-shocked soldiers created an outcry by describing the suffering inflicted upon them by brutal male warders and the superior nursing skills they experienced at the hands of women nurses. By the 1930s psychiatric nursing began to be represented by the Union as a skilled, empathetic profession that dealt with sick patients, modelled on the ideal of nursing developed by women general nurses.

Mental health nursing

The working lives of paid carers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Editors: Anne Borsay and Pamela Dale

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