I recently had dinner with two nieces, smart and savvy young women in their 20s. Our conversation covered a variety of topics, but often came back to women's issues. They voiced frustration over what they see as broad disrespect for women—women not being given the same due as men and not being taken as seriously. When I pointed out several recent bright spots in women's achievements, they noted how often these seem to be marred by a “one step forward, two steps back” pattern that takes away from a sense of progress.
In sports, we witnessed the masterful performance of the U.S. women's national soccer team as it won its second consecutive World Cup. However, the team was criticized for celebrating too much after its win over Thailand (13-1) and for a “tea-sipping” gesture after scoring against England; they were called cocky and arrogant. Yet, such criticism is not levied when men tout their athletic prowess—think of touchdown celebrations or the beloved Muhammed Ali proclaiming that he was “the greatest.” The team was also chastised for calling for parity in pay with the men's soccer team, who earn far more in salary and bonuses despite not coming anywhere close to the success of the women's team. It defies logic, but pay equity has never been about logic, even in nursing, where men earn more than women across settings.
The #MeToo movement has resulted in more women speaking out and more abusers and rapists being brought to account, yet many women still must fight for justice. In New Jersey, three judges, in separate cases, have been reprimanded because of rulings that went beyond accepted standards of jurist behavior. One judge declined to prosecute a teenage boy (who videotaped himself sexually assaulting a girl and sent it to his friends) as an adult because he “came from a good family”; another judge also declined to prosecute a 16-year-old as an adult who was accused of raping a 12-year-old because it wasn't an “especially heinous or cruel offense.” And yet another judge asked a sexual assault victim why she didn't “close her legs.” Incredulous, dehumanizing, and just head-shaking, jaw-dropping wrong. A colleague who is a forensic nurse says it's this kind of callous treatment that scares victims of sexual assault from pursuing justice. As a sexual assault nurse examiner, she sees a major part of her job as ensuring that her patients are treated respectfully and that their stories are heard.
When it comes to women in politics, while the United States falls far short compared with other countries (a CNN report counts 59 countries that have had women leaders), a woman was close to becoming president two years ago, and several women have announced their candidacy to run for president in 2020. Last November, Americans elected a record number of women to Congress (including nurse Lauren Underwood from Illinois). But four freshmen representatives (all women of color) have incurred the wrath of colleagues and the president for being outspoken about some of the most important issues facing this country. Their critics say that, as newcomers to Congress, the women should temper their opinions, be less vocal, and not assert positions contrary to party leadership. Some have been more forceful in their criticism and even support the president's suggestion that they leave the country instead of criticizing it. It reminds me of the verbal (and later physical) attacks on suffragists in the early 1900s, and on civil rights advocates and antiwar protesters in the 1960s.
I fear that the backlash against assertive, fearless women will silence other women across all settings, and as a profession largely comprising women, nursing needs to be concerned about this. In a health care system that often denies access to those who need it, nurses must speak out, whether advocating for one patient in our care or for an entire population. For those of us who are women, the stakes are even higher, as women's health care services are becoming increasingly unavailable in parts of this country. We need to advocate for ourselves and for future generations of women.
In the August 1919 issue of AJN, Helen Hoy Greeley, writing on gaining rank for nurses who served in the military, said, “The gist of the matter is that women's interests cannot safely be left entirely to the men. We must have our own representative women of grasp and understanding in positions of authority.” One hundred years later, I couldn't agree more.