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Cleansing and Polluting: Nurses and Domestic Goddesses

This session will focus on women’s traditional health role, nursing, and its dramatic evolution. Changes in nursing practice and education during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took place against the backdrop of hospital reform, and the typology of the nurse shifted from the Sairey Gamp imagery of drunken old hag to a new image of a virginal, malleable young girl, an angel in white. While nursing offered new opportunities to women, work in an institutional context dominated by doctors brought its own problems of hierarchy and restriction. At the kernel of reform were debates on hygienic practices and standards, as the nurse became an agent of cleanliness, yet at the same time women’s bodies were themselves framed as polluted and dangerous. Domestic hygiene also became the focus of reformers in the late nineteenth century, and lack of cleanliness in the home firmly attributed to women, especially mothers. At the turn of the twentieth century women reformers used the germ theory of diseases to urge ever higher standards of hygiene in the home.


Alison Bashford, Purity and Pollution: Gender, Embodiment and Victorian Medicine (1998), esp chs 1-3.

* Rima D. Apple, ‘Image or reality? Photographs in the history of nursing’, in Anne Hudson Jones (ed.), Images of Nurses: Perspectives from History, Art, and Literature (1988), 40-62.

* Nancy Tomes, ‘”Little world of our own”: The Pennsylvania Hospital Training School for Nurses, 1895- 1907’, in Leavitt (ed.), Women and Health in America, 1st edn, 467-81.

Joan Lynaugh, ‘Institutionalizing women’s health care in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America’, in Apple (ed.), Women, Health, and Medicine in America, ch. 10.

* Anne Witz, Professions and Patriarchy (1992), ch. 5.

* Perry Williams, ‘The laws of health: women, medicine and sanitary reform, 1850- 1890’, in Marina Benjamin (ed.), Science and Sensibility: Gender and Scientific Enquiry 1780-1945 (1991), 60-88.

Celia Davies, ‘The health visitor as mother’s friend: a woman’s place in public health, 1900- 14’, Social History of Medicine, 1 (1988), 39-59.

* Nancy Tomes, ‘Spreading the germ theory: sanitary science and home economics, 1880- 1930’, in Leavitt (ed.), Women and Health in America, 2nd edn, 596-611.

Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (1998).

B. Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (1978), ch. 5 (Microbes and the Manufacture of Housework).

Judith Walzer Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (1996).

* Judith Walzer Leavitt, ‘Gendered expectations: women and early twentieth-century public health’, in Leavitt (ed.), Women and Health in America, 2nd edn, 612-33.

There are also a number of websites on Typhoid Mary.