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Women Hospital Workers
by Gene, Lucy, Sue Ellen, Eileen reprinted from Women: A Journal of Liberation, Vol. 2, No. 3 1971.
We are a group of women working in Boston area hospitals in various capacities — as medical students, receptionists, secretaries, aides and technicians. Most of us entered the women’s movement a few years ago, relieved or excited to move away from abstract “movement” discussions about false consciousness or class analysis. No longer did we sit around talking into the night about rhetorical concepts. Instead, we drew conclusions based on our own experiences about the problems and pleasures of being a woman in this society.
In our initial enthusiasm for a women’s movement, it seemed to us as if our common experiences as women — the expectation that we would all be housewives, our lower pay, the degrading use of our bodies in a thousand different ways — were so overwhelming that we could overcome all other divisions which split us up. Working in the real everyday world of men and women, employers and employees, has caused some of us to reconsider.
This group, whose occupations cover a wide range of the hospital hierarchy, sat down one night to try to understand how our roles as women intersected with the other hospital roles we had to play. We discovered that our work experience has taught us several things: (1) that it is easier to relate to others on the same “level” as ourselves, men or women, than to relate to women on levels different from ours; (2) that for us as women who possess a consciousness of women’s liberation, decent, equal friendships with other women are easier to talk about than to achieve; (3) that a common struggle for sisterhood is buried in a work situation where the oppressions of class, rank, education, and sex merge together.
Two dynamics seem to be at work as we view our job experiences: how we are treated and how we treat other women. In many of the ways we are treated as women, it makes little difference what our position is. All women, of course, are treated with paternalism in an industry whose leaders and managers are predominantly male.
Eileen, a medical student: “One of my teaching doctors called me ‘sugar’ for the whole month I worked with him. With eight male doctors and one female doctor making rounds together, the men seem to feel, ‘Isn’t it cute that this little girl follows us around.”‘
Lucy; a medical student: “Male doctors also seem to think that patting women on the head while explaining something to us helps our learning process.”
Experiences like these are also common to technicians and secretaries.
Connie, a secretary: “I was blamed for losing an important key which a doctor had had in his possession all day long. Finally, when he discovered his mistake, he appeased me by saying that he admired my new coat, and patted my hair, saying it looked nice.”
Sue Ellen, a secretary: “One doctor stops by our office to comment continually about our clothes and hair, as if this topic is the only thing that interests us, and the only thing which makes us interesting to the office.” All women — nurses, secretaries, doctors — are expected to function as objects for male eyes and egos.
The isolation of various “intelligence levels,” however, is part of what splits us up as women. There is a difference in the treatment accorded to women doctors and the treatment accorded to lower-echelon women. Male doctors seem to assume that women doctors are smart — although not as smart as male doctors — whereas all other women are not too bright. Hence lines like these:
Male doctor to female medical student: “Gee, it’s really nice to talk to you because I usually only get to talk to dumb nurses.”
“The nurses are really bad. I have to check everything they do.”
Lucy: “When I hear other women put down all the time for ‘stupidity,’ it makes me feel like I can’t defend them or identify with them. As a female medical student, I end up achieving respect only by negative comparison with other women in the hospital system. In other words, male doctors only see female doctors as ‘smart’ in comparison with nurses as ‘dumb.’ I’m made to feel that I’m putting my sisters down by my very existence, regardless of my politics.”
Hospitals also promote a kind of “institutionalized stupidity” among technicians and lower level workers. For example, Sue, a cardiology technician, feels she hasn’t learned much cardiology in the last year but not because people refused to teach her.
“It’s not that I can’t learn new things, but that I get rewards for things such as keeping the shelves well stocked, keeping the floor running well, having everything in its right place.”
Secretaries are rewarded for taking accurate phone messages about blood counts and test results, not for understanding what these facts mean. Those are the kinds of jobs that consume mental time, like housework. They leave little energy or incentive to learn something for which you will not be rewarded, or even recognized.
These problems tell us that sex discrimination is certainly blatant in our hospitals — but that it is clearly divided according to the hospital hierarchy. The way doctors treat other female doctors, nurses, technicians, maids, and dietary workers is clearly an oppression of women. But it is an oppression of women combined with a class oppression. Many of us are college educated women, regardless of our rank in our hospitals. We all have trouble relating to young working class men who handle transportation and do maintenance work. On one level they oppress us by making suggestive remarks and pestering us as we pass in the hall. On the other level, we oppress them, by our connection with the system of property, birth and education which keeps them tied to boring, low-paying work. Our job opportunities are not so closed as theirs. The doctors treat even the lowliest receptionist — college educated, young, female — with more consideration than a dietary worker, orderly, or maid.
Among women, the crossing of these divisions seems particularly difficult when we must ask other women to do work for us. Given that we cannot revolutionize the hospital situation and share different kinds of work, we must sometimes “give orders.” The medical students said they felt guilty when giving nurses orders. Eileen said she often felt so uncomfortable at being a woman in a so-called superior position that she was flabbergasted if a nurse volunteered to help her.
“When I do a messy procedure leaving bottles and dirty gauze around, I start to clean up after myself. But a nurse will always offer to do it. But why should she? I mess it up — yet my time is supposed to be more valuable than hers.”
As he laments the difficulties of putting a field emission gun in a million volt STEM system, he states, “We could do it if we had ten people working for a couple of years, but we’ve got one person and a couple of technicians. ” (Emphasis mine). One would have to search long for a more classic example of the depersonalization imposed upon technicians today.
— From Microstructures, Vol. III, No. 5.
For men doctors, the harshness of orders is softened through sexual flirtation (or that’s how the game is supposed to be played). But for women there can be no candy coating, and an attempt at an honest, open working relationship is not always recognized as such.
The problem of giving orders also exists for technicians and secretaries, in a different form. We usually feel bad asking people “below” us to do things. For instance, asking maids to clean up milk we have spilled, or asking secretaries to file things we could file.
Relations between levels on the hospital hierarchy seem to differ according to the nature of the jobs involved. The medical students feel the most tension with the nurses, whose occupation and tasks are closest to their own. The technicians and secretaries, on the other hand, most of whom are working in a self-contained ward or department, seemed to feel the greatest unity with all personnel (except doctors) in their unit, and the most tension with those far above them, or far beneath them, like the maids, who seem to be terrorized by the spectre of displeasing a ward’s administrative secretary.
Women’s consciousness is clearly not enough to surmount the barriers presented by the rigid hospital hierarchy. We are cut off from other potentially radical groups in the hospital because we are white, female, middle class. The only woman who finds it easy to make men and women friends and to talk about change in the hospital and in the country is a roving technician, whose rank is not clearly visible by uniform or task. No one else can quite define her job or identify her educational rank. But in most cases the lines which cannot be crossed are very clear.
For instance, both technicians in our group discussed problems in relating to women doctors. The “Aunt Tomasina” syndrome seems to be in evidence, in which women students and interns seem busily trying to improve themselves in a man’s world by asserting their authority over everyone else, especially other women. Women who must work with them are caught in the difficult trap of trying to treat an oppressor as a “sister in struggle.” It comes down to a question of whom to reach with the ideas of women’s liberation. The answer for us is clearly that we want to reach those people who have the most need of banding together for collective action. And that’s surely not the doctors.
This eventual conclusion makes it hard for women medical students since it seems to say that there’s no point being one. “Even the women’s movement doesn’t support me in my work — who can I organize? Who is my sister?” Yet at the same time, those of us who are not medical students cry out for more women doctors, placing our .medical student sisters in a double bind.
Despite the fact that the rigidity of the hospital hierarchy and the role of class in hospital job roles impede clear organization of women about sex oppression, the male doctor on the throne of the hospital needs to be deposed. Even competent female medical students, with strong consciousness about women’s oppression, feel brainwashed into assuming that the women colleagues won’t be so good as the men. One of the few women Eileen could remember whose medical opinion was respected as a man’s was a woman who was considered sexually unattractive, and not accepted as a woman, but as “one of the boys.”
The picture for organizing women as women in hospitals does not seem bright to us. It is clear that economic oppression and the hospital hierarchy keeps people apart more than women’s oppression brings them together. A way out of this situation, for us at least, has been to assert our women’s consciousness in arguments with interested male doctors, to feel “liberated” if we have told a doctor to get his own coffee, or check his own charts. The complexities of dealing with hospitals as institutions have lulled us into a reactive role rather than an offensive move to unite women.
In some ways we have found this depressing, although not really any more depressing than many other things about the state of the world and our women’s movement. We still feel that there are important things to try to do as women hospital workers.
(1) We want to try to create unity among workers in a department, floor, or station. This means trying to cross lines, not through favors or flirtations, but through conscious collective decision-making as to what is best for patients and workers. (This is our fantasy.)
(2) We want to help destroy the myth of the competency and glamour of the male doctor. For those of us who work directly with the patients, this means trying to act as patient advocates, helping patients to overcome their fear and awe of the “doc.”
(3) We want to avoid the pose of the lone women’s liberation advocate. We want to avoid arguments with doctors on the politics of women’s liberation, and concentrate on helping ourselves and other women understand each other’s shortcomings.
(4) We want to try to create unity within our own levels; to understand how our jobs are oppressive, stupid, or useful. Especially in hospitals, where we care about patients getting optimal treatment, we care that the place where we work runs well even though it is headed by capitalist men.