Women in mental health nursing: Angels or custodians?

Chatterton, Claire (2000). Women in mental health nursing: Angels or custodians? International History of Nursing Journal, 5(2) pp. 11–19.


Like other 'Cinderella' services mental health nursing has received much less attention from historians than general nursing. However a study of its history can illuminate such issues as the division of labour, gender, images of nursing, professionalisation and unionisation. Drawing on primary historical sources, including hospital archives and contemporaneous reports and journals, the author considers the role of women in mental health nursing, from its origins to the onset of the NHS in 1948. The development of mental health nursing differed substantially from general nursing. It could be argued that the tensions between the two were never more apparent than in the debate surrounding the registration of nursing in the early twentieth century. Female mental health nurses fighting with police in the Radcliff Strike in 1922 portrays a much less famous image in nursing's history than Florence Nightingale with her lamp. The dichotomy between the custodial nature of the Victorian asylum system and the caring ethos espoused by the advocates of 'moral management' created many tensions. Images of nurses as angels, responding to a calling or vocation, sat uneasily with the large numbers of men working in the asylums and the growth of trade unionism in this period, particularly after the foundation of the National Asylum Workers Union in 1910. The periods of industrial unrest in the mental hospitals of the inter-war years saw women members playing an important role; this has important ramifications for mental health nursing today.

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