My battle against the nurse’s cap

Originally published on KevinMD

Florence Nightingale was among the first nurses who started wearing a nurse’s cap.

The cap was derived by nuns and represented those caring for the sick. Hair was neatly tightened into a bun and covered by the cap.
Back then becoming a nurse was typically seen as a female profession, but men were allowed to become nurses too. In 1930, only one percent of RNs nationwide were male.

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s I led a typical childhood that included watching my dad go off to work while my mom stayed at home, took care of the kids, did laundry, ironing, and preparing a culinary masterpiece of a meal every night.

It wasn’t until I got old that I realized my mother was “trapped.” A man’s world dictated her life. Though my dad was an IBM executive, we all knew that mom knew the math down to the cent. Had she had the chance to run the household finances, she would have been well off.

Daddy made the big bucks, and mom was only given an allowance.

Although the ‘60s and ‘70s erupted like a cultural volcano — women’s lib marches, bra burnings, and equal rights, opportunities and pay were all over the news. There was still a heavy sense of suppression in the air.

As females in our household, we would learn that when it was time for college and time for a career, we had few choices. Secretary, teacher, nurse, flight attendant, bank teller, waitress and wife, and mother. That was it. If you were a man, the door of opportunity was wide open: accountant, engineer, chemist, MD, pilot, lawyer.

I was not given a choice. My mother told me that I would be a nurse.

Never having been around sick people, I was scared to death. To get a job and finally leave my parent’s house, I finished the LPN program.

By 1985, I was completing college to graduate and become an RN, and that’s where this story takes off!!

In nursing school, I hated the nursing cap. I felt submissive and subservient with a cap on my head. It served no purpose except to remind me that I was in a man’s world.

Nursing school was harsh and difficult. Instructors were cruel and talked down to us. We were reminded that it was appropriate for instructors to talk down to us and belittle us, as this would be the way MDs would treat us once we graduated from nursing school.

We were to stand up when an MD came into a medical-surgical unit. We were to offer our chair to an MD. We were endlessly reminded that we were the low man on the totem pole.

When it came time to graduate from RN school, a fellow “militant” nursing school friend teamed up with me, and we decided to refuse to wear a nursing cap for our graduation. We were told by the chief of the nursing school that they would not graduate us if we did not wear a cap.

And so we did.

I was able to snag a job in the ICU. The year was 1986. It was a very large hospital. Nursing caps were mandatory. A class-action lawsuit was being introduced as female nurses could only wear dresses. This case was settled out of court, and we were able to wear scrub pants. So this was a major victory.

My first year as an RN, I decided to refuse to wear my nursing cap. It was a bacterial carrier from one patient room where the patient may have an open chest from surgery to another patient’s room that had serious infections. 
I found the cap meaningless and filled with nasty microorganisms.

Yearly evaluations came with a merit raise. And though I scored high on all procedures in ICU, I was denied my merit raise. The reason — I refused to wear my nursing cap.

Year two in ICU left me even more determined as I once again refused to wear a nursing cap. And once again, I was denied my merit raise.

When it came for our merit evaluations, I was denied again for the same reason.

And with that came my outburst.

“The only reason I am forced to wear a nursing cap is because I do not have a penis. If I had a penis, I would be free from this appendage that has no constructive value to it.

If you don’t give me my merit raise, I will get a lawyer and file against this institution for sex-dress discrimination.”

And with that, I received my merit raises and never wore that cap again.

Hats off to those people who influenced me: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Martin Luther King Jr., President John Kennedy, women’s liberation, National Organization for Women (NOW), Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, and the civil rights movement.

And because of these strong people, little girls across this great country of ours can dream of what they want to be when they grow up. They can now make their own decisions and make their dreams come true.

Power to the people.