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Divided sisterhood: race, class and gender in the South African nursing profession

Medical History
Cambridge University Press
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  • History
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Book Reviews Shula Marks, Divided sisterhood: race, class and gender in the South African nursing profession, Basingstoke, St Martin's Press, 1994, pp. xiii, 306, £40.00 (0-312-10643-2). The history of nursing in South Africa is one to which only an historian of ability can do justice. This unpromising topic-at least to South African eyes-encapsulates all the contradictions and ambiguities of life in a complex and divided society. Modem professional nursing developed late in South Africa, only after the discovery of diamonds attracted to disease-ridden Kimberley South Africa's "Florence Nightingale", Sister Henrietta Stockdale. The history of nursing in South Africa is dominated by two formidable women, Stockdale herself, and Charlotte Searle. Both white, both middle class, both cherishing visions of nurses as "ladies", both were successful ultimately because they conformed to the norms of the ruling establishment. In the case of Stockdale this was patriarchal British imperialism; for Searle it was the equally male-dominated policy of apartheid. The result was to create and mould a profession which accepted subordination to an authoritarian medical profession as well as the poor wages and exhausting conditions commonly accorded to working women, reinforced by a class and race-bound hierarchy. Only in 1944 did South African nursing begin to gain control over its profession, in circumstances fraught with ambiguities. This untenable situation created great tension within the nursing profession. The issue of gently-bred white "ladies" nursing black men opened the doors to the training of black women; a shortage of English-speaking women paved the way for working-class Afrikaans nurses. Both groups found themselves second-class citizens within the profession. Afrikaans women resented their exclusion from the ruling councils. For black women nursing was even more problematic. Deliberately trained as "self-conscious harbingers of modernity" to their own people, they were trapped in two worlds, accept

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