Angels and Handmaidens: Beyond Nurse Stereotypes
This exhibition features items from the UWM History of American Nursing Collection. The collection focuses on primary printed sources that document the rise and development of American nursing issues, practice, and education from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. The collection also features a number of works that feature nurses and nursing as subjects of popular culture such as children’s career-fiction series, biographies and memoirs of nurses, and a collection of over 425 nurse-themed romance novels. That the Nurse Romance Novel Collection is designated as part of the UWM History of American Nursing Collection has not gone unprotested, especially by professionals who believe that these artifacts of popular culture present negative stereotypes of the profession. The representation of nursing in mass media has indeed been problematic. Romance novels, too, have generally been assigned a bad reputation despite their mass-readership.
This exhibition will treat romance novels as both consumer goods, whose form and aesthetic conventions can be examined, and as texts with narrative content, which can also be analyzed. It raises questions about the role mass media and popular culture play in influencing our understandings of both the past and the present. This exhibition is a demonstration of how to begin primary source research; it suggests numerous ways that students and scholars might approach popular romance as a resource, and gives examples of the types of questions that can be asked of resources from popular culture while inviting the viewer to generate their own questions about the sources. Romance fiction about nurses offers one lens through which we can explore how mass media participated in society's debates about women, work, care giving, domesticity, and marriage. Juxtaposing fictional representations of nurses with the educational and professional resources in the UWM History of American Nursing Collection offers touch points between fiction and reality.
The exhibition compliments my own Master’s thesis work with the Nurse Romance Novel Collection. I was initially attracted to their campy cover illustrations and trite captions that made me roll my eyes, but I quickly found that tropes in their texts and patterns in their aesthetics aroused more serious questions about the historical context of their production and consumption and about their relationship to broader issues facing women and nurses during the mid-twentieth century. This exhibition is meant to highlight the broad research possibilities and instructional value of artifacts from popular culture, especially to academic programs at UWM. More specifically, my goals are to promote awareness of the Nurse Romance Novel Collection, to advocate for its relevance to many disciplines, and to increase its use in research as well as instruction. But more than this, I hope to demonstrate that serious research can be playful, that research topics can come from unexpected sources, and that cultivating curiosity is a vital component to teaching and learning.
~ Katie Stollenwerk, UWM Special Collections Graduate Intern 2017-2020.
- Popular Romances as Primary Sources
- Nurse Stereotypes and Archetypes
- Critical Themes in Nurse Romance Novels
- Resources for Further Research