The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is now 100 years old and it’s quite mind-boggling how much has changed since 1916 – especially when it comes to women.
The RCN was incredibly unique, founded not only for women – but for professional women which was truly ground-breaking in 1916. It’s a legacy I am proud to be part of, and it is through the words of these trailblazing women, that I have chosen to tell the RCN’s story.
“The work of the College of Nursing … has brought the influence of the nurses to bear on all questions relating to the interests of women, political and social”– Sarah Swift, 1916: Founding member, Chair and later President 1925-27
The College was founded by Dame Sarah Swift, matron in chief of the British Red Cross. Nurses were vital to war relief efforts, yet the profession was completely unregulated. Sarah formed the College in order to campaign for a consistent curriculum for nursing education, a standardised examination and an official register of qualified nurses.
But for Sarah this was about more than just nursing. This was about establishing women as a professional force. In forming and developing the College, Sarah was forging the way for women to make their own living, receiving equal rights both as workers – and as citizens.
“I am convinced that the best results in the nursing of our patients can be achieved only by the maintenance of a high standard of training” – Mildred Hughes President 1944-46
As well as a pioneer for women’s rights, the College also fast became a force to be reckoned with in terms of training education. Funds donated by Lady Cowdray allowed the College to hire its first full time education officer in 1927, as well as expanding the range of courses available to registered nurses to develop their skills and abilities.
The College’s education department was founded in 1930 and with it the RCN’s stronghold in nursing education.
“The work of the nurse today takes her far beyond the four walls of the hospital into a much wider sphere” – Lucy Duff Grant RCN President 1950-52
As the College continued to grow, so did its reputation and we received our Royal Charter in 1939 in recognition of nurses’ work in the preparations for the Second World War. With conflict on the horizon demand was growing for nurses outside of the hospital ward, from communities to factories and the RCN played a part in making these roles a reality. In fact, the College’s first ever training certificate awarded to a man was in industrial nursing.
“If people are to receive the health service they expect – care and treatment free at the time of need – the NHS must be adequately financed” – Eirlys Rees RCN President 1976-1980
While the RCN had provided training for nurses of both genders for a number of years, in 1960 the RCN opened its membership to male nurses for the first time ever.
However, finance fast became the issue of the hour. Nurses had seen their pay fall 60% below the national average salary between 1955 and 1960 – prompting the RCN’s first ever pay campaign in 1962.
This sparked several decades of campaigning for better pay, including ‘Raise the Roof’ in 1969 and the famous ‘Pay not Peanuts’ campaign a decade later. But this was about far more than money. It was about valuing the nursing profession, a cause that remains a driving force in the RCN to this day.
“We are building a future together for all nurses. We are stronger when we stand together, and as nurses we are stronger because of our diversity” – Christine Watson RCN President 1998-2000
The RCN has continued to diversify and strengthen the nursing profession, with healthcare assistants officially being welcomed into our membership in 2001.
Nursing is not about boundaries. That’s why we successfully campaigned to put nursing staff on the Shortage Occupation List in 2015, allowing nursing staff from outside of the European Economic Areato continue making their critical contribution to our health service for years to come.
“At the end of a long nursing career I can say that the nurse’s life is an extremely full and happy one, and few nurses would wish to change it for any other life”– Annie Warren Gill, President 1927-29
Yes, a lot has changed in 100 years – from women’s rights to innovations in medical treatments. And yet, we mustn’t forget what hasn’t changed. Annie Warren Gill may have been speaking about nursing back in the Twenties but her words are still as relevant today.
Happy Centenary RCN.
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