Pioneer of nursing rights acknowledged

One of the great pioneers of nursing rights Margaret Ann (Gretta) Lyons, was recently acknowledged at the Victorian Alfred Hospital Nurses League Inc. Centenary Luncheon this month.

Gretta set up the Alfred Hospital Nurses League to allow Alfred nurses to socialise and exchange ideas. She went on to actively pave the way to improve conditions for nurses in that state.

Gretta entered general nursing at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, seen as the pioneer in nurse-training, their training school had extended its program to three years.

During these years student nurses at The Alfred (and other hospitals) were not paid for varying periods of their course. Additionally they worked long hours.

Following graduation in 1898, Gretta initially stayed at The Alfred, before working in nursing positions in Queensland and Victoria, including that of Matron and running her own private hospital. As a sign that she was a woman ahead of her time she travelled abroad in 1912 on a study tour, learning chiropody in Paris, and then opening a private practice in Melbourne.

From early in her nursing career Gretta had an abiding interest in the welfare of women, gaining support from The Alfred Hospital’s Board of Management in her endeavours.

She lived in a time when strong prejudices sought to keep women in their place, and when nurses were taught to ‘observe and obey’. The environment of The Alfred Hospital, known as a reform-minded institution, no doubt influenced her intense interest in doing something to improve conditions for nurses.

Only a year after graduating, Gretta commenced what would be for her, 24 year run of speaking out for nurses at the front line of nursing care, until her untimely death at the age of 53.

She initially joined the Australasian Trained Nurses Association, the first professional association for nurses in Australia. Then she became a founding member of the Victorian Trained Nurses Association, which was later granted a Royal Charter to become the Royal Victorian Trained Nurses Association (RVTNA).

A decade later, and by this time an ardent supporter of registration for nurses, Gretta and some other pro-registrationists gained positions on the council of the RVTNA.

In response to those against registration Gretta expressed well what nurses hoped to achieve by this legislation “…we will give the public what they paid for – a nurse trained and certificated according to the recognised standard”.

Despite the RVTNA’s work in the early 1900’s to gain registration for nurses in Victoria, they procrastinated, and Gretta became increasingly frustrated with their seeming inability to progress this reform.

Even though she was on the council and then, in 1918, the President of the RVTNA, she still wasn’t able to shift the organisation from their conservative inertia regarding nurses’ hours of work and rates of pay.

Her frustration at what she saw as the RVTNA’s 20 years of doing nothing to improve nurses’ conditions, especially salaries, culminated in her forming the Trained Nurses Guild in 1921.

Nurses’ salaries had stood still for more than 20 years and Gretta was determined to right that wrong. However, she faced huge opposition, even from those hospital nurses who she sought to help, due to their reluctance to abandon a 50 year tradition of deference to superiors’ wishes.

And, nurses who, like Gretta, were private hospital owners ‘felt it was improper for nurses to consider such sordid questions as remuneration’.

The whole idea of nurses being involved in industrial activities was seen as tainting their quest for professionalism. With opposition coming also from the RVTNA, Gretta had no choice but to resign from her position on Council.

Despite the tsunami of opposition, and just like the ANMF of today, Gretta appears not to have been daunted by such antagonism. She remained steadfast in her concerns:

  • for the welfare of nurses at the front line;
  • for nurses who were being exploited by the employers;
  • for seeing nurses making decisions in nursing associations rather than these organisations being top heavy with men from outside of nursing – doctors, lawyers, business men;
  • for nurses being in control of their destinies just as she had observed overseas; and
  • for nurses gaining registration.

In early 1922 the Arbitration Court recognised the Trained Nurses’ Guild as the voice of Victorian nurses by approving the registration of the Guild as an organisation of Employees in or in connexion with the nursing industry under Commonwealth legislation.

This was however to be a hollow victory as the Guild suffered severely from its opponents, and its numbers dwindled.

Gretta Lyons died on 3 November 1923, at the age of 53. Sadly, she didn’t live to see either the achievement of state registration for which she had fought, or the resurrection of an industrial body for nurses. In July 1924 the Nurses Registration Act was proclaimed in Victoria; and, in the same year the Australian Nursing Federation was established.

Gretta’s amazing tenacity had laid the ground work for both these significant achievements for the nursing profession, and for this we owe her our gratitude.

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