Nurses represent the nation's largest health care worker with over 3.1 million registered nurses in the United States and have the potential to make significant contributions to public policy on behalf of the patients they serve. Although nurses have been politically active since the 19th century, few nurses have pursued elected office at the state or national level. In 2000, approximately 100 nurses held political office, representing 0.005% of the total two million registered nurses (Feldman & Lewenson, 2000). Eleven years later, less than 100 nurses are serving in state legislatures (ANA, 2010). The journey of nurses to elected state legislative positions or the characteristics that might motivate nurses to seek public office have not previously been studied. The purpose of the study was to explore and describe the personal attributes, motivators, and life experiences of an elected nurse state legislator.
A naturalistic design and grounded theory techniques were used to guide a qualitative study with the existing population of approximately 87 elected nurse state legislators in the United States. A demographic and electronic interview format was the primary instrument with open ended questions using Survey Monkey for collecting and analyzing demographic data. The response rate was 23% with 21 nurse legislators completing or partially completing the survey.
Demographically, the nurse legislators were predominately female, Caucasian, married/partnered, democratic, and older with a moderate to higher income level. The majority of the nurses were highly educated with master's degrees, which demonstrated significant diversity n their field of study. The vast majority of nurses had been practicing nursing over 30 years and just over 50% were continuing the nursing career with many of the remaining participants in retirement. In contrast, the nurses were in elected office close to 12 years on average, but the range was diverse from 2 to 30 years. Nursing experiences were predominately as clinical staff nurses, nurse managers, and academia. The majority of nurses were members of professional nursing organizations in the past, but the memberships declined for the current year; while, the political, philanthropic, and civic organizational memberships significantly increased from past to present.
A thematic narrative analysis of political activism in nursing evolved from three major themes to include early imprints, evolutionary journey, and illuminating actions. Within the theme of early imprints, the categories are political family heritage; diverse life experiences; valued traits; and knowledge and skills. The categories for evolutionary journey are political exposures, passionate altruism, supportive connectedness; defining moments; and openness to discovery. Illuminating action was characterized by the categories of voice of the voiceless; making a difference; caring on a grand scale; and a moral imperative to the common good.
The study of currently elected nurse legislators added significant insight and knowledge into a population of nurses who are contributing to state and national public policy issues. The knowledge gained from the study may enable nurse educators to foster political activism in young nurses and facilitate more nurses who are interested in public office to pursue their dreams through the identified journey of political activism.