What is a Matron?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The meaning of the word “matron” varies, depending on the content. In its earliest sense, a matron was a married woman or a widow. Over time, the word evolved to be used to describe a female supervisor in a situation like an orphanage, school, prison, or hospital. In nations which use British English, the “matron” is the head nurse, responsible for the oversight of the nursing department. Readers of British novels may also be familiar with “matron” in the sense of supervisor or nurse in a boarding school, as injured characters are usually sent off to the matron for attention.

A matron may refer to a head nurse at a hospital.
A matron may refer to a head nurse at a hospital.

The term is derived from the Latin mater, which means “mother.” The Romans used the word matrona to refer to a married woman, since married women generally became mothers. The word was also used to describe widows and women of high social standing, implying a sense of authority derived from their motherhood and married position. By the 1300's, the word had entered English as “matron” to describe married women, and in the 1500's, it began to be used to describe a female supervisor or head of department.

A matron may refer to a female supervisor at an orphanage.
A matron may refer to a female supervisor at an orphanage.

Early matrons were usually the wives of male superintendents. In a prison, for example, the warden's wife might oversee health care and basic comforts for those imprisoned, while the warden handled administrative paperwork, prison processing, and punishments. Matrons would also have overseen female prisoners. In schools, the matron was often the wife of the schoolmaster. Over time, the matron became a standalone position, as seen in hospitals today.

A female supervisor at a boarding school may be referred to as a matron.
A female supervisor at a boarding school may be referred to as a matron.

Some people think of matrons as mother figures. In the sense of being formidable organizers, they are sort of like mothers, but they may not necessarily dispense the comfort associated with mothers. A matron is often a very busy woman, responsible for a large crew of people and for ensuring that her charges are well cared for. In a hospital, the matron oversees patient care, staffing, cleanliness standards, scheduling, catering, and so forth, ensuring that the hospital runs smoothly and efficiently.

The position of matron was one of the earliest positions of authority to be associated with women. Matrons laid the groundwork for future generations of women to work in a wide range of industries and positions by showing society that women were perfectly capable of management, whether that management take the form of looking after a boarding school or handling a busy hospital.

Matrons led the way for future generations of women to have more options when it came to which industries and jobs they could work in.
Matrons led the way for future generations of women to have more options when it came to which industries and jobs they could work in.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

KoiwiGal

@umbra21 - It's probably seen as somewhat negative because of the jobs where women end up being called matrons. They are often in charge of children or young people who are naturally going to resent authority and would not consider being compared to it as a compliment.

I don't think it is always a comment on appearance, but that might be a cultural thing as well. It doesn't seem to be a common word in American English. I have heard of a "maid of honor" more often than a matron.

umbra21

@bythewell - I've only ever heard the word matron associated with weddings, as in the matron of honor, who is a married woman in the bridesmaids group who is usually the leader and in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly and the bride doesn't get too stressed out. It made sense, because that is an ideal role for someone who had already gone through a wedding and, more importantly, perhaps, has been married as well and can put the day in perspective.

I don't think I'd mind being called matronly, to be honest, if it was put in that kind of context. People might see it as an insult because they think all women should aspire to look as young as possible, but I'd rather be an authority than a young-looking person who wasn't taken seriously.

bythewell

I like the fact that this article emphasizes that matrons are well organized and basically leaders of whatever they are in charge of. I don't like it when a woman is referred to as "matronly" and it's meant to imply that she is older or overweight. It's a very negative stereotype, even though it usually isn't meant to be, because it takes all the positive aspects of being a matron away and just leaves you with a criticism of appearance.

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