Florence Nightingale; Feminist

Most people have heard of Florence Nightingale.  Not all know why. And if they do, ‘nurse’ or ‘Crimean war’ can scarcely be expected to generate excitement.

Born into Victorian Britain’s elite, intelligent, attractive, and charming, desired by several eligible suitors, center of an admiring circle of friends, anchored in a loving family, young Florence yearned for freedom.  Freedom to pursue her grail – to nurse the less fortunate. But daughters of her class did not nurse the poor and sick. Drunks and whores did.

Pitch-forked by chance into the Crimean War, (1854-1856) Nightingale brought order to the catastrophic chaos of British army hospitals.  Nightly, while inspecting her four miles of wards, Florence ministered to thousands of patients; they revered ‘the lady with the lamp.’ Her war work made Nightingale an icon at age thirty-four, the only British hero of the war.

She could never forget that fractured army of bloody, lice-infested skeletons who flooded into her hospitals.  So, despite poor health, Florence dedicated her life to preventing another Crimean calamity: the needless death of thousands of soldiers due to preventable causes.  Hygienic army installations, sanitation for India, and the creation of modern nursing owe much to Nightingale.

For decades biographers have portrayed Florence as manipulating a psychosomatic, even imagined, illness, to impose her will on family and friends.  Modern scholarship proves otherwise. This turns Nightingale from a neurotic into a compelling woman who had a dream at a time when such dreams were taboo, and makes more poignant her epic struggle to succeed.  

To Victorians, Nightingale personified their ideal of nurturing female.  Hindsight provides a wider perspective. By creating a profession for women, a means to individual liberty, Nightingale stands among the founders of modern feminism.