Florence Nightingale is widely recognized as the founder of modern nursing. What’s far less known is that Florence Nightingale was one of the world’s first feminists.
Nightingale was born in 1820 to an upper-class English family that moved in the highest circles of British society. She came of age in Victorian England, when women of her class were expected to marry, bear children, and spend their time socializing with others of comparable social standing. Women simply didn’t attend universities or pursue professional careers.
Nightingale nonetheless dreamed of being a nurse. Her family, totally opposed to the idea, insisted that she conform to a woman’s traditional role. Courted for nine years by a Baron, Nightingale rejected him because she was convinced that marriage would interfere with her ability to follow her calling to be a nurse. She wrote in her diary.
I have a moral, an active nature which requires satisfaction that I would not find in [the Baron’s] life. I could be satisfied to spend a life with him in combining our different powers to some great object. I could not satisfy this nature by spending a life with him in making society and arranging domestic things.
In 1851, despite the intense objections and anger of her family, she enrolled as a nursing student in Germany. (There was no hospital or school that trained nurses in Great Britain.) When her education was complete, she returned to London to work in a hospital.
The Crimean War broke out in 1853. When reports got back to England about the horrific conditions wounded British troops had to endure, Nightingale decided to do something about it. Ignoring the deep prejudice against women’s involvement in medicine, Nightingale and 38 volunteer nurses whom she’d trained, traveled to Constantinople to work at the British military hospital.
Nightingale was appalled by the conditions that she found there. Patients lay in their own excrement. Filth and vermin were everywhere. Medicines were in short supply. Mass infections were common. Five times more soldiers died from illnesses like typhus, cholera, and dysentery than died from battle wounds.
Nightingale was on her feet 20 hours a day caring for the soldiers and cleaning the hospital. She embarked on a campaign to get the British army to improve the hygiene and care soldiers received in its hospitals. But military officers and doctors interpreted her criticisms as an attack on their professionalism and fiercely objected to the reforms she proposed.
Undeterred, she used her contacts at The London Times to report on the British Army’s scandalous treatment of its wounded. The newspaper took up her cause and, after a barrage of publicity, the army gave Nightingale the task of improving sanitation in its hospitals and organizing the soldiers’ care. Her work significantly reduced the death rate in army hospitals.
When the war ended in 1856, Nightingale returned to Britain and continued to press the Army to improve the quality of its medical care. Her efforts resulted in the creation of Britain’s Army Medical College. She then turned her attention to getting civilian hospitals to adopt sanitary conditions.
In 1859 she wrote a book, Notes on Nursing, that is still considered a classic. In 1860, she opened the Nightingale School for Nurses whose mission was to train nurses to work in hospitals and to care for the poor.
Nightingale was also an advocate for women’s rights. In her 1859 book, Suggestions for Thought to Searchers After Religious Truths, she argued strongly for the removal of restrictions that prevented women from having careers.
Considering the severe constraints on the kinds of activities deemed suitable for women by Victorian society and the ferocious male opposition Florence Nightingale encountered, her achievements were truly remarkable.