May 12, 1820 – Florence Nightingale:
”I have lived and slept in the same bed with English countesses and Prussian farm women… no woman has excited passions among women more than I have.”
Florence Nightingale was a trailblazing figure who had a profound influence on 19th and 20th century nursing. She was known for her night rounds to aid the wounded, earning her the moniker: ”Lady with the Lamp”.
Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy, the city which inspired her name, a member of a wealthy family that belonged to an elite social circle. She defied the expectations of her era and pursued what she saw as her God-given calling to nursing. During the Crimean War, she and a team of nurses improved the unsanitary conditions at a British base hospital, greatly reducing the death count. Her writings sparked worldwide health care reform, and in 1860 she established St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses.
Her mother, Frances Nightingale, was part a family of merchants and took pride in socializing with people of prominent standing. Despite her mother’s interests, Nightingale was awkward in social situations and preferred to avoid being the center of attention whenever possible.
Her father, William Edward Nightingale, changed his original surname “Shore”. He was a wealthy landowner with two estates. He provided his daughter with a classical education, with studies in mathematics along with German, French and Italian.
Even when she was young, Nightingale was active in philanthropy, tending to the needs of the ill and poor people in the villages near her family’s estates. Nightingale decided that nursing was her calling; she believed the vocation to be her divine purpose.
When Nightingale told her parents about her ambitions to become a nurse, they were not pleased and forbade her to pursue the training. During the Victorian Era, English women had almost no rights, a young woman of Nightingale’s social stature was expected to marry a man of means to ensure her class standing, not take a job that was viewed as lowly menial labor.
Nightingale had several women she loved passionately. First there was her cousin, Marianna Nicholson. Nightingale spent so many years pretending to like Nicholson’s brother, Henry, even living with them, until he proposed to her. She declined, and Marianna stopped talking to her. She was devastated.
Nicholson was replaced by Hilary Shore, another cousin who she adored and stayed until her own family demanded her return. Always considered one of the boys, Nightingale never married, and historians coyly claimed that she was completely “chaste.”
Nightingale hated socializing, courting, and pretty much everything expected of women of her era. She also loathed women who played into those assumptions. She fought for decades with her entire family regarding her refusal to meet society’s expectations, and eventually she got her way and went on to revolutionize the field of nursing.
She was replaced by Hilary, a cousin who adored Florence and stayed until her own family demanded her return. Always considered “one of the boys,” Florence died having changed the world, but never married, and, according to historians, completely ”chaste”.
I want to be clear, Nightingale was deeply religious, and I am not insisting that that she engaged in lesbian activity (and I don’t mean softball, therapy or building bookshelves), only that, had she not committed herself to God, she probably would have preferred the special company of women. Who can blame her? Remember, you don’t have to have sex to be gay, but it certainly helps.
Nightingale rebuffed at least four marriage proposals, one from a man who reportedly pursued her for nine years!
She was very close to her female cousins and her aunt Mai Smith, describing their relationship as ”Like two lovers”. For centuries, it was common to marry a cousin, so I guess they looked at things a little differently.
Nightingale wrote of her cousin Marianna:
”I have never loved but one person with passion in my life, and that was her…”
In the 19th century, it was assumed that women with strong libidos were pathological. Female desire was considered dangerous and potentially explosive, and it was thought that women’s nature would overwhelm their weak will and they would lose control. Women were dubbed nymphomaniacs for dreaming, thinking about, or desiring sex. Sometimes they were given clitoridectomies or had leeches placed on their perineum. Some women were told to abstain from meat and brandy, use hair pillows, douche with borax, take cold enemas, or go on strict vegetable diets. In 1886, a medical report claimed that the most likely candidates for nymphomania were virgins, widows, or women with blond hair between the ages of 16 and 25. Female illnesses were thought to derive from those troublesome sex organs. The greatest sources of knowledge about the female organs were assumed to be male gynecologists, which made the bodies of women a secret even, or perhaps especially, to themselves. In England, The 1858 Medical Registration Act specifically excluded women from becoming doctors. Sex education for girls was unthinkable. British doctor and writer William Acton claimed that some married couples were so ill informed about sex that their marriages were never consummated. I feel sorry for Acton’s wife, given his declaration: “
”The majority of women (happily for them) are not troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.”
Many women tried to avoid orgasms because they were told they led to pregnancy.
While it is true that language used in Victorian times was often flowery and passionate, even toward members of the same sex, Nightingale’s prolific writings combined with her lifelong avoidance of relationships with men, certainly point to the strong possibility that she was a lesbian. If she was, then it’s possible that she never acted on her desires at all, given the disdain that society had against almost any form of sexual expression, let alone homosexual activity. Yet, she was successful in forging ahead with her dream, despite the rigid constraints of her time.
During the Crimean War, which became her central focus, Nightingale reported back to Britain about the horrific conditions for the wounded. In 1854, she and 38 other women volunteer nurses that she trained, including her aunt and 15 Catholic nuns, were sent to the Ottoman Empire. Nightingale was personally assisted by her close friend Mary Clarke. They were deployed to Balaklava in the Crimea, where the main British camp was based.
Her team found that poor care for wounded soldiers was being delivered by overworked medical staff in the face of official indifference. Medicines were in short supply, hygiene was neglected, and mass infections were common, many of them fatal. There was no equipment to process food for the patients.
After Nightingale sent a plea to The London Times for a government solution to the poor condition of the facilities, the British Government commissioned a prefabricated hospital that could be built in England and shipped to the front. Nightingale and her team reduced the death rate from 42% to 2%, either by making improvements in hygiene herself, or by calling for the Sanitary Commission. Nightingale implemented handwashing and other hygiene practices in the war hospital in which she worked.
During her first winter, 4,077 soldiers died there. Ten times more soldiers died from illnesses such as typhus, typhoid, cholera and dysentery than from battle wounds.
In recognition of her pioneering work, the Nightingale Pledge taken by new nurses, and the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international distinction a nurse can achieve, were named in her honor, and the annual International Nurses Day is celebrated around the world on her birthday. Her reforms improved healthcare for all of British society, advocating better hunger relief in India, helping to abolish prostitution laws, and expanding the acceptable forms of female participation in the workforce.
Nightingale’s work improved the lives of women everywhere, yet she criticized early Women’s Rights activists for alleging that there was a lack of careers for women while lucrative medical positions, under the supervision of Nightingale went perpetually unfilled. She preferred the friendship of powerful men, insisting they had done more than women to help her attain her goals, writing:
“I have never found one woman who has altered her life by one iota for me or my opinions”.
She often referred to herself in the masculine vernacular, saying she was “a man of action” and “a man of business”.
However, her most long-lasting friendships were with women. She kept up a prolonged correspondence with Irish nun Sister Mary Clare Moore, with whom she had worked in Crimea. And Mary Clarke was constant companion from when they met in 1837 until her passing in 1910, at 90-years-old.