It's Really Sickening How Much Florence Nightingale Hated Women

The saintly 19th-century nurse has come to symbolize good will, sympathy, and self-sacrifice, but she also firmly believed women were good-for-nothing stupidheads who didn't deserve equal rights.

Nov 20 2015, 11:35pm

Image by Gabby Bess

If anyone symbolizes the figure of the selfless, care-taking female, it is the Florence Nightingale. Born in 1820 to a wealthy English banker and second in nurse-fame only to the woman on the cover of Blink 182's Enema of the State, Nightingale was the beneficiary of a robust education and developed an interest in caring for the sick after she began visiting hospitals as a 24-year-old back in England. Initially, Nightingale undertook this project looking to expand job opportunities for women, the lack of which she disliked; in the 1800s, nursing was considered little better than prostitution because it required no particular training or, as Marjie Bloy notes here, "intelligence." In 1853, Nightingale became an administrator at a hospital, and in 1854 she took 38 nurses to Crimea to aid the wounded, dying, and sick during the Crimean War, where she cleaned up a filthy, infection-ridden facility, nearly died of a fever, and earned the nickname "the Lady of the Lamp" for working 20 hours a day and tending the wards alone at night.

Eliminating the oppression of unappreciated female care workers is an auspiciously proto-feminist beginning, particularly when you put your money where the cholera is the way Nightingale did; after Crimea, she dedicated her life to demanding, dangerous work, writing massive religious and social texts on the side. However, such a life did not preclude Nightingale from developing a blithe, hypocritical misogyny that she carried with her until dying peacefully in her sleep in 1910; in fact, her capacity for charity seemed to make her less charitable, at least when it came to women who weren't on their deathbeds.

Much of Nightingale's work centers on how women could be successful on their own terms, rather than on men's. Her belief that women should be celebrated as nurses, however, perhaps went too far in the other direction. In Nightingale's first book—Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not, published in 1859—she writes a note to her "sisters," urging them to avoid considering the popular "jargon" of the time: "namely, about the 'rights' of women, which urges women to do all that men do, including the medical and other professions, merely because men do it, and without regard to whether this is the best that women can do." Nightingale's point here is quite eloquent; she argues that "You do not want the effect of your good things to be, 'How wonderful for a woman!'" Still, combined with her initial dismissal of women's suffrage (she later recanted, albeit reluctantly), she also emphasizes the importance of a women's place, and it can be read as a subtweet to female doctors, whom she believed were total hacks. In a letter to John Stuart Mill from 1860, Nightingale noted that female doctors had made "no improvement" on what Nightingale saw as the dire situation of "M.D. ship"; women doctors "have only tried to be 'Men' & they have only succeeded in being third-rate men."

Several scholars have argued that Nightingale achieved her goal of making nurses respectable by encouraging them to conform to sexist norms of purity and subservience. According to Professor Anne Crowther of the University of Glasgow, Nightingale carefully watched her nurses to make sure they were pure, housing them in dormitories and restricting their access to men until they could acceptably move into their own homes, "presumably in a virginal state." Unsurprisingly, nuns, Nightingale was cool with, referring to herself in the third person here when she attests "the perfection of surgical nursing may be seen practised by the old-fashioned 'Sister' of a London hospital, as it can be seen nowhere else in Europe." Indeed, many scholars believe Nightingale was celibate for her entire life and say that she may have seen herself as a sort of lowercase sister, though she dedicated her life to nursing instead of to God. (Some have suggested Nightingale was a lesbian; although she had lifelong friendships with women—which makes her dismissal of their capabilities weirder—fan biographers like Mark Bostridge swear she would never.)

Read More: The History of Erasing Women's History

As with many of the subjects of this column, it's clear that Nightingale was not only in possession of misguided views, but also of a sanctimonious, obnoxious attitude with which to spew them. In a letter dating to 1861, collected in The Life of Florence Nightingale: 1862-1910, Nightingale critiques a friend's book, particularly focusing on the author's sentence "Women are more sympathetic than men." Nightingale responded that if SHE were writing a book—"out of my experience," she adds, invoking the popular idea that she was the most experienced nurse in Europe, which she also claimed—she would begin it "Women have no sympathy." Sounding not unlike the guy in college who responds to any vacation story with "Well, I actually did a gap year there, so..." Nightingale refers to the friend's charitable understanding of the fairer sex as rooted in paltry "tradition" and goes on to say, "I have never found one woman who has altered her life by one iota for me or my opinions." She then smugly cites how much she loooooves working with men, saying that they are more sympathetic basically because they believe in her theories and women don't; this, Nightingale believes, is because women "cannot state a fact accurately to another, nor can that other attend to it accurately enough for it to become information." "I would gladly give £500 a year for a Woman Secretary," Nightingale writes,

And we can't get one . . . They don't know the names of the Cabinet Ministers. They don't know the offices at the Horse Guards. They don't know of the men of the day is dead and who is alive. Now I'm sure I did not know these things...But there are such things as Army Lists and Almanacs. Yet I never could find a woman who, out of sympathy, would consult one—for my work.

I would hire a woman, but no good ones applied!

Of course, all of this could—and, to many, does—count Nightingale as a feminist icon anyway: She did what she believed in and confidently believed other people should believe in it, too. Plus, she was a really great nurse. Ultimately, it's fair to say that Nightingale was not only a resounding success in her field, which she affected dramatically. Although her negative qualities don't quite stack up with the other misogynists we've discussed here, it's fair to say that Nightingale also made strides in women's fight to suck as much as men.