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Shining A Light On ‘The Lady With The Lamp’: Was Florence Nightingale A Feminist?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nottingham chapter.

Most of us probably conjure up a similar picture when we hear Florence Nightingale’s name, a nurse and ‘the lady with the lamp’, making the rounds between hospital beds and offering comfort to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-56). 

However, surprisingly little is known about Nightingale’s wider career and personal life by the wider public, outside of her 2 years serving as a nurse in the Crimea. Despite having found her a compelling figure since learning about her in primary school, my perception of Nightingale has been narrow, until I recently got the opportunity to study her more widely. Speaking to peers, I found many others held similar perceptions of her. 

Nightingale’s work has endured as a staple point of study in the education system, yet has remained narrow, focused only on her role as a nurse in the Crimea and an idealised ‘angel in white’. Public memory of her seems to have endured exceptionally well in the modern day, in comparison to many of her nursing counterparts. Is there a reason for this? Is there a less than perfect side to the idealised memory of Nightingale?

Nightingale was a writer and social reformer as well as a nurse. She wrote over 200 books, reports and pamphlets, including Notes on Nursing (1860), and pioneering advice on professional nursing, preventing illness and hygiene tips in a way that was newly accessible to the poor. She supported Lord Ashley’s 1844 Working Hours Bill, and helped open several nursing schools, funded by William Rathbone, and mentored younger nurses and reformers.

Nightingale significantly struggled with her relationships with women throughout her life which affected many facets of her character. This disconnect stemmed from her relationships with her mother and sister, who both exemplified the conventional upper class Victorian female ideal, ‘socially ambitious, intellectually lazy and emotionally infantile’. She struggled with conflicting feelings of despising them for the emotional and intellectual suffocation she felt from them, alongside affection for her family. Nightingale’s rejection of conventionality and her pursuits of nursing and intellectualism were met with her mother and sister’s frequent and deeply scarring emotional abuse to try and stop her. Her sister Parthenope developed an obsessive and neurotic psychological attachment to her, jealousy at Florence’s beauty and intellectual prowess disguised as devotion, forcing her into periods of ‘sibling slavery’. Parthenope’s eventual nervous breakdown was eventually what allowed a frustrated Florence to leave home and pursue nursing at last, as medical professionals stated they must be separated so Parthenope could be forced to live independently to recover.

Nightingale used writing to determine her personal philosophy and as a cathartic outlet for the anger, despair, and repression she felt from her family and social expectations. She was passionate about women receiving an education and breaking away from just undertaking domestic roles, using religion to define her purpose also. Her publication Suggestions for Thought, which included her best-known feminist novel Cassandra (1852), received significant attention from scholars, though only reached proper circulation in feminist circles after her death. Therefore on one hand, as a pioneer in the field of nursing and for women’s influence in the profession, advocating for better working conditions, women’s education and suffrage and lending her voice to movements including petitions for bills the Married Women’s Property Act in 1888, Nightingale could be considered a feminist. 

On the other hand, her opinions on women could lean towards conservative. She expressed an irritation at women for not fighting more strongly for themselves and was notoriously critical of their ‘laziness, incompetence and lack of moral purpose’, instead of the institutions around them. She chose not to submit her writing to distinguished literary women of the time but only to male intellectuals. Her brand of feminism and literary works have been criticised for their lack of intersectionality; containing little acknowledgment of Nightingale’s privilege as an upper-class white woman and the autonomy this afforded her in comparison to working class women or racial minorities. Nursing historiography has been centred around white figures, with Nightingale as a main example; and this needs to be contested. Mary Seacole for example, was a Black nurse also working at the same time Nightingale in many of the same spaces, such as the Crimea, where she worked longer than Nightingale, though she’s remained Nightingale’s less celebrated parallel despite the similarity of their legacies, even having been condescendingly referred to as ‘the Black Nightingale’. 

Nightingale has lasted remarkably well in public perception and in an overwhelmingly positive light. She was one of the first recipients of the British Red Cross and was often used not only for nationalistic but humanitarian propaganda, which could explain the ‘perfect’ ideal that she has widely moulded into. Depictions of her in recent popular fiction such as Christine Trent’s A Florence Nightingale Mystery series and Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series demonstrate her enduring relevance. However, features such as her impatience with women is heavily absent in many media portrayals. Some depictions such as the BBC’s 2008 TV drama on her have explored the complexities of her character more than others. 

An undeniably a complex, inspirational and compelling figure, Nightingale deserves to be studied and contextualised by all facets of her work, personal life and achievements, however, should not be immune to criticism, particularly in her brand of feminism. This will allow us to maintain a balanced view of her in the modern day. 

Serena Mehdwan

Nottingham '25

Hi, I'm Serena, I'm a second year history student at the University of Nottingham. I love painting, writing about the things I love, and reading fantasy (and of course historical!) fiction novels :)