As a follow-up to my last post, I thought about highlighting individual 19th century women who made important contributions to society. There are many women who fit this description in the 19th century, and over time I plan to highlight as many as I can. Today I begin with my first subject.
Picture yourself in the 19th century. You are a member of a family with means. Money will not be an issue in your life, you will have people in your life to take care of your needs, and you have the means to make any whim a reality. Imagine you wanted to use your means to do something to better your community, in the medical field. Imagine that you have the drive and desire,as well as the ability to achieve your dream.
Now imagine you are a young woman. Even at the best of times, achieving the dream of working in any type of profession would be frowned upon by hour family. As a female in the 19th century the expectation is that you will marry and have children. Working, especially in a profession where you will be facing illness and death is unthinkable.
For most women of the time, this was their reality, and they had no choice but to accept it. However, there was a small number of women that were not going to stand for that. The fight for equality between the sexes began with a small number of women that felt they should be able to determine how to spend their lives. Florence Nightingale is arguably one of the most recognizable names.
Her determination was at odds with her family’s more traditional expectations for their daughter. She turned down a life of courting and marriage to pursue a career in medicine. As a nurse, she was able to directly affect the lives of others.
In a time when medical procedures were almost as likely to kill you as cure you, due to infection, Florence set out to make changes. Hygiene is key to preventing infection. Knowing this, Florence worked to maintain a clean hospital. Her work ethic impressed her superiors enough to promote her.
The outbreak of the Crimean War brought Florence to the gates of hell on earth. With thousands of British soldiers fighting, the number injured increased at an alarming rate. Florence and a contingent of nurses under her command arrived on the Crimean battlefront to help the injured heal.
The state of the hospital when she arrived was deplorable. Vermin infested the hospital, many of the wounded were lying in their own filth. Infections ran rampant. The process was gruelling, but Florence and her crew cleaned the hospital, and administered proper care to the wounded.
Though her initial attempts to offer aid were not entirely successful (The hospital had been built over a sewer, contaminating the water used each day). Once the British government intervened and did a massive cleanup, the death toll dropped significantly.
Following her participation in the was effort, Florence turned her attention to applying what she learned during her time in the war. With the discovery that bacteria and viruses were the cause of disease, her belief in hospital cleanliness was vindicated.
The remainder of her life postwar was dedicated to improving the state of healthcare in England. The Florence Nightingale School of Nursing was founded. Her legacy lives on, as nurses received training and scientific education. Women were able to receive an education and gain employment as nurses, following in the footsteps of one of the first modern nurses. These women were among the few that proved women could do much more than be a wife and mother. These first steps toward gender equality paved the way for the fight for women’s rights in the 20th century.
If you would like to learn more, check out
this article from the BBC website.