Monday 4 January 2016

Florence Nightingale and how women are airbrushed out of history

The Funeral of Florence Nightingale

One of my musical heroes is Country Joe McDonald. Country Joe is one of the great writers of protest songs of the 60's flower power generation. His band made one of the defining appearances at the woodstock festival, with their anto Vietnam war song "I feel like I'm fixing to die rag". As I am planning a trip to the USA later this year, I thought I'd see when Country Joe was playing and maybe see if I could tie up a gig in our itinery. One of the reasons I've always admired him, is because he seemed to have a better grasp of the bigger picture than most of his musical peers, as well as many politicians. What I wasn't expecting was a fascinating section on his website concerning his research into Florence Nightingale. McDonald explains on his website how he became interested in Nightingale.

"In the summer of 1981 I attended a weekend seminar on the problems of Vietnam veterans. The event was sponsored by the Berkeley Veterans Assistance Center and took place in the City of Berkeley Veterans Memorial in the civic center. It was a lightly attended event but featured movers and shakers in the veterans movement who would soon change just about everything for the better. One speaker was a Vietnam War nurse named Lynda Van Devanter, who was the first Vietnam War nurse to "come out" and speak for women in the military. As a member of the audience I was stunned at the realization that I was also guilty of ignoring women in the military in my writings.
I went home and looked in the World Book Encyclopedia under nursing. I found Florence Nightingale. In a brief biography it said that in 1854 as a grown woman she had taken 38 English women off to nurse wounded and sick British soldiers in the Crimean War. And that she suffered a "nervous disorder" for the rest of her life. She lived to be 90 years old and was considered the inventor of modern nursing. I immediately went to Holmes Books in Oakland and found an autographed copy of Sir Edward Cook's biography of Florence Nightingale. And I promised Lynda and other Vietnam War nurses I knew that I would write songs about them."
His website has many interesting links, not least an introduction to a recording of Nightingale, written by feminist historian Adele Nutting in 1939, this starts with the following paragraph.
"I am glad to be given the opportunity of speaking briefly to you of Florence Nightingale and her work. For she is "of those who waged contention with their time's decay, and of the past are all that cannot pass away." She is remembered throughout the world for her heroic, almost superhuman labors during the Crimean War. But in reality these formed only the beginning of a long life of continuous effort, marked by achievements of truly amazing character which have lived, grown, and spread to the ends of the earth. Her reforms were fundamental and searching. They struck at the roots of things, dealing with hospitals, the health of the British soldier, the health of the working people, culminating in the founding of District Nursing."
I had heard of Florence Nightingale at school. I thought of her as a rather posh lady, who became a nurse and went to the Crimea to dend British soldiers injured in the Crimea. Whilst this is clearly worthy of praise, it was only when I read Country Joe's research, that I realise just how scandalously she has been ignored. Nutting states "The School of Nursing stands supreme among her magnificent achievements.". Given how many of us benefit from nursing care in our lives, how can the founder of this be so lamely glossed over?

McDonald has some "study questions" that scholars of Ms Nightingale should ask. Perhaps the two which interest me the most are
why is she remembered as a nurse and not a statistician, reformer, military nurse corps leader, mathmatician, or scientist? 
Why is FN's pioneer work on "homelessness" ignored? What happened to the "district nursing" movement? Is not her concept of providing health care to the homeless and poor as a preventative measure to homelessness relevant today?
As someone who works with the homeless and sees many Ex Servicemen coming through our day centre, it is truly shocking that Florence Nightingale first identified the problem in the 1850's, yet we still see British war veterans destitute and homeless on our streets. This blog has covered many subjects, yet one that we perhaps haven't really touched on as much as we should are the heros who have contributed so much to the good things in our society, yet who are simply forgotten or seen as quaint figures from the past. Trafalgar Square has several plinths honouring victorious generals from long forgotten army campaigns. The "Fourth Plinth" is used as a site for all manner of art exhibitions. Isn't it perverse that Florence Nightingale, who used her expereinces in the Crimean war to improve the lives and care of millions of British citizens, by transforming nursing into a profession, is not commemorated? There are two things which I find distasteful. Firstly we always laud those who are good at killing people for the state, higher than those who save people for the state. The second is, as Country Joe notes, we seem far less keen to honour women who contribute to our society than men.

Florence Nightingale is rather patronisingly remembered as "The Lady with The Lamp", surely we should remember her as a fierce intellect who made an unequalled contribution to public health.

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