"I stand at the altar of murdered men and while I live I will fight their cause." — Florence Nightingale
The memory of Florence Nightingale still ripples throughout Europe and North America. Documents about her life still exist and uphold her legacy; in many ways, she has become something of a mythological figure. Even in life, there was merchandise relating to her, but it’s taken on a new life in books, valentines, and even colouring pages. She’s remembered as a no-nonsense feminist icon, a tender motherly figure, the founding of modern-day nursing, and even the hero of nursery rhymes. Less discussed in the possibility that she was a lesbian and/or asexual.
It must be noted that Florence Nightingale came from a wealthy family, and lived with all of the obligations and privileges associated. Born in Florence, Italy in 1820, her parents not only believed women should be educated in the same manner as men, they had the fortune to make it happen. Nightingale and her sisters had tutors from whom they learned languages, mathematics, religion, and many other topics that would prove useful in her later career.
She fell in love with learning from a young age and took to mathematics quickly. She had a particular skill and devotion to statistics that would follow her throughout her life. She later tutored children in mathematics and used her skills heavily in her nursing career.
While she was afforded much more freedom than many women, her mother was a firm believed in social climbing. As such, Nightingale took part in many social gatherings, often called severe and “awkward” by her contemporaries. She gravitated more to intellectual discussions where she was able to shine rather than social niceties she felt stifled by.
Along with the parties, she was expected not only to be courted but also wed. While she was ambivalent to courtship, she firmly denied marriage. Nightingale, a deeply religious woman, revealed that G-d had called her to serve as a nurse. Though a call from G-d was one of only a handful of ways a woman could get out of marriage, it was still not a popular declaration. Her family was against not only her refusal to marry but her choice in profession.
Nursing was looked down upon with a mix of classism, sexism, and legitimate concern over the lack of training given to most nurses at the time; many caused more harm than good. Nightingale was never more determined to pursue this path than when she met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to become a doctor in the United States of America.
After turning down countless proposals, nursing relatives, and working tirelessly without the support of her family, they relented. Using their money and connections, they finally accepted her choice and supported her career.
She was afforded the rare opportunity to travel, visiting Rome, Germany, Greece, and Egypt. She partially fell in love with Egypt; she wrote of the Abu Simbel temples:
"Sublime in the highest style of intellectual beauty, intellect without effort, without suffering … not a feature is correct—but the whole effect is more expressive of spiritual grandeur than anything I could have imagined. It makes the impression upon one that thousands of voices do, uniting in one unanimous simultaneous feeling of enthusiasm or emotion, which is said to overcome the strongest man."
By the time she settled in London to work as the superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen, she had already published work in Germany and made connections within the medical community that would benefit her for the rest of her life. Her father showed his support financially, sending her an annual income of £40,000 in present terms. This allowed her to live beyond the low pay given to nurses.
Her early life built the base for the woman Florence Nightingale would become and be remembered as; the money, the connections, the knowledge, and the experiences all informed her future.