Like social work, the missionary movement and education, nursing was a typical breeding-ground for first-wave feminists. Animated by a spirit of care and self-sacrifice, they also abruptly came up, face to face, with poverty and deprivation. Little wonder that such experience, now as then, drives many into social and political action. Perhaps we might do well to listen to those in similar professions today?
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the most notable of Victorian nurses, was a remarkable pioneer for women, social reformer and statistician. As the founder of modern nursing, her achievements were considerable, albeit media-magnified as the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ during the Crimean War (1853-1856). Her emphasis on sanitary conditions made a huge difference to hospital life. As a feminist, though she supported Josephine Butler’s work, she did not always see eye to eye with women’s rights activists, and was slow to embrace calls for the vote. Yet her contribution was immense. Grounded in her own deep religious experiences of God’s calling, her spirituality and theology broke out of the upper-class cage of her position in society. Some today would indeed see her greatest contribution as being that of a ‘radical theologian’ (see, for example, Val Webb in Florence Nightingale: The Making of a Radical Theologian), drawing together the threads of her mysticism, activism, intellectual abilities, and connections with impoverished and suffering people. As Nightingale wrote (in Suggestions for Thought) :
The true feeling of God in us, which led to the belief in one incarnation, ought to be extended to the incarnation in all of us
Elaine Showalter similarly called Nightingale’s best known essay and protest on behalf of women, Cassandra: ‘a major text of English feminism, a link between Wollstonecraft and Woolf’. For out of this ‘scream of pain’, Florence called for a women’s rebellion:
The great reformers of the world turn into the great misanthropists, if circumstances or organisation do not permit them to act. Christ, if he had been a woman, might have been nothing but a great complainer…
Jesus Christ raised women above the condition of mere slaves, mere ministers to the passions of the man, raised them by this sympathy, to be ministers of God. But the Age, the World, Humanity, must give them the means to exercise this moral activity, must give them intellectual cultivation, spheres of action…
People talk about imitating Christ, and imitate Him in the little trifling formal things, such as washing the feet, saying his prayer, and so on; but if anyone attempts the real imitation of Him, there are no bounds as to the outcry with which the presumption of that person is condemned.
Building on Florence Nightingale’s work, Beatrice Kent (d.1937) continued what had been begun. Her greatest personal achievement was in achieving the State Registration of Nurses in 1919. She was also closely involved however in international nursing networks, through the Council of Nurses of Great Britain and International Council of Nurses, and a key figure in developing concern for prisoners who had nursing or medical issues. As a member of St. Pancras Borough Council she supported the movement for better housing, and also assisted children in gaining the right to religious instruction in all schools. Like Florence Nightingale, this energetic involvement was generated by her religious faith. As she outlined in explaining her deep suffragist commitment, it was:
the mother spirit in women which gives to many the vocation of nursing, and inspires them with that passion to desire to improve social conditions and uplift the human race… A nurse who has recently joined the Church League for Women’s Suffrage remarked that she had just begun to live! Would that all nurses would do likewise, and come in their thousands, and join this great spiritual movement.
(‘Why We Want The Vote – the Woman Nurse’, in The Vote, 26 August 1911)
At least a hundred reasons might be given for having the vote, Beatrice Kent contended:
but the one supreme all-embracing reason is this: We must and will have power in order to uplift humanity and make it purer, healthier and happier.
(as reported in The Vote, 31 January 1913)
S0urce of care, compassion and challenge,
we give you thanks for Florence Nightingale and Beatrice Kent,
and all nurse-theologians who have worked to bring healing and hope to our world.
Strengthen us to follow in their footsteps
and enable us to find you as we attend to the cries of the distressed.
In the name of Jesus, who laid his hands upon the hurt and healed them, Amen