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  • 'Entirely a woman's question'?:Class, Gender, and the Victorian Nurse
  • Arlene Young (bio)

In an enquiry into reformed nursing at Guy's hospital in 1880, one of the medical doctors dismissed a question about nurses' apparel as 'entirely a woman's question'.2 Histories of nursing, while differing in their interpretations of the achievements resulting from the reforms in nursing in Britain during the nineteenth century, all agree either implicitly or explicitly that the history of nursing is a woman's story about the attempt to professionalise one area of women's work.3 In reality, neither dress nor any other dimension of nursing was entirely a woman's question. Nursing was everyone's question. It was a contested field of endeavour that sparked debate not only in medical journals, such as the Lancet, but also in the pages of mainstream British newspapers and periodicals. The protracted public discourse over nursing spanned the mid- to late-Victorian period, encompassed issues of class and gender, as well as of hospital organisation and patient care, and played an important role in the evolution of the nursing profession.

Public interest in nursing from mid-century on began not as part of a discourse over employment opportunities for women, but rather as part of the discourse over issues of public health and sanitation. Attention to nursing in the Times initially appeared in the context of reports on and public discussions of the administration of voluntary hospitals. An item in 1848 about the establishment of an institute 'for the training of nurses for hospitals' reflected this context in the wording of the announcement itself: this is not the training of women to be employable, but the training of a specialised workforce for hospitals – for the specific needs of hospitals.4 With Britain's entry into the Crimean War in 1854, the context for discussions about nursing shifted dramatically to the provision of care for wounded soldiers and the urgent need for nurses in military hospitals. The highly publicised campaign to provide adequate medical care in the Crimea intensified [End Page 18] public interest in nursing, especially as represented by Florence Nightingale's work in Scutari. As a result of the public enthusiasm over her mission, Nightingale has been almost universally accepted as the prime mover in shaping the public perception of nursing, either as the agent of its redefinition or as the quasi-mythic figure embodying the modern ideal.5 The evolution of the profession was, however, far more complex than the romanticised versions based on the story of the Lady with the Lamp would suggest, and so too was the evolution of the nurse in the Victorian public imagination. Moreover, the story of the rise of the career nurse between the 1840s (when nursing sisterhoods were established) and the end of the century has social and cultural dimensions that go well beyond the development of a single field. Nursing was the first vocation that educated women from the middle and upper classes took up in significant numbers and, more to the point, that allowed them to define a corporate identity.6 Professionalised nursing justified the entry of genteel women into the workforce and validated the professionalised working woman in other areas of endeavour. In this context, the real significance lies not in the fact that nurses and nursing changed, but that many of these changes originated in response to publicly deliberated cultural or social demands, and that the public perceived and endorsed these changes.

A surprising dimension of the evolution of nursing that the discourse in the periodical press reveals is the possibility that nursing in the Victorian period might not have developed into an exclusively female occupation. While Florence Nightingale's iconographic stature is generally presented in the most essentialist feminine terms,7 the fact remains that her power and prominence in the movement for nursing reform resulted from the phenomenal public response to a military mission. It is therefore important to consider the fact that reformed nursing had the potential to develop into a profession that included men from the outset. Orderlies and male nurses were caring for soldiers in the Crimea before Nightingale and her contingent of thirty-eight women...


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pp. 18-41
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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