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From Santa Filomena by Henry Wadsworth Longellow

“Lo! in that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering of gloom
And flit from room to room.

“And slow, as in a dream of bliss,
The speechless sufferer turns to kiss
Her shadow, as it falls
Upon the darkening walls”

Then later

“A lady with a lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land,
A noble type of good,
Heroic womanhood.”

Now that the Labor government has – according to the Liberals – snuck over the line and we have to start worrying about the boats that we were turning back and telling nobody about, as well as debt and deficit and Labor raising taxes, I thought that I should leave all that election stuff behind and just write about Florence Nightingale who some of you will have heard of.

Florence Nightingale, for those of you who don’t know, was a nurse, and not just any nurse. She was the sort of nurse who gave nursing a good name.

All right, there’s something about the poem that’s a bit non-PC, and I don’t just mean the poet’s name. I mean, “Wadsworth Longfellow” does sound like a porn star, but I’m actually referring to the bit about soldiers kissing her shadow as she walks past. However, I only mention the poem to demonstrate the sort of picture that the people in my childhood painted of Florence.

If I take out all the facts – which I must say were few and far between – the impression I got was that Ms. Nightingale was the first nurse to actually care about the people she was nursing and that she whipped all the others into shape and hey presto, we have the wonderful nurses we have today…

Or something like that.

It’s only over the past few years that I’ve noticed her name come up in books about using data to change minds and how, Florence Nightingale’s main achievements were as an administrator and a political activist. Her time as a nurse in the Crimea was under two years, but it was the reason for her pushing for reforms in a number of areas. She worked out that many of the deaths were from bad sanitation, a lack of supplies and poor nutrition.

Now, I think it’s probably worth pointing out that Florence was well-connected. Her family weren’t poor. She had a few contacts in what we’d call “The Establishment” if we were children of the sixties… this is not to diminish her because an awful lot of people from that part of society do nothing. Not all. But the awful lot.

The point is that Florence knew that tending to wounds and being a good girl wasn’t enough. She used statistics to push for a better way of doing things. She fought for change. She designed a better system and fought for it to be implemented.

But that’s not how I was taught to remember her. I was taught that she was a “ministering angel”. A good girl. One who looked after the men. And as a reward, they kissed her shadow.

Women – and other minorities – are always forced to fight two battles. The battle to be accepted at the table and the battle to get things done. Sometimes the surrender to be accepted at the table means that they have no energy to get things done. Perhaps they didn’t want to get anything done in some cases. Once they were there they could just thumb their noses and say, “See, it can be done, losers!”. Whatever…

I always forget that women aren’t a minority just because they’re almost always in the minority when it comes to ministerial positions.


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  1. Keitha Granville

    hmm, as a woman I’m not sure whether Florence has been maligned, or damned with faint praise.

    She was, as is often the case for women, an achiever who then was able to press for change in the corridors of power because she had experience of that for which she was lobbying. Her wealthier status would have been a great help – once again something women of today often need to actually get anywhere !

  2. wam

    Good read, Rossleigh, As described by men, any achievements by women are due to the god given caring nature is Nightingale ‘nurse’ but the reality nightingale ‘maths’ clever.
    If any ‘skill’ or ‘intellect’ is involved in a women, they are ignored, plagiarised or categorized as the rabbott’s xstian exceptions to normal women.
    I was also instructed about Flo as a nurse and had to wait for the net to see her strength. There I also found marie curie and her family nobel prizes. Looking for karen uhlenbeck 2019 Maths ‘nobel’ prize. I was pretty ashamed to not have learnt of these: Hypatia (born c. 350–370; died 415 AD) … Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) … Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) … Mary Everest Boole (1832-1916) … Amalie Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935)

  3. New England Cocky

    Hmm ….. I dunno Rossleigh. I think you may have missed an excellent opportunity here by underselling the role of women in a patriarchal society. Sure there have been some outstanding examples of achievements by ”the lesser gender”, starting with Cleopatra, Boadicea & Lizzie Tudor for example, all women of financial means made by the males of their respective families, but ”Wot about the little bloke”?

    Well you have to go to the colonies to see many successes by womenfolk like Mary Raiby, major figure in early Sydney commerce, Elizabeth Macarthur, the unsung founder of the Australian wool industry and later, Jenny Anderson a major player developing the Austral9ian mohair industry. I will ignore the too many ground-breaking achievements of the post-WWII world.

    None of this could happen at that time in England (or other European countries) because it was only about 1757 that women were legally recognised as ”natural persons” rather than chattels or property. Then it was later, about 1833 when slavery was abolished legally (but continued in domestic servitude) that women were allowed own real property ….. that passed to their husbands upon marriage.

    So back to the colonies where ”Caddie” accurately describes how governments of men ignored women left partnerless by The Great War ”to end all wars”, leaving them to fend for themselves without any financial or emotional support save for Legacy. But the next War came and went, leaving the next generation of ”baby boomers” better off, thanks to male governments recognising that there were alternatives ….. even though the returned men replaced working women regardless of the wishes or circumstances of the women.

    But I digress ….. the European model of society is balanced on a class system where wealth is recognised as conferring excellence in any and every thing. Private schools MUST be better than state schools because parents are paying BIG MONEY for a third rate child-minding service lacking any credibility for academic excellence, but giving direct access to the commercial network of career opportunities.

    In rural communities, mediocrity in farming efficiency coupled with social excess is excused by owning large properties of empty paddocks built upon the long standing bank mortgages created by sweat from the brows of their ancestors.

    But as you say Rossleigh …. if you don’t count the importance of over half the population, then misogynist politicians get what they deserve ….. kicked out of public office by female Community Independents.

  4. leefe

    I’m struggling to make a comment that doesn’t include the word “mansplaining”.

    ” … women of financial means made by the males of their respective families … ”
    Well, things like that happen when you … how did you put it … “don’t count the importance of over half the population.” Or allow them opportunities for independence. And keep them shackled to home and children so the aforementioned blokes are free to rampage over the rest of the planet.

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