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