Some inspiring Victorian careerwomen

Think of Jane Austen’s heroines: middle-class girls who live with their parents, doing needlework, painting watercolours and playing the piano – until a man proposes, whereupon they get married and run their own household, perhaps doing a spot of charity work in their spare time. This was the norm for middle-class Victorian girls. Popular literature stereotyped women as angelic models of moral probity, with motherhood their highest ideal, and the vast majority of the upper and middle classes conformed. So the intrepid women who sailed east in 1854 to nurse soldiers injured during the Crimean War were extraordinarily daring and courageous pioneers.

Of course, poor women had always worked – as servants, laundresses, farm hands, governesses, prostitutes … and as nurses. Victorian hospitals were rough, dangerous places and nurses were menial servants who scrubbed floors and emptied bedpans. Dickens perhaps did them a disservice with the caricature of Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit as a hard-drinking, dissolute type who didn’t much care for her patients’ welfare, but nurses were paid a pittance for doing a very tough job and given no training in healthcare so I’m sure the Mrs Gamp type existed. Charitable committees of well-meaning middle- or upper-class ladies could visit the wards, mop fevered brows and read to the more respectable patients, but for such women to take paid employment in a hospital was unheard of.

Ms Nightingale

Ms Nightingale

Florence Nightingale’s struggle to be taken seriously is inspiring. She came from an aristocratic background but always knew she would suffocate as “just a wife”. She met the right people, impressed them with her grit and intelligence, and in October 1854 was invited by the Minister of War, Sidney Herbert, to go out to Constantinople to establish a hospital for the troops, where she became the “lady with the lamp” and the indomitable force of legend. After the war, although her health was severely compromised by an illness she caught in Crimea, she devoted her life to establishing training schools for nurses and forcing the medical establishment to take them seriously.

Ms Seacole

Ms Seacole

Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, a self-proclaimed “doctress”, also has a remarkable story. Before the war, she had achieved significant success treating British soldiers who succumbed to a cholera epidemic in the West Indies, and her understanding of the need to keep the patient hydrated was prescient for the day. The colour of her skin made it hard for her to gain respect in Crimea – Florence Nightingale was not a fan – but Ms Seacole’s courage in rushing out onto the field of battle to treat the wounded, and her generosity in distributing home-made refreshments, made her the soldiers’ favourite.

James Barry

James Barry

One of the most astonishing stories of all is that of James Barry. Born female, she dressed as a man in order to study Medicine at Edinburgh University and rose to the rank of Inspector General of Military Hospitals. During the Crimean War she ran a hospital on Corfu where the death rate was 90% less than at Florence Nightingale’s Constantinople hospital – much to Florence’s chagrin. That Barry was a member of the fairer sex was only discovered following her death.

Mary Seacole wrote a gripping account of her time in Crimea, as did other heroines who are not so well remembered today. Welshwoman Elizabeth Davis wrote a fascinating book about her spell as a Balaklava nurse, with descriptions that showed an advanced understanding of gangrene and necrosis. And Nurse Sarah Anne Terrot’s memoir is so extraordinarily compassionate that I had tears in my eyes as I read her descriptions of the patients she treated – such as the young lad who sobbed to her “I’m going to die, and my father and mother did love me so.”

After the amazing work these women did in the Crimean conflict of 1854-56, society was prepared to accept middle-class girls training as professional nurses and feminism as we know it was a tiny step closer. In the late 1850s a feminist periodical called the English Woman’s Journal was the first of several publications to promote women having careers, and in 1859 the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women was formed. It was a tough call to reject the ideal of the pure, angelic, stay-at-home mother and fight for the right to a career in the male-dominated labour force, but by the end of the century middle-class women had a foothold in a few professions, and medicine was notable among them. When we talk about the difficulty of breaking through glass ceilings in the present day, we should remember that these women had to dig their way up from the cellar!


My novel No Place for a Lady tells of two sisters caught up in the Crimean conflict, one of them a nurse, and it draws on the memoirs of several nurses who were there:

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