(1820 - 1910) U.K.
Florence Nightingale was born of wealthy English parents who were living in Florence at the time. Extremely well-educated at home by her father, she learned Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian, as well as history, philosophy and math. It's no wonder that such a brilliant person was appalled by the prospect of the boring social life which was the lot of most Victorian women.
Florence wanted to be her own woman and have a life, at a time when it was unheard of for gentlewomen to have careers, and when the only "working girl" was a prostitute. Luckily, when she was 17 she heard the voice of God telling her to devote her life to the service of mankind. She had no idea what kind of service God had in mind, and it was years before she figured it out.
Faced by family opposition to her independence, Florence fell ill, and was nursed by her aunt. The two became devoted to each other, and Florence described their relationship as "like two lovers". Florence also loved a cousin, Marianne Nicholson. "I have never loved but one person with passion in my life, and that was her", Florence wrote.
But Marianne's brother had fallen in love with Florence, and when Florence finally declined his proposal of marriage, the two women had a falling out. She clearly was emotionally devoted to women, never to men, and adamantly refused all offers of marriage. Living in the repressed world of Victorian values, who can say if she ever expressed her love physically? But, as I always say, you don't have to have sex to be gay (but it helps!).
Was Florence a lesbian?
"I have lived and slept in the same bed with English Countesses and Prussian farm women... no woman has excited passions among women more than I have."
This quote appears in a publication of the National Museum and Archive of Lesbian and Gay History, without a context. If you know the source of this quote, probably from Florence's extensive correspondence, I would love to hear from you. I'm sure she's not talking about sexual passions, but I'd be interested to know the context of this passage.
- Florence Nightingale
Nowadays lots of little girls want to grow up to be a nurse, but back then nurses were drunks and prostitutes, so Florence's family was horrified. She had to study in secret, then finally she went to Germany to study in a Protestant girl's college. She got a job as superintendent of a women's hospital in London and was a brilliant success, but the limited scope of the job soon bored her.
The Crimean War broke out in 1854, and Florence and some of her nurses went to Turkey to oversee the British Military Hospital. It was a sickening, unsanitary, overcrowded vermin-infested rat-hole death trap (but aside from that it was fine) with a mortality rate of 50 percent. Fighting the doctors who disdained women's interference, she gradually took over and cleaned the place up, working tirelessly around the clock and endearing herself to the sick and wounded as "The Lady of the Lamp" as she made her rounds at night. After Florence took over, the mortality rate dropped to 2. 2 percent.
Returning home and refusing all honors, Florence spent the next half-century as an invalid. Her beloved aunt left her husband and children to care for her. These days historians think Florence was faking it so that she could better control her life - she was "too ill" to think about getting married or social trivialities, she could concentrate on her work, and people of all ranks were forced to come to her, which they did.
This "invalid"'s further accomplishments included founding the Nightingale School for Nurses, provision for the revamping of the British military hospital system, becoming the expert on the British colony of India though she had never even been there, and other monumental health and welfare works. In 1907, she was the first woman ever to receive the Order of Merit from the King, and of course she declined the offer of a national funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey when she died in 1910.
Like Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale listened to the voice of God inside her rather than settle for the traditional accepted role of a woman. By legitimizing careers for women she made it possible for all women, lesbian or straight, to be able to build lives and support themselves without dependence upon or control by men.