Nurses Challenging Subordination: Gender, Class and Religion in Britain's Crimean War

TitleNurses Challenging Subordination: Gender, Class and Religion in Britain's Crimean War
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsEgan, Moira E.
Number of Pages180
Date Published2009
UniversityCity University of New York
CityNew York

Beginning in October, 1854, middle-class female volunteers, paid nurses, and members of Anglican and Roman Catholic women's religious orders left Britain and Ireland to work as military nurses in the Crimean War. Florence Nightingale has received thorough scholarly and popular analysis, but the rest of the contingent is understudied. The Crimean War was the first conflict in which British women worked as military nurses. I analyze their work through the perspectives of gender, class and religion, using nurses’ correspondence, journals, contemporary letters, news articles and documents. I argue that military nursing provided women with a unique opportunity which they seized to widen their "sphere." This service allowed them to contravene the usual strictures on genteel female behavior and work against anti-Catholic bias.

Though the government needed the services of the nurses, who had worked in famine hospitals and cholera epidemics before the War, officials were nonetheless concerned about the presence of Catholic and high Anglican sisters on the wards of military hospitals. All agreed that their primary responsibility was care of the sick, yet the sisters also took seriously their responsibilities to minister to the spiritual needs of soldiers. Throughout their working lives, the Anglican and Roman Catholic Sisters served their nation and advocated for the poor. My analysis of religious women who supported Britain’s war effort breaks new ground in women's history in showing how seemingly traditional women renegotiate cultural norms, avoiding the censure a more overt challenge would cause. Roman Catholic sisters were doubly subordinated by gender and denomination. Their and the Anglican sisters’ unpaid work of managing Church-sponsored institutions and revitalizing religious practice in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches has too often been attributed to the work of prominent churchmen. My work illustrates the sisters’ role in reshaping mid-Victorian religious identity. By placing themselves in harm's way, attending to wounded and dying soldiers, avoiding scandals and gossip, the nurses helped to forge paths out of the home for women in the later Victorian decades.

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