Florence Nightingale opens Cassandra with a dagger of a question: “Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity—these three—and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?” (p. 672). This first line establishes a sense of urgency, which appears to stem from her desperate desire to choose her own path in life.
One of the prominent differences between men and women that she explores is how each sex is expected to spend their time. Men had (and continue to have) more time to pursue their own interests, whereas women were (and still are) expected to engage in busywork, socialize, and take care of children. As Nightingale points out on page 674, society views man’s time as “more valuable than woman’s” and “that woman has confessedly nothing to do.”
Some people today stand by the saying, “Everyone has the same 24 hours; we can make time for our priorities.” However, I think Florence Nightingale might have disagreed. Since women were and are expected to “willingly…be interrupted at all hours” to cater to others’ needs, they have little time to pursue their own interests, leisures, and projects (p. 674). Therefore, men were and are given more time for their priorities.
Clearly, society places more value on the product of man’s work than on woman’s, which in turn assigns higher value to men than women. Yet, why should people’s value come from their products as opposed to their own selves? Florence Nightingale wrote this piece around the time of England’s Industrial Revolution, an era notorious for valuing production over human lives and wellbeing. This obsession with product over people shows itself in both gender and economic inequality.
An interesting detail I noticed was that Nightingale refers to a child as “it,” as in “its knees” and “itself” (p. 673). This also popped up in a few of the other readings, which raises some questions about how children were viewed in the Victorian Age. How closely were they expected to adhere to the strict gender roles of the period? How much did their socioeconomic status affect these expectations, given that lower-class children typically had jobs to help support their families? Since these children were forced to grow up so quickly, it’s possible that gender roles were imposed upon them from a very early age. However, since women often worked alongside men, how separate were the “separate spheres” for the working class?
Finally, I’d like to discuss the title. As noted in the piece’s introduction, Cassandra is a reference to a Trojan princess from Greek mythology who could foresee disasters but was cursed so that no one would believe her. Much like Cassandra, the idea that women could and should be equal to men was often dismissed and ridiculed in Nightingale’s time. However, Nightingale makes a prediction of her own: “…there shall arise a woman, who will resume, in her own soul, all the sufferings of her race, and that woman will be the Saviour of her race” (p. 676). While I don’t think any one woman has singlehandedly established gender equality, Nightingale was right in that women would rise up and challenge the limitations imposed by gender. While much of Cassandra still rings true today, it’s exciting to see so many movements dedicated to making the world a more equal place.
Note: I think I might have a slightly different version of the book, as the page numbers are different from those listed in the course schedule.
Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandra