Nightingale’s legacy: Women on the COVID ‘frontline’

Hannah West

Coronavirus is not only a disease but a human security threat. We are used to seeing the, predominantly male, Armed Forces deploy in response to a conventional security threat. But, the NHS frontline is disproportionately manned by women. Nurses symbolise the frontline of the medical profession in their hands-on capacity caring for patients and whilst not all nurses responding to the pandemic are women, it remains the case that in the public consciousness, the stereotype of a nurse is a woman. The accepted presence of women nurses on the coronavirus frontline, ignores the unprecedented feminised response to this security threat. This post asks how women’s labour on the coronavirus frontline will be captured in the historical record.

Looking back to the histories of past frontline endeavours, often forgotten is the presence and involvement of women, who may at the time have been constrained to apparently supporting roles, but were active and present nonetheless. In 1950s Malaya, Lady Templer, wife of the British High Commissioner at the height of the Malaya campaign, pioneered an extensive women’s outreach programme including the deployment of British Red Cross nurses, which has been written out of the mainstream histories. Their story has become secondary, part of the social story of life away from the frontline: dismissed from the military story for not being in uniform.

In the context of wartime nursing, Florence Nightingale has become the romanticised ideal of the woman nurse, “the Lady with the Lamp” softly tending to our wounded boys in Crimea and yet this belies her work professionalising nursing as both a social reformer and statistician. And it hadn’t always been acceptable for women to nurse in proximity to a conventional frontline, subjected to a security threat. Although ever present as camp followers travelling with the British Army across the world providing informal labour cooking and doing laundry whilst discredited as prostitutes, before Crimea the British Army didn’t want to acknowledge their provision of informal nursing care. And this idea was perpetuated in the First World War, where women doctors and nurses, ended up establishing hospital units for Britain’s allies or unofficial first aid posts in the face of War Office disapproval. Military nursing services, established in the late 1800s, were, as noted in Cynthia Enloe’s work, explicitly feminised by their naming after Royal patronesses, such as the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service. Manning Casualty Clearing Stations and military field hospitals with the Voluntary Aid Detachments, they were kept at what was felt to be a reasonable distance from the trenches themselves.

The presence of women providing nursing care to the wounded became accepted but as the decades wore on and the arguments strengthened for women’s integration into other parts of the military, the medical services became a feminine enclave in a male world. Women were not only acceptable here, they could be contained here. They could provide a useful function and no more. If women were to be found on this frontline, it was to be with a bandage in their hand and a red cross on their arm. Better that than as infanteers, fighter pilots and gunners. Men wanted and expected to see a woman when they had been wounded, they did not want to go into battle with them.


(1) ‘Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker tending to a wounded Belgian soldier in their First Aid Post at Pervyse, 6 August 1917’, © IWM 

A fascinating exception is the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), established independently in 1908 to transport the wounded and administer first aid. Their determination to be present on the battlefield, meant they were trained in rifle and revolver shooting, arguably nearer combatants than not. Janet Lee describes their radical challenge to the ‘masculine space’ of the frontline. This all-female voluntary organisation remains in existence today, with a mission to ‘provide assistance to civil and military authorities in times of emergency’ , recently providing communications support in the NHS Nightingale Hospital Operations Room.


 (2) ‘A Belgian First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) Corps unit at work at a first aid post in Calais, 1918. The women are identified as White and Calder.’ © IWM

The coronavirus frontline does not involve the usual trappings of combat, there are no weapons to bear and no gunfire. But coronavirus is a faceless global human security threat. It is a threat that doesn’t conform to our expectation of a personified enemy. In contrast to the inherently masculinised military frontline of conventional warfare, the medicalised response to this threat has feminised this frontline, thus making women’s presence acceptable. But women are very much combatants in this battle. This is a unique moment to examine frontline nurses as the foot-soldiers of this campaign and explore what it means for our understanding of women as combatants.

As histories begin to be written of this period in global history, there is a danger that women’s presence and active participation will be written out once again or side-lined to the annals of women’s studies, marginalised from the mainstream record. There is a critical concurrent effort to ensure that the gendered stories of women as victims – whether of increased domestic violence in isolation or the precarious employment scenario – are heard but it is interesting, and arguably convenient, that stories of women as victims may endure but represent only part of women’s stories of this time. What can we do to ensure that women’s labour on the coronavirus frontline will be recorded as the histories are even now being written?


Featured Image –  A nurse in a Moscow hospital.

Image 1 – Q 105938,

Image 2 – Q 108181,

2 thoughts on “Nightingale’s legacy: Women on the COVID ‘frontline’

  1. It seems to me that it would be appropriate for HMG to recognise and acknowledge those who served on the Covid frontline with a campaign medal. I cannot think of another event in my lifetime (seven decades) that has been as threatening to the population and resisted by the staff of the NHS.


  2. Nurses are the important pillar of defense, they are playing critical role in combating the pandemic . As Florence Nightingale said ‘it would take 150 years for the world to realize the importance of nursing profession’ the time is opportune and we must make our contributions known to the world that the nurses ARE FIGHTING ON THE FRONTLINE TO SAFEGUARD THE LIVES OF EVERYONE AFFECTED .


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