Source: Nightingale, Florence. Cassandra: An Essay. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1979. Originally written in 1852.
About the Author: Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) the daughter of prosperous British parents, is the founder of modern nursing. Believing that she had a calling from God to become a nurse, she defied her family to pursue a nursing career. She became famous during the Crimean War for dramatically reducing the death rate in hospitals by eliminating filth and establishing order. After founding a nursing school in England, she spent the remainder of her life working to better nursing education.
In the nineteenth century, the idea of separate spheres for men and women dictated that women should devote their lives entirely to the home and family. This ideology, enormously popular in industrialized nations, including Great Britain and the United States, dramatically restricted women's lives.
The public arena of work and politics was reserved for men only. The notion of a separate domestic realm for women prevented them from pursuing higher education, having a professional career, or participating in politics by voting or holding office. Distinctions between men and women were most noticeable in the privileged classes. While boys attended secondary schools, most middle- and upperclass girls were educated at home, where they were taught to be religious, obedient, and accomplished in music and languages. Women dressed for decorative effect in long, cumbersome skirts that restricted freedom of movement and wore long hair that required hours of brushing and styling.
Laws everywhere defined the subordination of women. Many countries followed the model of the French Napoleonic Code, which classified married women, children, the insane, and criminals as legally incompetent. In England, British common law upheld a husband's complete control over his wife.
Florence Nightingale chafed at these restrictions. An upper-middle-class woman of extraordinary intellectual gifts, her ambition to become a nurse was thwarted for many years by opposition from her parents and sister, who believed firmly that proper women simply did not work for a living. Nightingale's frustration was mirrored by other women of her class, who were trapped in an oppressive atmosphere that did not permit them to engage in fulfilling intellectual activity. As Nightingale angrily wrote, they were expected to fritter away their days doing needlework, reading, and taking drives in the country. To Nightingale, work was the means by which every individual could achieve self-fulfillment and serve God. Nightingale wrote Cassandra in 1852 but did not publish it in her lifetime.
Is discontent a privilege?
Women often try one branch of intellect after another in their youth, e.g. mathematics. But that, least of all, is compatible with the life of "society." It is impossible to follow up anything systematically. Women often long to enter some man's profession where they would find direction, competition (or rather opportunity of measuring the intellect with others), and, above all, time.
In those wise institutions, mixed as they are with many follies, which will last as long as the human race lasts, because they are adapted to the wants of the human race; those institutions which we call monasteries, and which, embracing much that is contrary to the laws of nature, are yet better adapted to the union of the life of action and that of thought than any other mode of life with which we are acquainted; in many such, four and a half hours, at least, are daily set aside for thought, rules are given for thought, training and opportunity afforded. Among us, there is no time appointed for this purpose, and the difficulty is that, in our social life, we must be always doubtful whether we ought not to be with somebody else or be doing something else.
Are men better off than women in this?
If one calls upon a friend in London and sees her son in the drawing-room, it strikes one as odd to find a young man sitting idle in his mother's drawing-room in the morning. For men, who are seen much in those haunts, there is no end of the epithets we have: "knights of the carpet," "drawing-room heroes," "ladies' men." But suppose we were to see a number of men in the morning sitting round a table in the drawing-room, looking at prints, doing worsted work, and reading little books, how we should laugh! A member of the House of Commons was once known to do worsted work. Of another man was said, "His only fault is that he is too good; he drives out with his mother every day in the carriage, and if he is asked anywhere he answers that he must dine with his mother, but, if she can spare him, he will come in to tea, and he does not come."
Now, why is it more ridiculous for a man than for a woman to do worsted work and drive out every day in the carriage? Why should we laugh if we were to see a parcel of men sitting round a drawing-room table in the morning, and think it all right if they were women?
Is man's time more valuable than woman's? or is the difference between man and woman this, that woman has confessedly nothing to do?
Women are never supposed to have any occupation of sufficient importance not to be interrupted, except "suckling their fools"; and women themselves have accepted this, have written books to support it, and have trained themselves so as to consider whatever they do as not of such value to the world or to others, but that they can throw it up at the first "claim of social life." They have accustomed themselves to consider intellectual occupation as a merely selfish amusement, which it is their "duty" to give up for every trifler more selfish than themselves.
A young man (who was afterwards useful and known in his day and generation) when busy reading and sent for by his proud mother to shine in some morning visit, came; but, after it was over, he said, "Now, remember, this is not to happen again. I came that you might not think me sulky, but I shall not come again." But for a young woman to send such a message to her mother and sisters, how impertinent it would be! A woman of great administrative powers said that she never undertook anything which she "could not throw by at once, if necessary."
How do we explain then the many cases of women who have distinguished themselves in classic, mathematics, even in politics?
Widowhood, ill-health, or want of bread, these three explanations or excuses are supposed to justify a woman in taking up an occupation. In some cases, no doubt, an indomitable force of character will suffice without any of these three, but such are rare.
Although chiefly known for her work as a nurse, Nightingale was also a social reformer. She supported feminist principles for the same reasons that many other women did: they were frustrated by the restrictions that prevented them from living a full life. They wanted to enjoy the same liberty and equality granted to men.
Opponents of women's rights argued that feminist demands would threaten society by undermining marriage and the family, which they saw as a woman's profession. In addition, nineteenth-century commentators often argued that women had a small capacity to reason, could not calculate consequences, and behaved in a reckless fashion—in short, they needed male assistance to survive.
In their struggle for equality, feminists had to overcome deeply ingrained beliefs about female inferiority, a battle that took decades to win. Although women's rights had become a major issue by the turn of the century, women in most industrialized countries, including Great Britain, did not win full legal rights until the mid- to late twentieth century.
Burstein, Miriam Elizabeth. Narrating Women's History in Britain, 1770–1902. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.
Dossey, Barbara Montgomery. Florence Nightingale: Mystic, Visionary, Healer. Springhouse, PA: Springhouse, 2000.
Purvis, June, ed. Women's History: Britain, 1850–1945: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin's Press: Ashgate, 1995.
Florence Nightingale Museum. 〈http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/centre.htm〉 (accessed April 10, 2006).
Homer's Iliad, Hyginus's Fabulae
Daughter of Priam and Hecuba
In Greek mythology , Cassandra was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba , the king and queen of Troy. Cassandra was the most beautiful of Priam's daughters, and the god Apollo fell in love with her. Apollo promised Cassandra the gift of prophecy—the ability to see the future— if she would agree to give herself to him. Cassandra accepted Apollo's gift but then refused his advances. Apollo was furious, but he could not take back the powers he had given her. Instead, he cursed her, proclaiming that although she would be able to tell the future accurately, no one would believe her. Before announcing her prophecies, Cassandra went into a type of trance that made her family believe she was insane.
In Homer's Iliad , Cassandra predicted many of the events of the Trojan War. Priam's son Paris planned a trip to Sparta. Cassandra warned against it, but her warnings were ignored. Paris traveled to Sparta, where he kidnapped Helen , starting the war with Greece. Cassandra later predicted Troy's defeat and warned the Trojans not to accept the Greek gift of the Trojan horse. Again she was ignored, and Greek troops hidden inside the wooden horse captured the city. During the battle, a Greek soldier known as Ajax the Lesser raped Cassandra in the temple of Athena . Athena later punished Ajax and his men for the deed.
After the Greek victory, Cassandra was given to the Greek leader Agamemnon as a prize. She bore Agamemnon two sons and later returned to Greece with him. However, she also predicted that a terrible fate awaited Agamemnon and herself. When they reached Agamemnon's home in Mycenae, they were both murdered by Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus.
Cassandra in Context
In ancient Greece, the belief that certain individuals could see the future—or were told the future by the gods—was common. Those who could see the future were believed to get this power from the god Apollo and were called oracles. Oracles were often found at temples dedicated to Apollo. The most famous ancient Greek oracle, located at Delphi , was at the site of a large temple to Apollo. According to legend and historians, the oracle at Delphi, or the Delphic oracle, was always female.
Key Themes and Symbols
In the legends of the Trojan War, Cassandra symbolizes futility, the inability to be useful. Although Cassandra can see exactly what will happen to her family and their city, she cannot do anything about it because no one believes her. In this way, Cassandra also serves as a symbol of destiny, the idea that the future has already been determined by the gods.
Cassandra in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Although Cassandra plays a rather small role in the legends of the Trojan War, her unique character has endured and has appeared in numerous other works of art and literature. In modern literature, Cassandra's point of view is told in Marion Zimmer Bradley's historical novel The Firebrand (1987). Cassandra also appears in the futuristic tale “Cassandra” by C. J. Cherryh, which won a Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1979.
The term “Cassandra” is sometimes used in modern times to refer to someone who makes predictions that are ignored or disbelieved, but later proven accurate.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Many modern stories include a character similar to Cassandra, who says things that are ignored or considered nonsense until they come true. One example is the title character in the Disney animated film Chicken Little (2005), in which the title character tries to warn others about an alien invasion. Try to think of a single example from a book you have read, or a movie or television show you have seen. Describe the story and the character, and explain how the character is like Cassandra. What were the reasons the character's prediction was ignored?
From 1935 Cassandra was also the pen-name of the Daily Mirror journalist William Connor (1909–67). Cassandra's support for criticism of P. G. Wodehouse's wartime broadcasts from France while interned by the Germans was extremely influential; his ‘vitriolic’ style, on the other hand, often annoyed the government.