A female genealogy of humanitarian action: compassion as a practice in the work of Josephine Butler, Florence Nightingale and Sarah Monod

Med Confl Surviv. 2020 Mar;36(1):19-40. doi: 10.1080/13623699.2020.1719582. Epub 2020 Jan 28.


Taking the Second Conference of the International Abolitionist Federation as a starting point, this article reconstructs a female genealogy of humanitarian action by shedding light on the transnational connections established by Josephine Butler, Florence Nightingale and Sarah Monod between the abolitionist cause against the state regulation of prostitution and the nursing movement. By using gender and emotion histories as the main methodologies, their letters, journals and drawings are analysed in order to question their alleged natural compassion towards the unfortunate by examining this emotion as a practice performed according to gender, class, religious and ethnic differences. As an expression of maternal imperialism, this essentialist vision provided them with an agency while taking care of victims. However, Butler, Nightingale and Monod's care did not only work in complicity with late-nineteenth century British and French Empires, as it frequently came into conflict with the decisions taken by male authorities, such as those represented by politicians, military officials and physicians. By carefully looking at the conformation of their subjectivities through their written and visual documents, their compassion ultimately appears more as a tactic, for asserting their very different stances concerning Western women's role in society, than as an authentically experienced emotion.

Keywords: Gender and women’s history; International Abolitionist Federation; history of emotions; history of humanitarian relief; history of nursing; post-colonial studies.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Video-Audio Media

MeSH terms

  • Altruism*
  • Armed Conflicts / history
  • Black or African American / history
  • Female
  • Feminism / history*
  • France
  • History of Nursing*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Politics
  • Red Cross / history
  • Relief Work / history*
  • United States
  • Women's Health / history
  • Women's Rights / history

Personal name as subject

  • Josephine Butler
  • Florence Nightingale
  • Sarah Monod