Saturday, December 17, 2005

Mothers of invention

The First World War was a watershed in everyone's lives, whatever their background, age or gender. Understandably, the story of those four horrific years has been told mainly from the men's perspective, but for every letter from the front to a mother, lover or sister, there was a reply from the women who were urged to 'keep the home fires burning'. Like the men, women wrote poems and books; they kept diaries, made speeches and told their children and grandchildren about their experiences, their losses and their new found independence.
Leading feminist and campaigner for women's suffrage, Millicent Fawcett, said: 'The war revolutionised the industrial position of women – it found them serfs and left them free.' 'Revolutionised' is probably overstating the case, but the choices open to them in 1918 were certainly greater than they had been in 1914.
For and against the war
Expectations were already rising before the war. The campaign for women to have the vote raged in the early years of the century and, by the summer of 1914, over 1,000 suffragettes had been imprisoned for destroying public property. Once the fighting started, though, the suffragette movement split. Some suspended their demands in return for their members being released from prison and because, in the words of Emmeline Pankhurst of the Women's Social and Political Union, 'What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in?'
Others, though, like Charlotte Despard, leader of the Women's Freedom League, refused to compromise on the struggle for equality for women. As pacifists, they also campaigned for a negotiated peace and refused to take part in the war effort. This view was shared by journalist Evelyn Sharp who, when asked what she did in the war, replied: 'I tried to stop the bloody thing!'At the other end of the spectrum was the Order of the White Feather, founded by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald in August 1914, which encouraged women to give out white feathers to young men who had not joined the army. The pacifist, Fenner Brockway, claimed that he was given so many white feathers that he had enough to make a fan.the extraordinarily powerful description of her life and the loss of the young men who were closest to her, became a pacifist as a result of those experiences.
Most women wanted to do their bit to help the war effort, and a proliferation of new committees and organisations sprang up to enable them to volunteer. Some of them performed vital work, saving and supporting lives. One, the Women's Institute, which is still in existence today, was formed in 1915 to help ensure that the nation was fed.
Some of these initiatives though, quietly disappeared when they encountered the reality of war, or the women themselves were discouraged from participating. Emily Galbraith, a trainee teacher, was so keen to do her bit that she wrote to Lord Kitchener:
'I asked whether he would allow us, because we were capable and could protect our country, to learn to fire a rifle. Shortly after, I received a very nice handwritten letter back from Kitchener and he said he didn't approve of women fighting; it was the men's job to look after the women, but he thanked me very much.'
Between these two extremes stood women like Vera Brittain, who, while writing


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