Don't write the women of the first world war out of history
The spy and the nurse. Two women have lingered since the first world war. Mata Hari had been a circus performer and exotic dancer, and therefore satisfied traditional prejudices when she was accused of espionage and shot by the French. Edith Cavell was a brave and pious nurse whom the Germans arrested for helping British soldiers escape occupied Belgium. She too was executed and became a near-martyr. Both fitted acceptable and conventional roles for women in wartime.
Though most wars before the 20th century had been men-only events, the first world war should have given women a much greater claim to be remembered for the part they played, not least because it produced more published material from those women directly affected by its course.
Women were, for the first time in Britain, part of the government's war machine: the munitions industry depended on nearly a million of them; thousands upon thousands of injured soldiers were nursed and cared for by myriad women's organisations; the country's meagre welfare systems were buttressed by countless voluntary groups of well-organised, dedicated members who raised money, distributed supplies, visited families and staffed scores of canteens at ports and stations for exhausted troops. Others drove ambulances in France under fire and put on concert parties to the sound of artillery. On the home front, 80,000 were in uniform in non-combatant roles in the new Women's Services, and several million were undertaking work hitherto thought unsuitable or impossible for a woman – welders, train cleaners, policewomen, taxi-drivers ...
They were not invisible while the fighting raged: newspapers cautiously praised them for being "splendid" and having "pluck". Many gained national fame and described their wartime experiences in the press, touring extensively and addressing public meetings.
Flora Sandes was much in the headlines as the only British woman serving officially in uniform in the Serbian army. Mabel St Clair Stobart, commander of the Serbian Relief Fund's field hospital, thrilled the public with her pictures and tales of the epic retreat over the mountains to Albania where tens of thousands died. Elsie Inglis was a national heroine in Scotland through her pioneering work under fire as a surgeon. Suffrage campaigners, often depicted as having abandoned campaigning in order to work for the defence of the country, relentlessly held meetings, bombarded newspaper editors and badgered MPs and ministers as they spotted the opportunity to gain the vote at the war's end. Maude Royden was regularly in public spats with various bishops as she argued for women to be given more status and responsibility in the Church of England – there being few men available to fulfil parish work.
For all their ability to meet the challenge of war, and to publicise women's efforts – and many published memoirs — somehow their story faded, paling before the torrent of military memoirs, battle analysis, personal diaries and books from the men who had endured hell at the front.
It's understandable that the frontline experience dwarfed all other voices. There is reason to feel, however, that the progress women made during the war was exactly what disturbed the men who returned, who wanted life as it always had been: they had fought for their country and wanted what was familiar and reassuring. At a trivial level, the sight of raised hemlines provoked anger and disgust in many men, who were not interested in hearing that dangerous factory machinery, climbing ladders (lady windowcleaners had had a lot of trouble), crawling inside locomotive engines to clean them and ploughing squelchy fields had resulted in practical measures. Shorter skirts seemed improper. Trousers – as sported by munitionettes and many engineering workers – were downright immoral. That women felt a degree of freedom in less cumbersome clothes (steel for corset stays had been diverted to the war effort) raised fears of more independence and less deference. So the women were patted on the head and their achievements classified as "temporary, only for the duration".
Postwar conditions did not help: adventurous women found themselves at odds with the mood; ordinary workers were thrown out of jobs to make way for returning troops. While they were wanted, the government and the public were content to let women prove they could do it; afterwards, there was marked reluctance to allow them to continue, and decades of prevarication – and lingering hostility – as to whether they should.
Then, and subsequently, the history of the war has been almost entirely written by men. Only a small number of female historians – notably Barbara Tuchman – have specialised in military subjects, while feminist academics have highlighted specific contributions made by women. But many general histories have no female names in the index, and somehow assume that the war machine runs itself. Even today the battlefield remains territory that does not welcome women. Much reporting still concentrates on the tactics and weaponry, to the exclusion of the non-fighting majority, refugees being the exception. Considering war touches all lives where it is fought, I have always wanted to hear – and to tell – the wider picture. But conventions die hard. The fascination that toy guns traditionally hold for small boys never seems to lose its grip.
The suffrage campaigners would probably not have been surprised at a still unequal society today. They were grim realists, horribly aware of the depth of tradition and prejudice they faced in pursuit of the right to vote. Many had trenchant views on the war, but held their fire because of patriotism and the need to fight their own battles.
At least we have made some progress. During a debate on women's suffrage in 1917, the all-male House of Commons was told triumphantly by an MP that the only woman member of the US Congress "had, when the question of whether there should be peace or war came up, become hysterical and could not give her vote". We have the vote. We are more than just spies or saints. We have views on war and peace. War touches all of us. We should ensure we are not written out of its history.