A War of Individuals: Bloomsbury Attitudes to the Great War

By Jonathan Atkin | Go to book overview
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6

Women and the war

The Great War, most people would have agreed at the time, was a male creation. Politicians, statesmen and kings bred it and soldiers fought and fed it. Thus far, this study has regarded those women within Bloomsbury whose aesthetic reactions to the conflict provide such a good starting point when examining the war in this context. What of other women, existing independently from that hot-house of creativity, but who felt similarly? Due to their status in society as a whole, women necessarily operated within a different cultural milieu to that of men even when sharing an enlightened, liberal background with them, as within Bloomsbury and its circle. But women emerged from a range of backgrounds and contexts including that of political agitation linked to specific political aims whose motivation towards protest, when confronted by the specifics of war, became more individualistic in character and less a part of an organised 'movement' or liable to be led by the propaganda of the war-state.

Many women in the period leading up to the outbreak of the conflict could lay claim to a history of opposition; during the pre-war period one of the principal focal points of public dissent against the existing political structure had been the women's suffrage movement. This cause, by the nature of its specific political goals, had also been largely political in organisation, character and aspiration, though precepts of greater equality for women outside the political sphere once they had achieved the vote were meshed to hopes for the ultimate cultural emancipation of the female sex. It is interesting, then, to observe and comment upon the course taken by this swelling tide of political protest as it crashed violently against the rock of war; namely, that though the strength of dissent was dissipated to some extent, it by no means ran dry. Indeed, a modern commentator has stated that, 'Half the leading women in the British suffrage movement opposed the war'. 1

Some women were able to formulate their opposition to the conflict on a personal level over and above the political framework of women's suffrage through direct experience of nursing or simple observance from the Home Front as the casualties mounted. This 'truth' of the conflict led some women to question their position; not in their decision, in some cases, to nurse, but in stark terms of human suffering. The creation of maimed bodies and minds on an

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