Women at War: Penny Ritchie Calder of the Imperial War Museum Introduces a Major New Exhibition for This Autumn

History Today, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Women at War: Penny Ritchie Calder of the Imperial War Museum Introduces a Major New Exhibition for This Autumn


'MY GOOD LADY--GO HOME AND SIT STILL' suggested the man from the War Office when confronted by a feisty Scottish doctor, Elsie Inglis, who wanted to offer her services for the war effort in 1914. Sitting still is not, however, in women's nature. Particularly not when there's a war on. Despite the traditional view of women as nurturers and carets whose role is primarily to keep the home fires burning, there is a long history of female warriors and other women for whom war has been a turning point.

Producing an exhibition about women and war has been a great challenge. The subject is vast, with each of the myriad avenues of research worth an exhibition in itself. And it is all too easy to be distracted by the many extraordinary individuals and arcane organisations that surface in wartime. Whatever became, for instance, of the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps, which by 1918 had 2,000 masseuses hard at work in hospitals at the front? Who could resist the tale of Hannah Snell? In pursuit of an errant husband she found herself press-ganged into the army in 1745 and fought in India as a marine, later becoming a national celebrity. From classical times to the present, literally millions of ordinary women have found themselves caught up in conflict and have displayed exceptional tenacity, bravery, leadership, or stoicism--or a mixture of all of these things.

An exhibition is not a book or a documentary film. It is not the place to explore academic theories or to convey didactic messages. In many ways it can offer much more to stimulate the senses and the intellect. It provides a visual arena, an opportunity for visitors to see original material brought together for the first time from many sources. From the Hermitage in St Petersburg comes a sumptuous green silk uniform worn by Catherine the Great in 1792. Mounted on a warhorse, dressed and equipped as a soldier, Catherine famously led the forces that overthrew her husband, Peter III. As commander-in-chief of the Russian forces she went on to wage war against the Ottoman Empire, expanding her territory as far as the Black Sea. In contrast, a faded grey cotton dress, lent by the Australian War Memorial, is testament to the experiences of an Australian many nurse captured by the Japanese in 1942. Sister Dora Shirley Gardam survived the sinking of her ship, the Vyner Brooke, and spent over three years in a prison camp. She died only a few months before the camp was liberated in 1945.

Other items lent for the exhibition include the medals awarded to the singer Josephine Baker for her work with the French Resistance; the army uniform worn by Marlene Dietrich; the uniform of Pip Tattersall, the first woman to be awarded the coveted Royal Marine's 'green beret'; and kit worn by women serving in war zones with humanitarian aid agencies such as Medecins sans Frontieres.

Among the documents in the exhibition is the diary kept by Vera Brittain, who served as a VAD nurse in the First World War and whose book Testament of Youth spoke for a whole generation of women.

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Women at War: Penny Ritchie Calder of the Imperial War Museum Introduces a Major New Exhibition for This Autumn
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