IRON MAIDENS ; We All Know the Story of Boudicca. and Joan of Arc. Even Private Jessica Lynch Is a Household Name. but What about All the Other Women Who Have Taken Part in Wars, Asks Mark Bostridge. What Do Art and Literature Have to Tell Us about Them?
Bostridge, Mark, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
In May 1943, a lively young blonde was introduced to the wartime American public. "She's 5 feet 1 from her 4A slippers to her spun- gold hair. She loves flower-hats, veils, smooth orchestras - and being kissed by a boy who's in North Africa. But man, oh man, how she can handle her huge and heavy drill press."
This was Rosie the Riveter, designed by Norman Rockwell, who quickly became one of the iconic poster images of the Second World War. In blue overalls, her hair carelessly wrapped in a polka-dot scarf, Rosie flexed her biceps and proclaimed "We Can Do It". The sight of women in overalls wielding tools was an increasingly common one, and Rosie the Riveter's popularity in picture and song ("All the day long/ Whether rain or shine/ She's a part of the assembly line") made her name the generic term for all females in wartime industries.
Rosie is just one example of the multiple ways in which the female population (conscripted in Britain for the first time in December 1941) was directed towards the war effort, making significant inroads into traditionally male-only skilled and unskilled employment. However, she may also stand, more universally, as one of the most memorable symbols of the revolutionary effects that modern warfare has had on the lives of women throughout the 20th century and beyond, allowing them to move into areas from which they were previously restricted, and to make their own widespread contributions as part of societies at war. Whether as participants, civilians, victims, or observers, women in wartime were no longer simply keeping the home fires burning, but rather flexing their muscles in an enormous variety of different roles.
"Women and War" is the title of a major exhibition to be opened by the Queen - who played her own small part in the Second World War as driver and mechanic in the ATS - at the Imperial War Museum, London, this week. Assembled from the museum's collections, as well as from loans from as far afield as China, Russia, New Zealand, and the US, the exhibition presents itself as the first of its kind to chronicle the history of women and war from the First World War to the present day (with an introductory section tracing women's involvement in conflict back to antiquity). It's primarily the stories of ordinary women doing extraordinary deeds, as servicewomen, nurses, land girls, factory workers, secret agents, pilots or peacekeepers. But inevitably, from the impressive array of original material - paintings, photographs, posters, letters and diaries, costumes and other memorabilia - it's the items associated with the famous and infamous with which the visitor makes an instant connection.
From the Hermitage comes a magnificent green silk uniform worn by Catherine the Great, commander-in-chief of the Russian forces, who led her army into battle from horseback. There's part of the stage costume of that mysterious femme fatale, Mata Hari, Edith Cavell's diary hidden in a cushion before her death by firing squad, the George Cross posthumously awarded to Violette Szabo, the secret agent executed by the Germans in 1942, Marlene Dietrich's USO uniform, even a pair of shorts sported by Vera Lynn while she entertained Allied troops in Burma.
Against these are the more anonymous witnesses to the sacrifices of wartime women: a faded cotton dress worn by an Australian army nurse who died in a Japanese POW camp; a watercolour by a Vietnamese woman, painted during the Vietnam War, entitled Waiting for the planes; the burnt-out shell of a sewing-machine, the means of one woman's livelihood, destroyed by cluster bombs during the Allied bombardment of Kosovo.
Penny Ritchie Calder and Angela Godwin, curators of the new exhibition, are the first to admit that proper acknowledgement of the role of women in war in the museum's displays is long overdue, and that their only regret about the current undertaking is that its sheer size and ambition mean that it can only be temporary and will be dismantled after six months. …