Women, Social Leadership, and the Second World War: Continuities of Class

Women, Social Leadership, and the Second World War: Continuities of Class

Women, Social Leadership, and the Second World War: Continuities of Class

Women, Social Leadership, and the Second World War: Continuities of Class

Synopsis

The associational life of middle-class women in twentieth-century England has been largely ignored by historians. During the Second World War women's clubs, guilds, and institutes provided a basis for the mobilization of up to a million women, mainly housewives, into unpaid part-time work. Women's Voluntary Service, which was set up by the Government in 1938 to organize this work, generated a rich archive of reports and correspondence which provide the social historian with a unique window into the female public sphere. Questioning the view that the Second World War served to democratize English society, James Hinton shows how the war enabled middle-class social leaders to reinforce their claims to authority. Displaying 'character' through their voluntary work, the leisured women at the centre of this study made themselves indispensable to the war effort. James Hinton delineates these 'continuities of class', reconstructing intimate portraits of local female social leadership in contrasting settings across provincial England (towns large and small, shire counties, the Durham coalfield), tracing complex and often acerbic rivalries within the voluntary sector, and uncovering gulfs of mutual distrust and incomprehension dividing publicly active women along gendered frontiers of class and party. This study reminds us how much Britain's wartime mobilization relied on a Victorian ethos of public service to cope with the profoundly un-Victorian problems of total war.The women's associations so evocatively explored here reached the apex of their effectiveness during the Second World War, sustaining an uneasy balance between voluntarism and the expanding power of the state. In the longer term female social leaders found themselves marginalized by bureaucracy and professionalization. The stories told here demonstrate that the Second World War changed English society far less than is often assumed. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that practices and attitudes laid down in the nineteenth century finally lost their purchase.

Excerpt

This book has been a long time in gestation. More than fifteen years ago, fascinated by claims and counter-claims about the democratizing impact of the Second World War on British society, I set out to write a book comparing and contrasting the experience of two groups of people—male shop-floor workers in war industry and housewives thrust into unaccustomed public prominence by the centrality of austerity to the war effort. I had in mind a systematic comparison between the social relations of production and consumption within the corporatist economy of the war and its aftermath. As is the way of these things, the project was overambitious, spinning off in too many divergent directions to be held together within the confines of a single book. My work on shop-floor workers saw the light of day in 1994, as did the first fruits of my work on housewives. I will publish my findings about the politics of consumption and the gendered character of wartime corporatism in a forthcoming journal article. What is presented here is a spin-off from the original project. Gradually it became clear to me that questions about the potentially democratizing impact of the war on women’s lives might be more fruitfully addressed not to their role as housewives 1or as wartime wage earners where a good deal of work had already been done) but to their participation in voluntary work.

Paid employment was far from being the only route by which housewives were able to participate in a public sphere beyond the household. the early twentieth century had seen a rapid expansion of single-sex organizations catering for the associational life of women outside the home. During the war this female public sphere provided a basis for the mobilization of women into a vast range of part-time voluntary activities which made an essential contribution to Britain’s war effort. One organization above all was responsible for organizing this work—Women’s Voluntary Services 1WVS). More or less by chance I came across the wvs archives, and these have provided the bedrock for this study, opening the way into a world of predominantly middle-class women’s organizations which has been largely neglected by historians.

‘In the second world war’, wrote A. J. P. Taylor in 1965, ‘the British people came of age.’ Through their willing participation in the defence of Britain and the destruction of fascism, ordinary people took possession of the nation as never before—or, perhaps, since. Sixty years on, looking back over a century of unparalleled progress and destruction, the idea of the ‘People’s War’ as an experience of social cohesion and democratic participation . . .

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