Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Outing Auntie Cal: War Stories, Hidden Histories, and Family Conversations

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Outing Auntie Cal: War Stories, Hidden Histories, and Family Conversations

Article excerpt


Commemorations are, by definition, all about collective remembering. The centenary of World War I (WWI) has involved public commemorations (for details, see as well as family history research and family conversations about the WWI involvement of relatives. In the public sphere, commemorations have focused on the male experience of war and it is likely to be similar for family histories and the processes of family remembering. WWI can be understood as a global calamity with a profound impact on the women and men of all participating nations, but commemorations usually focus on military events such as Gallipoli. To remedy the neglect of women's voices around WWI and to promote feminist analysis of commemorative discourses that may glorify war, the Women's Studies Association of New Zealand (WSANZ), of which I am convenor, held two events in 2015 on the topic of women, war, and peace. My involvement in organising these events prompted me to think about my great-aunt, Caroline Elizabeth Wise, who served overseas as a nurse during WWI. As a result, I embarked on a family history research journey, looking into her background, WWI service, and post-war life, placing these in social and historical contexts.

I am not really a family history buff, nor am I overly interested in genealogical research, which is central to the practice of family history. I am a researcher in psychology and women's studies. However, there is one scholarly project of mine that no doubt prompted a consideration of my great-aunt's life because of its consideration of women's sexualities. This is Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The kinship of women, the story of a lesbian friendship between two twentieth-century anthropologists (Lapsley, 1999). Family history, though, is a leisure interest for me, and so this project was not undertaken as part of my academic work. Therefore, I structured this article as a personal essay, informed by my reading of women's history and WWI history and by my scholarly understanding of women's sexualities. As such, the work did not require approval from any formal ethics body, but as with much biographical research, ethical issues did arise, particularly in relation to privacy. These were considered carefully, and I proceeded with this work in consultation with my family and gained permission from them to quote from their emails, as well as tacit approval to write about my great-aunt, although the interpretation of the materials I gathered is mine alone.

Although I have warm childhood memories of Auntie Cal, I realised that I knew little about her wartime involvement. My understanding was that she was a nurse in a hospital ship off Gallipoli who at some point refused a medal as a protest about nurses being excluded from Anzac Day marches. To remedy this neglect, I began reading widely about WWI, the nursing experience, and New Zealand's involvement, including memoir and fiction as well as historical writing.

At the beginning of my investigation, which developed in a rather haphazard manner, I initiated communications with my brothers and cousins about 'our war heroine'. I asked whether they had any knowledge of the Auntie Cal 'medal' story and what they could recall hearing about her war service. As none of the male relatives we knew when we were young had been in the armed forces during WWI, Auntie Cal held the heroism spot undisputed, and I assumed they would be interested in her because of the current commemorations.

Family conversations

And so a family conversation began. A cousin said that Auntie Cal's medals had been returned in protest after she had been awarded them; in other words, she did not refuse to receive them, as I had initially thought. My nearest brother told me how I could find her army record, since New Zealanders' WWI records are now digitised and accessible, both via the Auckland War Memorial Museum website and directly from Archives New Zealand (2015). …

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