LIFE: Women at War; They Did a Lot More Than Stay at Home Waiting for Their Brave Husbands to Return, soRemembrance Day Is the Perfect Time to Set the Record Straight about Britain's Female Fighters
Byline: Jane Kirkby
WHEN the public pauses for two minutes to remember the dead of two world wars tomorrow the image in most minds will be the spirited Tommy marching on to war.
Images of women in war seem confined to nurses tending wounds or home-makers waiting for husbands to return from the front.
Such romantic cliches often overshadow the woman's role as fighter,electrician, soldier or builder. But now, a major museum exhibition and accompanying book seek to extinguish the myths surrounding women and war.
With Remembrance Day tomorrow, there seems nob etter time to set the record straight.
Penny Ritchie Calder,curator of the Women and War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London,believes this strand of women's history has been overlooked.
She says: ``Historians have focussed on the fighting front,on how the war was won,on military strategies. In comparison,maybe the women's story was perceived as being less interesting,but every woman has got her own individual story to tell. As historians, we are now looking more at the social side of war, so the subject of women and war,of people's experiences,becomes much more valid and interesting.''
Ritchie Calder agrees that the woman's role in the First World War,for example,has been underestimated. She says: ``People have this image of `Women of Britain say go' to their men while they stayed at home. But in fact the women of Britain didn't sit still. They used the war,not necessarily in a political way,but as an opportunity for them to break through class,patriarchal and status barriers,and show that they could do men's jobs. Up until then they had no opportunity to prove themselves.''
In the early days of the First World War, women's attempts to help were rebuffed. A famous story involves the Scottish medic Dr Elsie Inglis being turned away from the War Office with the words: ``My good lady,go home and sit still.''
But gradually, women began to pile pressure on the War Office,inspired by others who wouldn't take no for an answer.
Two such women were Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, who assisted wounded soldiers on the Belgian battlefields. Realising women's help was needed, theGovernment machine finally gave in.
Ritchie Calder says: ``When it became clear the war was going to be fought on a massive scale and when losses began to mount,it became obvious that the country couldn't continue to operate unless women were brought in on a large scale. In 1915-16 the Government realised it would be necessary to take women into the armed services. Women could do jobs that men would do, the reforefreeing men to fight as soldiers.''
The Women's Royal Navy Service (Wrens) was massively influential, with women trained as telegraphists,electricians and code experts. Next came recruitment into the Army and the Women's Royal Air Force. Between 1914 and 1918,more than 100,000 women served in the uniformed services.
At home,by 1917, there were over 260,000 working in the Women's Land Army as farm labourers to support the war effort. …