'The Rose of No Man's Land [?]': Femininity, Female Identity, and Women on the Western Front

By Martin, Nancy | Journal of International Women's Studies, December 2012 | Go to article overview

'The Rose of No Man's Land [?]': Femininity, Female Identity, and Women on the Western Front


Martin, Nancy, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

This article provides an analysis of a range literary texts and memoirs written by, and about, women who served as nurses, VADs, and ambulance drivers on the Western Front. It explores how these texts represent "feminine" identity in relation to the war's emotional and physical trauma and focuses, in particular, on moments where conventional notions are challenged, or made impossible, by the war's chaos. In addition, this article explores how these women understood, articulated, and represented the men they sought to aid. Fundamental to this discussion is an exploration of the period's propaganda and iconography and how these women writers attempted to negotiate an intelligible identity in relation to it. The article's primary aim is to expose, and navigate, some of the complex sites of ideological battle within Britain during the First World War. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate the complexity, ambiguity, and flexibility of both "femininity" and "masculinity" in the context of dramatic social change.

Keywords: First World War, Women's Writing, Femininity and Female Identity

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You are being sent to work for the Red Cross. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience, your humility, your determination to overcome all difficulties [...] Sacrifices may be asked of you. Give generously and wholeheartedly, grudging nothing, but remembering that you are giving because your country needs your help ... think of the men who are fighting amid discomfort and who are often in great pain. Let our mottos be 'Willing to do anything' and 'The People give gladly.' If we live up to these, the V.A.D. members will come out of this world war triumphant.

Katharine Furse, Commandant-in-Chief

By January of 1916, thousands of women across Britain had received the above sealed letter from Katharine Furse, the Commandant-in-Chief of the First World War's Voluntary Aid Detachments. (3) Its contents offered freedom and opportunity: an escape from the isolated shelter of the family home and a chance to join husbands, brothers, and lovers on the front. Indeed, with few alternative roles open to women beyond the home front, the uniform of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse was particularly appealing. The starched white dress and flowing veil, a source of pride for middle and upper-class families, offered public recognition and an active role in the nation's defense. In short, it offered an identity, a clearly articulated and significant role in the war. This role was represented by recruitment propaganda as "natural" for women in wartime; it effectively carried women's peacetime responsibilities of nurturance, life- giving, and self-sacrifice to the battlefront. In other words, the potentially transgressive nurse was aligned with the conservative domestic deity--the patriotic mother. The conflation of the two figures is most clearly represented in the 1918 Red Cross recruitment poster by Alonzo Earl Foringer, entitled "The Greatest Mother in the World." The image presents a large female figure, dressed in robes and gazing upwards, a red cross on her white veil. In her arms, she cradles a tiny wounded soldier. The image presents a strange rendition of the Madonna and Child--the nurse serving as the wartime "mother" to the nation's sacrificed "sons." This association effectively functioned in maintaining the nurse's wartime work (and sexuality) within the conventional idealized value system, one that equated feminine duty with maternal self-sacrifice; "Give generously and wholeheartedly, grudging nothing," wrote Furse in the letter that was "to be kept in [the] pocket book" of every VAD.

However, the strictly--and stereotypically--"feminine" contours of this government-endorsed identity could rarely be maintained beyond the home front. These genteel Edwardian ladies entered a war zone of unprecedented destruction and devastation without any knowledge of its realities. …

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