How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women

By Lindsey German
Pluto, November 30, 2012, $19.99

Lindsey German has an excellent knowledge of women’s history, and has written two perceptive books about women in the second half of the twentieth century, Sex, Class and Socialism (Bookmarks 1998) and Material Girls (Bookmarks 2007). As is well-known, she is also the National Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, the biggest ever mass movement in Britain, and the one which organised the largest demonstration in British history on February 15, 2003, against war in Iraq. She is therefore the perfect person to write a book about women and war over the last one hundred years, and no one who reads How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women will be disappointed.

The book deals mainly with England, sometimes with Scotland and Wales, but not with Ireland, probably because of the very different experience of war there in the twentieth century, including the War of Independence from Britain. It is an informative, comprehensive, concise yet clear and accessible historical account of the major wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the roles women played. It is also a consideration of why women are at present taking a major part in anti-war movements in Britain and what that implies for the future. It is written in response to two questions: “Why did [the Stop the War] movement become such a vehicle for women’s political action, and what does that tell us about the position of women today?” (p. 1).

To answer those, the author interviewed 24 women (myself included), some of whose oral testimony goes back to World War Two, yet her use of similar material from memoirs in the chapter on the First World War means there is a continuity of style, which is lively and dramatic. For example, that chapter opens with the memory of a young woman “attending to ducklings” on an isolated Yorkshire farm which suggests a nineteenth-century pastoral scene, but it is abruptly shattered:

…a shell whizzed past my ear from the direction of the river. This was November 1914 and I refused to believe a farm boy who told me England was at war (p.10).

This perfectly illustrates the huge gulf between the life of a working woman not quite one hundred years ago and today. Within a few years, changes in the lives of working women and the proliferation of mass media would ensure that no one was quite so uninformed again. Chapter 6 opens in a similar isolated Yorkshire place, “outside the Menwith Hill spy base … on the afternoon of 11 September 2001” (when news came of the attack on the World Trade Centre). But this time, although the men give the woman (Helen John) the news of the attack, it is she who has the information the men are seeking; “two Ministry of Defence police officers … came to ask what I thought this meant” (p.135).

The First World War brought bereavement and hardship to most women but also the experience of jobs in munitions factories, on buses and trams, in the post, on the land and as bank clerks. Many argue that it was this work that led to women being granted the vote, but I am glad to say Lindsey is not one of these; she includes other factors such as the suffrage movement and the Russian Revolution.

After the war, however, she explains that there was a greater opening for women in education and in jobs outside the home, and a relaxation in dress. The Second World War brought more wide-ranging changes. A time of terror and tragedy: the Blitz, the loss of life, conscription of women as well as men, which was greater than in other countries, (p.43), yet it was also a time of greater freedom for single women. They were working in dangerous jobs and in areas of great danger, yet they faced it all with calm courage. Because they were working, they had more money and could go out to the pub, cinema or dance hall to meet men. Also, sexual attitudes were more relaxed, although this was still not equality and they did not get equal pay.

 Lindsey shows that while women in England in the First and Second World Wars may have had to give up their wartime jobs at the end of the war, they never simply went back to domestic service in which they had largely worked before 1914. More women took up other job opportunities after 1945 in particular. Yet many of the women interviewed felt that war should not be the vehicle of change in women’s lives. Elaheh Rostami Povey’s remark suggests the progress that could be made in a world at peace: “You see movements can develop much more when there is no war, even when there are politically economic and cultural difficulties” (p.203). This, as Lindsey concludes, will require challenging the market and the profit structure (p.233).

In World War One, women from the suffrage movement were divided into those who opposed and those who supported the war. Those who opposed the war formed a group with an international outlook which wanted to join their European counterparts at the women’s conference at The Hague in 1915. Yet there appears to have been no such group either between the wars or during World War Two in England, although there was another international conference in 1934. There were pacifist women during World War Two, as Angela Sinclair’s testimony shows, but they were or became members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) or the Peace Pledge Union.

In the 1950s and 60s women were active in CND and were involved in the anti-Vietnam war campaigns. These were university educated women who were also involved in the women’s movement. In 1981, women began to camp outside the RAF air base at Greenham Common in protest against the US cruise missiles being based there. Some of those women went on to become active in the Stop the War Coalition, but for many women who opposed war it was not possible to camp outside the base. It would take a movement like Stop the War to involve women as a whole.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me is the one which describes the role of Muslim women in Stop the War and explains their greater involvement. Salma Yaqoob and Rania Khan were both shocked at the way the media immediately demonised Muslims after the World Trade Centre attack. They began to become active spokeswomen for their communities. Rania Khan said she “knew instinctively Muslims were going to be subject of a backlash … That is when I decided to wear my hijab, believing that I could promote my religion in a positive light.” However, wearing the hijab caused a “wave of hostility” as Salma Yaqoob says: “Some of my female friends were abused and attacked.  I was spat on as I walked with my three-year-old son in busy Birmingham city centre” (pp.137 and 135 respectively).

Muslim women were angry at the way in which the invasion of Afghanistan was portrayed as a mission to save Muslim women from oppression, symbolised as the wearing of the burqa. “Bikinis equal freedom; sex is emancipation” (p.174). A young British woman expressed her frustration at the ignorance and prejudice towards Muslim women: “They can’t imagine we choose it … They just think we have no education, that Muslim women are stupid” (p.190). Yet, the women in Afghanistan have suffered the horrors of war and are suffering worsened oppression (p.176). An Afghan woman said that the dress was not the problem: “The problem is lack of security, lack of employment, lack of education and health” (p.177).

Rania Khan credits the anti-war movement with giving her “confidence, encouragement, knowledge of local and global issues, a voice when I felt voiceless and most importantly … a lot of love and support” (p.196).

Kate Connelly, still at school in 2003, also felt that the movement had educated her and that she had gained a lot of confidence and experience. Stop the War’s conscious effort to encourage women as speakers was noted by Tansy Hoskins (p.206). Women like Jane Shallice brought their earlier experience of campaigning to the movement. Women are more prominent in today’s anti-war movement but those interviewed disagreed over whether this is because war, as opposed to any other issue, politicises women for biological reasons. Most prefer to “feminise” mixed organisations rather than to organize separately, and have also taken up roles in the climate change and anti-cuts movements. Certainly, women are not going to leave the political arena and are not going to be returned to the kitchen sink!


This review was originally published at Counterfire and is reprinted here with permission.