‘The girl behind the man behind the gun,’ reads a poster for Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. But this Imperial War Museum exhibition does not leave women in the wings, writes Tamlyn Monson.
Women and War starts with a tribute to early warrior women – among them Boudica, Joan of Arc, and Elizabeth I – and proceeds to remember figures closer to us in time – Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell, Mata Hari. But the exhibition also succeeds in introducing many of the women that history has forgotten, telling the stories that have slipped out of popular memory: of women who disguised themselves to join military forces; of those who served ‘behind the man behind the gun’, as nurses, fundraisers and firefighters; of women from all walks of life whose loved ones were consumed by the insatiable war machine. Highlights among the mementos resurrected from the dark archives of war include the shackles with which Suffragettes chained themselves to public buildings and a wedding dress sewn from a British army parachute, but the exhibits include uniforms of all kinds, diaries, letters and illustrated journals, as well as photographs, paintings, audio recordings and video clips. My personal favourite was the fantastic selection of posters, each one offering a unique insight into the gender discourse of its time.
Hindsight makes for an interesting experience, providing a clearer view than that afforded us when looking at the products of our own time. Some posters trade blatantly on traditional gender roles: one reminds women of the threat war poses to their homes and children before exhorting them to pressure husbands to enlist; another, using the haunting image of a drowned mother and baby after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, rallies men to sacrifice themselves for the family. Others are less conventional, but equally problematic: an Irish poster figures an irate woman chastising her partner with the words ‘Will you go, or must I?’. The image seamlessly stitches an image of female strength and empowerment to the notion of gender difference: men must enlist or risk the destruction of the gender order.
Despite the sex divide between the front line and the home front, though, gender roles were to be rocked to their foundations by the war. The movement of women of all walks of life into the public realm – into jobs as the nurses, field labourers and munitions workers to which the posters bear testimony – played no small part in their enfranchisement and the subsequent abolition of gender-biased employment laws. At the same time, women’s newfound financial independence, together with the emotionally charged atmosphere of wartime Britain, undermined traditional barriers to sexual activity.
But sex, too, was a double-edged boon: morale boosting pin-up icons like Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable became tools in the war effort, while troops were simultaneously surrounded by anti-sex propaganda. The dangers of sex were twofold: ‘easy girlfriends’ – little more than a euphemism for prostitutes, considering the hive of brothel activity surrounding military installations in WWII – carried the risk of venereal disease and, more seriously, espionage: a poster featuring a pretty face proclaims her ‘WANTED FOR MURDER’. As far as servicewomen were concerned, despite the empowering bravado of the recruitment posters, they were popularly labelled ‘officers’ groundsheets’, their sexualisation part of a public refusal to take women’s military service seriously.
But, if women’s work was intially seen as a kind of wartime pantomime, their contributions gained more serious acknowledgement as the war went on. In the context, however, there was a distinct pathos to this victory: a sober London Transport tribute to female firefighters reads: ‘Once upon a time we used to throw you roses: you don’t see such a cloud of them today’. Traditional gender roles became a luxury that Britain could no longer afford, and respect was gained only in exchange for stability, security, and much of what civilians held dear.
Women and War is a feast, both intellectually and emotionally. While issuing a well-deserved tribute to women’s roles in the apparently masculine realm of conflict, violence and patriotism, it unfolds objects and ephemera which, more than half a century later, have not lost their poignance. As such, it is a tribute, also, to the lives still touched by strife in today’s world:
But we are young, and our friends are dead
Suddenly, and our quick love is torn in two;
So our memories are only hopes that came to nothing.
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
– But there are years and years in which we shall still be young.
From ‘Praematuri’ by Margaret Postgate Cole, excerpted as part of the Women and War exhibition