Three members of the Women’s Land Army raise their hoes in salute © IWM Q30678

Finding the ‘women like us’ in the First World War

In this guest Blog for Women’s History Month, Dr Julie Moore  from the University of Hertfordshire  and the AHRC’s WW1 Engagement Centre Everyday Lives in War‘, talks about the ways in which community researchers are engaging with some of the less well-known stories of women’s everyday experiences during the First World War, and calls for community researchers to put themselves on the record.

One of the joys of my work with the ‘Everyday Lives in War’ Engagement Centre has been the opportunity to talk to community researchers across the country. Many have little experience of what they usually refer to as ‘proper’ research, but what they have in spades is enthusiasm, and a commitment to uncovering their own local stories. I have often been struck too by a concern that their work should stand up to academic scrutiny, although it is not something I have ever suggested. Indeed, the richness of knowledge generated through community research should be celebrated in its own right. As the success of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘First World War Then and Now’ programme shows, there is a real hunger for discovering what was happening beyond the headlines.

Working with these researchers is a dynamic process. Not only am I discovering more about how local economies and social structures are key to how the war was experienced on the Home Front, but I also find myself being asked questions which are shaping my own research. One such question is ‘what about the women like us’?

To put this question in context, I spend a lot of my time talking about Everyday Life in the First World War to community groups. Some of these are engaged in their own projects, others just want to hear about what I and others are discovering. The audience is usually mixed, men and women, and, like me, tends to be middle aged. I have also worked more actively on projects into the Home Front, several of which have again reflected that older, often retired, profile; generational and ethnic diversity can be low.  It is from these meetings and projects that this question has evolved and is one I now raise with groups myself reflecting that dynamic process of sharing ideas, stories and sources.

Women have not been ignored in the story of the First World War in Britain. The current Women’s Work 100 exhibition led by the Imperial War Museum offers many stories of women taking on traditional male roles in industry, transport and farming. When talking about life on the Home Front there are a plethora of images from the Imperial War Museum’s online collection  on which I can draw. A quick search for women in the First World War will throw up wonderful photographs of young women – generally smiling for the camera – brandishing spades, spanners and even straw solar helmets to demonstrate ‘doing their bit’.  Often dangerous and difficult work, these jobs have accrued a glamour with distance and tend to be at the forefront of the public imagination when the words of ‘women’ and the ‘First World War’ are combined.

Three members of the Women’s Land Army raise their hoes in salute © IWM Q30678
Three members of the Women’s Land Army raise their hoes in salute. Copyright: © IWM (Q 30678).

These stories do need to be told, but the question that was put to me was coming from an interest in how older women, perhaps looking after children or other relatives, coped with what the war threw at them. Well-known within their local communities at the time, these were the go-to women who took on the necessary but very unglamorous work of rattling the collecting tins, sorting the jumble, filling the tea urn, baking the cakes. Their names are rarely found in the public record so whilst known then, they are in danger of losing their place in the narrative of the war.

Female workers wearing finished tropical army helmets outside the factory of E. Day Ltd., St. Albans, Hertfordshire. Copyright: © IWM. (Q 28680)

When I shared an image of a group of women from Bradford who were engaged in charitable work there was a recognition that here were ‘women like us’ – older women, not necessarily in paid employment, with caring responsibilities, and, despite the serious faces, probably really friendly; all subjective assumptions but ones that emerged from the various conversations. A second photo on the IWM website helped us to that last conclusion – again quite solemn, but with a sense that giggles were not far away once the camera was turned away.

Members of the Girlington Club established during the First World War by women in Bradford for patriotic and charitable work ©IWM Q108592
Members of the Girlington Club established during the First World War by women in Bradford for patriotic and charitable work. Copyright: © IWM. (Q 108592)
The Girlington Club, Women’s Amateur Dramatic Society in performance costume in Bradford, ca. 1916. Copyright: © IWM (Q 108241)

This recognition crosses cultures. The Everyday Lives in War Centre are currently working with the team from The National Caribbean Heritage Museum Museumand uncovering memories from the Caribbean Home Front of women coping in the absence of male family members who had gone overseas to fight. The initial response of those involved was that the First World War was forgotten in the Caribbean; where it was remembered it was a story of men. Yet women were there if we look hard enough.

Recruiting and Training in West Indies Second Bahamas contingent marching through Nassa, Nov 1915 ©IWM Q52372 LIC 16300 L5J1F3
Recruiting and Training in West Indies Second Bahamas contingent marching through Nassau, Nov 1915 ©IWM (Q52372 LIC 16300 L5J1F3)

Conversations then threw up stories of women keeping families together, taking on new paid employment, organising local charities to support neighbours in need. All stories with which women in diverse communities can identify.

The centenary of the First World War and the enthusiasm for uncovering new stories offers an opportunity to bring forward those women who have faded into the shadows. Work at the local level on sources which can get to the level of parish or family can help to reclaim the lives of those ‘women like us’. As an Engagement Centre we can also use this an opportunity to encourage those community researchers to record their own names, experiences and memories as a way of ensuring that future generations will have a greater sense of the lives of ‘women like us’ across the globe. This could be a true legacy of the First World War.

Recruiting and Training West Indies presentation of colours to 2nd Bahamas contingent Nassau Nov 1915 ©IWM Q52371 LIC 16300 L5J1F3
Recruiting and Training West Indies presentation of colours to 2nd Bahamas contingent Nassau Nov 1915 ©IWM (Q52371 LIC 16300 L5J1F3)

 

 

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