Professor Maggie Andrews brings us our latest blog post, discussing her thoughts from the recent AHRC funded Voices of Women Conference.
In the social and cultural history of women in Britain, 1918 was a significant year: society was fully immersed in war yet also on the cusp of peace. Food rationing was introduced. In May, 38 Gotha bombers made their last and largest raid of the war on London, whilst the last Zeppelin raid on Britain took place on 5th August, attacking the Midlands and the North of England. The armistice in November ended the fighting in this first industrialized world war; but Peace would not be declared for another 9 months.
The Representation of the People Act passed in February gave some women the right to vote in a parliamentary election for the very first time on December 14th. The Leeds Mercury reported that it was the jolliest election, all smiles from the new voters: ‘ In all five divisions of the city the women displayed an unexpected keenness and enthusiasm in exercising their vote. At one booth a number of women turned up a few minutes before eight o’clock in the morning and they waited in a queue until the hour struck.’
Women’s enfranchisement is, in popular mythology, a tangible symbol of the social change that war brought about for women. Those who link women’s emancipation to paid employment outside the home have made much of the new opportunities war offered in, for example, industry, clerical work, transport, or the uniform in wartime. There was a much greater visibility of women’s involvement in the workforce during the conflict, but the conflict was not experienced in the same way by all; as Karen Hunt has pointed out, the majority of women were housewives. Women’s lives during the war, and in the years that followed, were enormously varied, shaped by their class, region, age and marital status.
The Conference on Voices of Women in the Great War and its Aftermath, organized by AHRC funded Voices of War and Peace First World War Engagement Centre, the Women’s History Network: Midlands Region and the Black County Living Museum with support from History West Midlands sought to explore the multitude of different experiences of women in war and its aftermath. In two days on 13th and 14th April we heard about women knitters and women engineers, humanitarian peace workers and munitions makers. In the best traditions of the Women’s History Network, established scholars, community groups, heritage organizations and postgraduate students shared their research on for example women who worked as trade unionists, promoters of maternal welfare services, policewomen, JPs, cub-scout leaders. We also heard about the appalling treatment of war widows and the role of letters in maintaining relationships for those separated by war and many other topics.
A 1918 Jamboree was held at a special opening of the museum on the evening of Friday 13th April, to engage the surrounding community in exploring women’s lives one hundred years ago. Re-enactors, local singing group The Trench Choir singing women’s songs of the era (see header image), a Bake-off completion using recipes of the Suffragette Cookbook first published in 1910, and a First World War Quiz sought to involve people in the history of the period.
The conference aimed to question established narratives of social change, and to loosen any perception that a history of women is the history of women in the war or the years that followed. So the conference included a community history panel and a Q & A session with the producers of the Radio 4 Drama Home Front, who explained how the media can convey multiple narratives of the conflict. Yet as the commemoration of the centenary of the First World war draws to a close, the conference also drew attention to how important it is to consider which women’s voices have been heard, how and where they have been heard, and why so many myths about this era of women’s past are so tenacious.
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