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More prattle on the history of women and their eternal suffrage. Amongst other things, the few men that returned from World War 1 took all their jobs!
'Only one out of 10 of you girls can ever hope to marry,' the senior mistress of Bournemouth Girls' High School told her sixth form in 1917: 'Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed.'
Militant feminist agendas overlooked and underplayed the corrosive bitterness and guilt of an earlier generation of women who sacrificed their lives for nothing, only to find, unlike their male contemporaries, that society held them to blame. For all practical purposes, they were sentenced to be turned to stone and buried alive like the clay warriors of China more than 2,000 years ago.
The invisible women
Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out chronicles the women left alone and vilified after the First World War, says Hilary Spurling
Sunday September 2, 2007
Buy Singled Out at the Guardian bookshop
Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War
by Virginia Nicholson
Viking £20, pp312
'MY, you have put on flesh,' my Irish granny used to say, assessing my chances on the marriage market like a farmer with an unpromising pig to sell. 'Stand up when your father comes into the room!' was another of her favourite sayings, hissed through her teeth and accompanied by a sharp poke in the ribs. My husband's grandmother was less brutal but almost as discouraging. 'It's the best thing you've ever done or ever will do,' she said when my first child was born, 'even though it's a girl.'
These were standard attitudes in their day. Both women were realists. Both had married off daughters against cutthroat competition between the two world wars, both saw failure to find a husband as ultimate, irremediable defeat. Wartime arithmetic if anything reinforced their sexual self-contempt. 'Only one out of 10 of you girls can ever hope to marry,' the senior mistress of Bournemouth Girls' High School told her sixth form in 1917: 'Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed.'
Her frankness was rare, but her facts were indisputable. The mass graves of 1914-18 produced a generation of unwanted and largely uneducated women written off as useless before they even grew up. Their predicament was shameful in their own eyes and other people's. The term 'spinster' came to mean, in Virginia Nicholson's accurate definition, 'shabby, sallow, petty, sour and queer'.
Some stayed at home to be mocked, patronised and exploited by their families. Those who found employment were branded by the press as bloodsuckers and bread-snatchers. 'The superfluous women are a disaster to the human race,' said the Daily Mail in 1921.
Three-quarters of them lost their jobs to returning soldiers as soon as the war ended. Ninety per cent of wives stopped work. Teaching hospitals ceased to accept women. Married women had no serious prospect of promotion in the few careers - domestic service, nursing, teaching - not staffed exclusively by men. Offices refused to employ them. Teachers who married had to resign. I was taught in the aftermath of the Second World War by women still living in the Fifties under a monastic rule of enforced celibacy. Some counted it a price worth paying for professional independence and ambition. The very few successful career women I ever met, all of them phenomenally tough and inevitably single, issued regular warnings, both explicit and implicit, that marriage was a deathtrap and children at best a menace.
Nicholson documents their testimony with wretched accounts of unpaid domestic drudgery at the lower end of the social scale ('My life ... consisted of being penned in a kitchen nine feet square'). Working-class women, struggling to feed a family on starvation wages of less than £2 a week, grew prematurely old from the back-breaking labour of basic housework, such as humping coal, kindling fires, heating water, scrubbing floors and washing clothes. Middle-class women might have servants, but relatively few had husbands because proportionately far more officers had been killed than ordinary soldiers.
In theory, women were liberated by the war - 'It found them serfs and left them free,' wrote Millicent Fawcett - but in practice, waitresses, shopgirls, clerks and typists worked for 10 or 12 hours a day, ill-paid and malnourished ('30 bob a week and never enough to eat'), with no security, no pensions and no money to spend on medication, let alone hairdos or holidays. As for sex, even Nicholson's indefatigable research very nearly breaks down at this point: 'Don't ask.'
Statistics proved hard to come by. A survey of single women in the US in the Thirties found that 440 out of 500 were virgins. The only comparable documentary source in the UK is the correspondence with single women conducted by Marie Stopes and preserved at the Wellcome Institute in London, 'an extraordinary archive of fear, ignorance, doubt and unhappiness'. Appalled by the urgency of the problem, painfully conscious of its intractability, Stopes could only recommend brisk walks, wholesome occupation or - reluctantly and with sinister warnings - masturbation.
One of the saddest stories in this book comes from an unpublished memoir by Miss Amy Langley, a dressmaker sustained all her life by the memory of a single brief encounter at the age of 20 with an Australian penfriend on leave from the Front in 1916. She wore a lavender check dress, baked him a pie and took him for a bus-ride before he left to rejoin his regiment in Flanders and shortly afterwards stopped writing. She waited more than 60 years before she fell in love again at the age of 82 with a fellow inmate of her carehome: 'Never in my life had anyone called me "Dear", not in my home, never! This was the first emotional moment in my life.'
Its happy ending is the only unusual thing about Miss Langley's story. Stoical endurance seems to have been the almost invariable response to emotional attrition, financial hardship and moral stigma. The two heroines of this book are pragmatic rather than ideological. One was Florence White, whose lifelong campaign for spinsters' right to pensions ended in victory, and was immortalised in verse: 'God made each maid a husband/ But men on earth must fight/ So just in case there aren't enough,/ He made Miss Florence White.'
The other was an engineer called Caroline Haslett, who dreamed in the early Twenties of an impossible futuristic Britain where every household would be 'cleaned, dusted, washed, heated, lit and fed' by electricity. In a poll of imaginary appliances organised by young Haslett for her campaigning paper, Woman Engineer, the winner was a dishwasher and the runner-up a thermostat oven. For 32 years, she ran the Electrical Association for Women, dying long before it was finally disbanded in 1986, having fully achieved all of its aims.
By that time, the subjects of this book were dying off, too. The feminist movement, on an unstoppable, irreversible, triumphalist roll, had no time for spinster aunts and great-aunts who had asked and got so little. The price they paid in what Doris Lessing called unlived lives and unborn children was a grim reminder of the longterm realities underlying my granny's hard-line approach. Militant feminist agendas overlooked and underplayed the corrosive bitterness and guilt of an earlier generation of women who sacrificed their lives for nothing, only to find, unlike their male contemporaries, that society held them to blame. For all practical purposes, they were sentenced to be turned to stone and buried alive like the clay warriors of China more than 2,000 years ago. It is high time to dig them up, salute their memory and listen to their sad and uncomplaining voices unmuffled at last in Nicholson's brave, humane and honest book.
I wonder would any of those women changed places with this privileged male?
For all practical purposes, they were sentenced to be turned to stone and buried alive like the clay warriors of China more than 2,000 years ago. It is high time to dig them up, salute their memory
Or, perhaps they would like to be dug up like this?
In Flanders fields: burial of three unknown soldiers.
Picture © Piet den Blanken
Picture made in November 2005, Cement House Cemetery, near Langemark in Flanders. It is burial day. A few times a year corpses and small remains of human bodies, recently found in the Flemish earth, are offically buried in one of the many war cemeteries. In the small coffins the remains of three unknown soldiers, found by the Boesinghe Diggers in an industrial zone near the canal at nearby Boesinghe. These Boesinghe Diggers are Flemish archeology amateurs, all fascinated by the Great War, all devoted to dig up as much as possible, while it still can. The industrial zone is expanding and the diggers excavate sites where soon factories will be built.
Last edited by pjanus; 3rd-September-2007 at 07:51 PM.
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