By Jacqueline Grima
Historians, creative writers and researchers of the literature of the First World War and the suffrage movement gathered at Manchester’s People’s History Museum at the weekend for an event entitled ‘Women in the First World War’. The event, organised by Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met) Senior Lecturers in English, Dr Emma Liggins and Dr Liz Nolan, formed part of Manchester’s Wonder Women festival and focussed on the complexities and ambiguities of women’s roles in World War I.
Sabine Grimshaw from the University of Leeds was first to speak at the day-long event with a presentation called ‘Representation and Resistance: Anti-War women’s writing in the press’. Sabine talked about how newspapers such as The Labour Leader and The Daily Herald became spaces for women who were against the war to express their views. Many women at the time felt that it was a woman’s natural role to oppose the war whilst, for men, a natural response was to enlist. As Sabine said, “Women as mothers had an affinity for peace.” Thus, a lot of women’s writing in the press expressed their fears that the war might rob them of their natural role as mothers.
Next, Emma Liggins talked about how women who worked during the war were represented in war fiction and autobiographies. Emma discussed the various roles which women were expected to fill during the war such as nurses, cooks and ambulance drivers. She also looked at a variety of autobiographies and novels written by women during the war. The novels, such as The Romantic by May Sinclair and Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of the War by Helen Zenna Smith, gave varying viewpoints, one romanticising the war and the other more cynical.
Following Emma, feminist historian, Dr Alison Ronan, looked at some of the activist movements formed by women in the First World War, including the Women’s Peace Crusade (WPC) formed in 1916. The WPC were a group of socialist women who often used religious and emotive rhetoric in their flyers and leaflets in order to further their campaign. Rather than campaigning to stop the war, the women campaigned for a negotiated peace deal that would prevent future wars.
To end the morning session, Dr Angela K Smith, Associate Professor at Plymouth University, gave a presentation about the impact of the First World War on the Women’s Suffrage campaign. During the war, the women involved in the Suffrage campaign were somewhat divided with some supporting the war effort whilst others campaigned for peace. This division was also apparent in the Pankhurst family with Christabel, Emmeline’s daughter, declaring the war as God’s vengeance against the men who had suppressed women, and her sister, Sylvia, becoming more left-wing and eventually launching her own branch of the movement.
After lunch, attendees were invited to join a creative workshop run by novelist and Manchester Met Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing Dr Livi Michael. At the workshop, guests were invited to study a picture of Mrs Gladys Winterbottom, the wife of a British Cavalry Officer who spent much of her time at the front line during the war, working both as an ambulance driver and a field hospital administrator. They were then invited to use the photograph as inspiration for a creative piece. Guests who didn’t attend the workshop enjoyed presentations by Professor Anne Varty from the University of London, Ellen Ricketts from the University of Hull and Lisa Regan from the University of Liverpool whose topics included Women’s War Literature, focussing on lesser-known poetry, lesbian fiction and the desert romance.
The event finished with a presentation by Manchester Met Senior Lecturers Dr Kirsty Bunting and Dr Orlagh McCabe, who talked about their Local Youth Engagement Project. The project works in local schools to engage young students with the concept of responsible citizenship by looking at the work of suffragist and World War I writer, Ada Nield Chew. Finally, theatre and radio actor Ruth Sillers, read from the War Girls, an anthology of poetry, letters and diary extracts from WWI. The collection focussed on the experience of ordinary women during the war, which often involved much suffering and hardship. The anthology is available as an audiobook.
Speaking about the event, Emma Liggins told Humanity Hallows, “The speakers today remind us of the importance of remembering the diversity of women’s experiences in the First World War, both on the home front and abroad, as participants and as pacifists. Rather than just looking at the experiences of the trench soldier, this event has focussed on women’s war work as well as at the experiences of ordinary women that have perhaps previously been hidden from history.”
For more information about other events in the Wonder Women festival, see the Creative Tourist website.