Women In Wartime

by Dish Staff

Karen Abbot discusses women’s experiences in the Civil War South:

In the sudden absence of husbands, fathers, brothers and beaus, white Southern women discovered a newfound freedom — one that simultaneously granted them more power in relationships and increased their likelihood of heartbreak. Gone were the traditions of antebellum courtships, where family connections and wealth were paramount and a closed circle of friends and neighbors scrutinized potential mates, a process that could last for years. The war’s disruptions forced elite Southern parents to loosen rules regarding chaperoning and coquetry, which one prominent lecturer called “an artful mixture of hypocrisy, fraud, treachery and falsehood” that risked tarnishing a girl’s reputation. The girls themselves relinquished the anticipation, instilled since birth, that they would one day assume their positions as wives, mothers and slave mistresses, that their lives would be steeped in every privilege and comfort. The war ultimately challenged not only long-held traditions of courtship and marriage, but the expectation that one might wed at all.

Turning ahead several decades, Niamh Gallagher reviews Elisabeth Shipton’s Female Tommies, which chronicles women’s role in World War I:

Significantly, Shipton’s work suggests that the war may have marked a watershed for women after all, at least for those engaged in the military. She argues that “the place to look for the lasting effects of the militarisation of women in the First World War is not 1919 but twenty years further on, in 1939”. For example, the famous Bletchley Park Wrens (members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service) who participated in decoding the secret communications of the Axis during the Second World War had their origins in the Hushwaacs, a section of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps formed in 1917 in the wake of persistent efforts by British “female Tommies” to force the War Office to form an official women’s military corps.

A century after the Great War began, and at a time when the changing roles of women in the armed forces are a focus of media attention and public debate, Female Tommies is a valuable resource for those keen to learn about individuals who helped to lay the foundations for women’s frontline participation in wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.