Thursday, 23 August 2012

Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson

Subtitled Women's Lives during the Second World War, this book - like Singled Out - draws on a vast range of personal accounts of the experiences of British women.  Virginia Nicholson uses interviews, diaries, Mass Observation records as well as published sources to construct a sense of how women lived their lives during the war.  As she points out, relatively few women entered the uniformed services during the war, with most continuing to keep house and look after their children through the privations of wartime, and the book seeks especially to tell the story of that Home Front.

While she succeeds in this - and with diarists like Nella Last at hand, she has plenty of good sources among the women who struggled with rationing and did their bit as volunteers in the WVS or similar - one of the problems with accounts of quiet, stoical endurance is that they may not always be terribly exciting.  But the book also includes plenty of accounts of women who ventured a bit further, and whose bravery and heroism makes for a little more drama such as Mary Cornish, who survived the wrecking of a ship taking evacuated children to Canada, and Aileen "Mike" Morris, who served in Malta and North Africa with the WAAFs; a fluent German speaker, she listened to and interpreted their radio messages.

Throughout the book, Nicholson considers where feminism is in all this activity, whether women were motivated by patriotism, the desire to defeat fascism or a wish to extend women's social role.  Particularly interesting are the chapters on the years immediately after the war, when many women went back, with some relief, to home-making and child-rearing.  The impact of prolonged separation from their husbands and the independence this enforced affected even the most devoted housewife, however; Nicholson tells of returning husbands whose need to reassert their masculine authority marked the end of the marriage.  For other women, the end of the war was a time of frustration; sidelined out of their jobs to make room for returning heroes, they felt unvalued, no longer of use to their country.  But many women, as Nicholson points out, were entirely identified with the idea of home; home was, as she says "who they were", and the chance to return there meant self-fulfilment and expression rather than constraint.

Perhaps this position partly has its roots in the type of war service women undertook; as Nicholson explains, most women's wartime roles were ancillary, supportive of the front-line war service of men, and kept that way deliberately by the wartime administration; anything else was far too challenging to the notion of woman as man's helpmeet and women with an idea of themselves as equal to men were, in any case, few and far between.  To the modern feminist reader this can, as Nicholson acknowledges, be frustrating, but she is always fair and balanced in her approach, seeking to understand their position and its origins rather than to criticise.  The whole book is deeply empathic; Nicholson's fellow feeling for the women she writes about means that their stories are moving and engaging, although even Nicholson couldn't make me empathise with Barbara Cartland.  My one minor criticism is that, although there is quite a lot of material on women's sexual lives during the war, lesbianism only seems to be mentioned in terms of predation.  There are several published memoirs of lesbian life in wartime that could have amplified this - the book It's Not Unusual has a chapter on the Second World War, if you are interested in finding out more.

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