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18 September 2014
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Women at War: 'She-Soldiers' Through the Ages

By Peter Craddick-Adams
World War One

Imagae of Christobel Pankhurst
Christobel Pankhurst, suffragette campaigner ©
Of the two world wars, the first provided the greatest challenge in terms of widescale female participation in the war effort.

British society found itself at war with more than just the Germans. There was a psychological war, too, with the changes in society and its values that total war (the mobilisation of the entire population and all their resources for the war effort) demanded.

Although it was against it until the actual declaration of war against Germany, the Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies became ardently patriotic as soon as hostilities started. On 6 August 1914, two days after the declaration, the women’s suffrage newspaper Common Cause expressed the hope that:

‘In the midst of this time of terrible anxiety and grief, it is some little comfort to think that our large organisation, which has been completely built up during past years to promote women’s suffrage, can be used to help our country through the period of strain and sorrow.’

Women acted as subtle and not so-subtle recruiters for the army. Admiral Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather, which encouraged women to hand a white feather to any young man who had not enlisted.

'Initially, though, active female participation of any kind was frowned upon.'

Reading newspaper accounts of the outbreak of war in 1914, you will find many references to the militant Women’s Suffrage movement, which had been so opposed to the government just months before, now backing the war effort. Christobel Pankhurst made a series of speeches in favour of the war effort, encouraging young men to join the army and women to play their part, too.

Initially, though, active female participation of any kind was frowned upon. When the distinguished Scottish medic, Dr Elsie Inglis offered to form a women’s ambulance unit, she was rebuffed at the War Office with the words, ‘My good lady, go home and sit still!’

Flora Sandes (1876-1955) couldn’t sit still, and joined a seven-woman ambulance unit in August 1914 that went to aid the Serbs, who were then allies of Britain and struggling against the Austrians. Sandes achieved recognition without disguise, but in a foreign army fighting for a foreign nation’s survival.

Published: 2005-03-01

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