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Women of War is an examination of gender modernity using the world’s longest established women’s military organisation, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, as a case study. Formed in 1907 and still active today, the Corps was the first to adopt khaki uniform, prepare for war service, staff a regimental first aid post near the front line and drive officially for the British army in France. It was the only British unit whose members were sworn in as soldiers of the Belgian army, and it was the most decorated women’s corps of the First World War. Bringing both public and personal representations into dialogue through an analysis of newspaper articles, ephemera, memoirs, diaries, letters, interviews, photographs and poetry, this book sits at the crossroads of British, social, gender and women’s history, drawing upon the diverse fields of military history, animal studies, trans studies, dress history, sociology of the professions, nursing history and transport history. It reconstructs the organisation’s formation, its adoption of martial clothing, increased professionalisation, and wartime activities of first aid and driving, focusing specifically upon the significance of gender modernity. While the FANY embodied the New Woman, challenging the limits of convention and pushing back the boundaries of the behavour, dress and role considered appropriate for women, the book argues that the Corps was simultaneously deeply conservative, upholding imperial, unionist and antifeminist values. That it was a complex mix of progressive and conservative elements, both conformist and reformist, gets to the heart of the fascinating complexity surrounding the organisation.
This book is about the extraordinary experiences of ordinary men and women like Wake who were recruited and trained by a British organisation and infiltrated into France to encourage sabotage and subversion during the Second World War. It draws upon personal testimonies, in particular oral history and autobiography, as well as official records and film to examine how these law-abiding civilians were transformed into paramilitary secret agents. The book is concerned with the ways in which the Special Operations Executive (SOE) veterans reconstruct their wartime experiences of recruitment, training, clandestine work and for some their captivity, focusing specifically upon the significance of gender and their attempts to pass as French civilians. Analysis of the training scenes in the film, which is based on the experiences of real-life agent Violette Szabo, provides an interesting opportunity to examine the filmic representation of the treatment of female students by SOE instructors. By analysing the impact that participating in clandestine warfare has upon notions of masculinity and femininity, it is hoped that the book extends the debate about wartime gender relations. The book serves as an epilogue by recording the experiences of agents following demobilisation from the organisation. It also examines how the SOE men and women, trained in unarmed combat and silent killing techniques, who had operated behind enemy lines under penalty of death and who may also have experienced captivity, fitted back into civilian life.
Textual narratives and visual images of this period were positively saturated with notions of the modern. The ‘New Woman’, a powerful cultural icon constantly linked to modernity, was the archetypal female figure at the fin de siècle, most frequently a fictional character drawn in the minds of journalists and novelists, both celebrated and despised. She was a discursive response to changes to women’s lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often regarded as imperilling the status quo. The opening chapter examines the construction of the ‘New Woman’ and explores more broadly discourses of modernity, which are always diverse and multifaceted. It reveals the myriad ways that the Corps can be considered modern. The chapter also analyses contemporaneous and retrospective sources drawn upon in the book. The FANY’s unprecedented trespassing on male terrain and members’ status as witnesses to and co-participants in war gave members narrative authority, enabling them to chronicle their experiences in memoirs, novels, diaries, letters and poetry, as well as interesting journalists enough to write about them.
The FANY, a small, patriotic, imperialist organisation that epitomised Edwardian Britishness in both its modern and reactionary forms, was founded in a period of intense anxiety about and scrutiny of the country’s readiness for a future conflict. While much of the reorganisation of civic life focused on boys and men in order to improve their physical fitness, the FANY sought to attract strong athletic women who were motivated by a desire to assist their country as mounted first aiders. While couching his vision in very conventional terms of feminine compassion that harked back to Florence Nightingale, the FANY founder, Edward Baker, simultaneously visualised a much more modern, extended, active and physically demanding role for women. This chapter utilises Corps ephemera such as its magazine, minutes of meetings and regulations, as well as newspaper articles, published and unpublished FANY memoirs, and archived interviews to examine the climate in which the Corps was formed, the dual rationale of nursing and equestrianism that was central to the notion of the organisation, and the social composition of its membership.
The uniformed woman has widely been seen as an emblem of modernity. By utilising both public and personal accounts, this chapter discusses external perceptions of the FANY and also self-representations, in order to examine the uniformed woman as an emblem of modernity. It considers how members negotiated the public’s voyeuristic fascination with their activities as well as the hostile reactions they encountered, and examines how they navigated existing discourses of gender and class to forge a space for themselves in the public domain wearing masculine-inflected clothing. This chapter examines debates over the FANY’s public representation and sartorial choices both before and during the war, and by doing so contributes to understandings of how martial dress was appropriated by an elite group of women and with what consequences. As such, this chapter demonstrates how members of the first women’s corps to adopt military uniform manoeuvred themselves from being dismissed as ‘hussies’ and ‘freaks’ into a position where they undertook national service as ‘lady soldiers’.
This chapter foregrounds female professionalisation in the FANY through an examination of two case studies of New Women: Mabel St Clair Stobart, who posed a number of challenges to Edward Baker’s chaotic governance, demanded improvements that would turn the Corps into a more professional organisation and subsequently resigned to set up a rival women’s corps, and Grace Ashley-Smith, who sought to work from within to professionalise the FANY (making changes to the Corps’s recruitment, training, uniform, discipline and activities, as well as founding a magazine) and eventually ousted Baker, taking over command herself and readying the Corps for active service during the Irish Home Rule crisis. The chapter draws on the substantial written records that both women left, including autobiographies, articles, a log book, a regimental order book and letters. It also utilises Corps ephemera, including minutes of meetings, regulations and written correspondence, as well as newspaper articles, in order to examine how female members transformed the unit from one that was premised upon the part-modern, part-premodern romantic whims of its male founder into a more professional and decidedly modern women’s equestrian and first aid movement that was in a state of war-readiness.
This chapter, which utilises published and unpublished memoirs of trained medical professionals and volunteer first aiders, as well as letters and articles in the nursing and national press, addresses the collective amnesia about the FANY by restoring its nursing practice during the First World War to the historical record. It begins with an examination of the wartime role of socially elite women, foregrounding the highly modern figure of the volunteer first aider, and examines the frustrations felt by trained professionals toward these ‘mock’ nurses. It then considers as another indicator of modernity the rush to colours by such women who ignored establishment opposition and made their own way out to the front, self-financed and with little medical expertise, to set up hospitals. While much of what the FANY did was safely entrenched within established norms, the modernising context of the war afforded the FANY further opportunities to push against conventional gendered expectations, and new modes of female modernity were forged in France.
Driving was an aspect of female war service that did not fit within the discourse of nurturing and care, roles traditionally attributed to women. The pot-holed roads of France present a useful terrain – both literal and contextual – in which to theorise the female ambulance driver-mechanic as a symbol of gender modernity. The chapter begins by examininng the motor car as a symbol of modern femininity. It unpicks the censored accounts of FANYs’ letters home, reports published in the Corps’s magazine and newspaper articles, the embellished tales of daring told during the war to publicise the unit’s activities, and retrospective accounts captured in print and on tape, in order to reveal both the thoroughly modern pleasures and the perils of driving and car maintenance. It considers media attitudes toward the female driver and the establishment opposition they slowly eroded. While the war enabled the performance of new configurations of female masculinity, providing a space where women could play with their gender identities, protected by their class background, there is little evidence of a wish to overturn existing gender relations or of expressions of a long-lasting transformation to their gendered subjectivities. They pushed the bounds of convention but stayed within its limits.
The book concludes with a short epilogue, reviewing the evidence of the contradictions, ambiguities and paradoxes of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. It considers how members pushed the parameters of gender and class to forge modern new identities.
This chapter focuses on the process of testing, preparing and equipping recruits to pass as ordinary French civilians. It is concerned with the ways in which the SOE training can be regarded as a second level of vetting, following the recruits' 'conditional acceptance' by the recruiting officer at the initial interview which had assessed passing skills. The first training school that all except the early female recruits attended was held at Wanborough Manor, near Guildford. The preliminary course lasted three weeks and about a dozen students attended each session. While gender dynamics were pervasive throughout the training, not all aspects of the schooling were concerned with passing: the paramilitary, trade and parachute courses taught students practical skills. Trainees' schooling in Morse, weapons and explosives gave the instructors an indication of the roles for which each student would be suitable.