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Fearless writers and adventurers
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The interwar years were a challenge to the women’s movement, which was somewhat becalmed and lacking direction after the suffrage victories of 1918 and 1928. While legislation aimed at removing sex discrimination from the workplace was enacted after the First World War, other laws, attitudes and traditions pressurised women to return to traditional gender roles that some had escaped from during the war. Nevertheless, by the outbreak of the Second World War women from all walks of life and in most professions had made steady progress in their search for equality, and the position of women in 1939 was unrecognisable from that in 1919. This book aims to establish how certain women were able to break through the obstacles ranged against them and achieve personal, professional and political fulfilment, and in so doing it formulates a framework for participation for other subjugated and marginalised groups. Taking the structure of a group biography of thirteen understudied and very different women, and using previously unpublished archival material, the book uncovers, on a granular level, the dispositions, skills and personal relationships that these women were endowed with that helped them achieve participation in the public world of work and politics. Each chapter examines a different participation strategy, from direct action to the use of formal networks, which different women employed to gain access to a range of areas barred to them, from politics, to engineering, to mountaineering, to foreign correspondence and humanitarian activism.

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‘The women at the gate’
Sarah Lonsdale

This chapter sets out the latest scholarly thinking on the women’s movement during the interwar years and lays out the conceptual framework for the book, constructing a metaphor for the masculine public sphere and the struggles of the women who tried to access it. It suggests that women who wanted to leave the domestic sphere during this time needed to be possessed of a kind of disruptive energy to enable them to escape from the rigid destiny planned for them. It emphasises, particularly, the indivisibility of women’s activism during the interwar years from their writing, either in public journals or in private letters and diaries. This chapter also discusses the pros and cons of academic study using biography as a method.

in Rebel women between the wars
Sarah Lonsdale

Women’s friendships during the interwar period were contested and suspect. The single, professional or bachelor woman, or the woman who chose not to do her ‘biological duty’ and have children, was demonised in the press. However, as women began to gain footholds in the professions and were in a position to help their female friends, they achieved a method of access previously closed to them. This chapter first looks at the most famous example of female literary friendship in the interwar years, that of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, and then examines two further pairs: the novelists Rose Macaulay and Naomi Royde-Smith, and the journalists Edith Shackleton and Alison Settle. This chapter concludes by asserting that there were many forms of professional friendship during the interwar years, and many women benefited both emotionally and professionally from them. It also includes an analysis of Alison Settle’s diary during the years she was editor of Vogue magazine.

in Rebel women between the wars
Sarah Lonsdale

Well-organised and structured humanitarian organisations did offer women the chance to serve in public life during the interwar years, mostly in the fields of nursing and midwifery. This chapter examines the participation strategy of Francesca Wilson, a teacher whose application to volunteer during the First World War was initially rejected by the Quaker Friends. This chapter argues that through the interwar years, women became increasingly accepted by the Friends as important organisers and carers for children displaced and suffering due to war. This chapter also examines early humanitarian communications in the journals Reconstruction and The Friend, among others, and argues that they provided a platform for women to write about foreign affairs long before their presence on mainstream newspaper foreign pages was accepted. This chapter also looks at refugee work performed by the Quakers during the Spanish Civil War.

in Rebel women between the wars
Sarah Lonsdale

The ‘outdoors’ during the interwar years was coded masculine and sexist attitudes to women walkers and mountaineers meant that their activities in the wild were severely curtailed and criticised. This chapter examines the strategy of Dorothy Pilley, a brilliant mountaineer who constructed an alternative route via which women could climb and write about their climbing free from male censorship and criticism. The Pinnacle Club and its journal were the first feminist climbing club and publication wherein women could find a public platform to write about their climbing feats without masculine interference. This chapter also examines the interwar climbing press, the Alpine Club, as well as Pilley’s journalism and her difficulty in reconciling her love for her eventual husband with the idea that marriage entailed servitude.

in Rebel women between the wars
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Sarah Lonsdale

During the interwar years the world of foreign correspondence in mainstream newspapers was closed to women. This chapter argues that women who wanted to comment on international affairs during this period were forced to be precariously and often perilously freelance outsiders. Their outsider status meant that they were free from government pressure during the years of appeasement. Using a series of case studies, and foregrounding the work of Shiela Grant Duff, this chapter argues that far from being scarce, many women wrote on foreign affairs but always from the point of view of being outsiders, and often accidentally. This chapter features the work of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, and the ‘accidental’ British foreign correspondent Florence Roberts, as well as Elizabeth Wiskemann. This chapter traces the work of Grant Duff from her coverage of the Saar plebiscite, through the Spanish Civil War and her passionate defence of Czechoslovakia during the run-up to the Munich crisis.

in Rebel women between the wars
Sarah Lonsdale

This chapter examines a successful route to participation, the use of family connections and networks. Focusing on the journalist and author Margaret Lane, the biographer of Beatrix Potter and Edgar Wallace among others, this chapter argues that while parental influence can help, people who get their ‘breaks’ through this method need to work extra hard to retain their position and the respect of others. This chapter also examines the work of the committee of the Prix Femina, a novel prize awarded to promising new novelists during the interwar years, winners of which included Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and Rose Macaulay. This chapter argues that Margaret Lane’s success not only relied on her family connections but her capacity for hard work and her embrace of transgressive behaviour.

in Rebel women between the wars
Sarah Lonsdale

This chapter argues that for some women, taking risks was not enough. They needed to reject accepted feminine behaviour if they were to push the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. Claudia Parsons was interested in engineering from a young age, and in 1919 was one of just three women to begin a diploma in engineering at Loughborough College. She became a motor engineer and a chauffeur but constantly came up against people who wanted to circumscribe and censor her activities. She did, however, manage to fulfil her life’s dream of circumnavigating the globe, by car, train and boat. This chapter also examines how the journal The Woman Engineer became a platform through which women could exchange ideas on science and technology and find encouragement when they otherwise encountered almost insuperable odds.

in Rebel women between the wars
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Sarah Lonsdale

This chapter analyses the success of two women, both of whom recognised the power of social networks as a way of multiplying one’s chances of success. Using two case studies – the teacher, MP and humanitarian activist Leah Manning, and the poet and Jamaican feminist activist Una Marson – this chapter suggests that while social networks can help, they can also constrain when individuals within a network come up against the network’s opposing goals. The chapter examines a number of women’s interwar networks including the National Council of Women and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. It describes Manning’s work as a radical teacher in a Cambridge poor school and her involvement in helping 4,000 Basque child refugees escape from Bilbao during the Spanish Civil War. This chapter also examines Marson’s editorship of The Keys paper, when she increased the number of black female voices in this important interwar publication.

in Rebel women between the wars
Sarah Lonsdale

This chapter argues that some women needed to take extreme action in order to escape from the life plotted for them, usually by their fathers. It examines the life of the Australian writer Kylie Tennant, who used her novels to critique interwar Australian society, particularly the White Australia Policy and the slum clearances of Depression-era Sydney. Tennant’s first two novels, Tiburon and Foveaux, are examined at length for their important and overlooked social messages; the chapter argues that Tennant was one of the first writers to warn against anthropogenic climate change in Australia. While Tennant’s strategy, which involved walking alone, through the bush, for hundreds of miles, worked, it came with enormous risks that few women would be willing to take.

in Rebel women between the wars