Sunday, May 04, 2014

Book Notes: Singled Out - How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War

It hardly needs to be stated that this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War. Much attention will (quite rightly) be given to the experience of the soldiers, the vast hoards of Britain's volunteer army who went to France in a furore of jingoism and who died in their hundreds and hundreds of thousands. The war which was supposed to be 'over by Christmas', and which would gloriously reassert Imperial Britain's international hegemony produced instead the carnage of The Battles of Mons, Ypres, and The Somme where 58,000 British troops were killed on the first day alone. The military history of 1914-18, is a vast subject worthy of study and attention.

What is sometimes forgotten in the telling of the story of The Great War years, is the unfolding drama of the social history of the home front. Virginia Nicholson's intriguing book, "Singled Out" focuses on a particular aspect of the effects of World War I, that of the ways in which the conflict affected the lives of women of Britain. A generation of men were obviously killed, wounded, or traumatised by war, or returned from conflict and resumed their lives; but Nicholson demonstrates that the war had lifelong implications for a whole generation of women too.

In the years after World War One, Britain contained over 2million more women of 'marriageable age' than men. The casualty rates on The Western Front were so high that the natural male/female balance of the population was massively skewed for that generation as they lived through the bulk of the twentieth century. In Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson examines the social implications of this unprecedented phenomena, which were long-lasting and profound.

For a huge number of young women, the issue was one of coping with dashed hopes and bereavement of husbands and fiancees, and Nicholson looks at the effects of this grieving society. For others it was a matter of the problem of finding available men to marry, and have children with. Using interviews, books, women's magazines of the era, memoirs, diaries, lonely hearts ads, and newspaper reports she describes the intense competition amongst young women for dances with eligible bachelors. London's social scene is described as having a ratio of 10:1 male to female adults under 30. For many of the women in Nicholson's study the issue was of loneliness, unmet needs, and an unfulfilled desire to become mothers.

Nicholson looks at the lives of countless women as they negotiated this unique situation. For some there was a prolonged deep sense of sadness and loss. Others poured their lives into other caring roles, as nannies, aunts, teachers or nurses. Interestingly, despite the fact that the unprecedented numbers of spinsters was due almost entirely to the sacrifices of war, 1920s Britain was a remarkably unfriendly place for single women. Traditional family structures with male bread-winners, were still held as the norm creating innumerable barriers to freedom, employment and fair pay for spinsters. Coupled to this, spinsters were still often viewed as defective, odd or even deviant by much of society.

While some women grieved for marriages never made, and children never borne, Nicholson also points out that for some women this entirely new social situation created novel social freedoms which they gladly exploited. For a few bohemians the collapse of traditional family structures (add Freud and Marie Stopes into the equation) meant erotic explorations. For others, the shortage of men, meant not only opportunities to enter the professions for the first time as lawyers, academics, engineers, pilots, mountaineers, philosophers, authors and archaeologists; but without domestic restrictions to hold them back. While marriage did provide romance, sex, companionship, certainty and respectability - in early 20thCentury Britain it also encumbered women with unemployability, high expectations of domestic labour, loss of freedom and usually large numbers of children. It was intriguing to see that that first inroads into the traditional family structure in Britain were not made by mop-topped rockers in the early 1960s, but by German machine guns in 1916.

This is a fascinating social history of what the killing of men in the trenches did to women in Britain, and how the effects on them lasted until the last of that generation passed away in the last years of the twentieth century. Well, researched and tidily written, the effects of the war on women and gender relations is well explored. If I have any criticisms of the book they are that there is a little to much repetition in it, because too much of the research is reproduced rather than analysed. Despite this, Singled Out is an interesting piece of social research, and something well worth considering amongst the plethora of studies, TV documentaries and dramas about WWI, which will focus on the military history. The military history of The Great War ended in November 1918, but as Nicholson shows, the social history of that conflict was still echoing in the lives of British women in the 1980s.

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