A precis of the report at the Swindon Festival of Literature Chronicle:
Ask anyone to name a woman associated with the battlefield and you’ll get one of three answers – Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, or former BBC chief news correspondent Kate Adie – veteran of Tiananmen Square, the first Gulf War, and the war in the former Yugoslavia.
On Monday 12 May she talked about the role of women before and during World War I, and the profound impact the all-encompassing conflict had upon society and on women in particular.
The Great War, she argued, was the first since the Civil War that touched the whole nation. It was a war being fought at home, not thousands of miles away as men built the Empire – especially after German battleships shelled Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby killing 137 women and children.
After vast numbers of men went off to war, huge numbers of women’s organisations were established to contribute to the war effort. Yet British society found it very difficult to accept women taking on men’s jobs – whether it was patrolling the streets in quasi-police roles, climbing ladders to put up posters showing an ankle under skirt, or the stairs of a Glasgow trolley bus, or donning overalls to clean steam locomotives.
When reporting for the BBC during the 1990s Balkan conflict, and trapped in a building under shell fire, Kate was told of World War I’s greatest, yet, forgotten heroines. Flora Sandes, was the only British woman to officially serve as a soldier, bravely leading men in the Serbian army, ultimately reaching the rank of captain. Apparently every Serbian school child learns about her.
The return of men from the battlefields saw women losing the jobs they had taken on during the nation’s time in need. But change had been glimpsed and the largely ignored place of women in society before the war could not be returned to.