In May this year, I was elected as a local councillor. I am a member of Eastwood Town Council, of which I was subsequently voted in as Deputy Town Mayor. Eastwood is a small, industrial town on the edge of Nottinghamshire. The history of this area is in mining, textile manufacture and the railways but Eastwood is also known as the birthplace and hometown of D. H. Lawrence and is used as a fictionalised setting in many of his novels. I am both a writer and a museum professional. To represent a town like Eastwood, with such a literary connection and such important heritage is an honour and a learning curve. It also presents me with some new experiences and gives me pause for thought.
In my capacity as Deputy Mayor, I was recently given the responsibility of leading the Remembrance Sunday Parade through town, from the church to the war memorial, and laying one of the poppy wreaths, in remembrance of all the men from the town who have died in wars over the years. Remembrance Day (the Sunday closest to Armistice Day on 11th November) is always an important day – thinking of family members who have served in the military, as well as all those young men who marched away from the town, never to return. It was an honour to lay a wreath in memory of them and it brought tears to hear the Last Post echo through the streets where they once lived, and dwell on the horrors of war.
But taking part in the ceremony was significant for me in other ways too. I have a novel coming out in January, set in the 1920s. For all that we think of jazz and cocktails, the Charleston and short skirts, the 1920s, to me, represents a decade of recovering from and responding to national trauma. A nation shell-shocked by the impact of the Great War and trying a little too hard to forget that horror. A generation out to prove that they were more modern than their parents’ generation who had gone so blindly into a war of the old empires.
Much though Remembrance Day is about all wars (not least 1939-45 and the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq), it is the First World War that gives us the Cenotaph memorials, the significance of the poppies, the poetry that is read at every service. I don’t know if it’s the same worldwide but, in the UK, it’s the First World War that drives the imagery and emotion of the November commemorations. All war is tragic but the First World War perhaps the most tragic of all in its pointlessness, in the sheer waste of young life. There was no cause, no evil to fight. Just national flags and national pride and death, in muddy trenches. To remember should be to allow yourself to feel some of the despair and shock of the people who lived through the ‘Great War’. It’s not difficult to see why, if you’d survived it, you’d stumble into the next decade determined to drink and dance and live your life as if there was no tomorrow.
The impact of the war was particularly significant for women. Academics debate the exact numbers but somewhere in the region of two million women were left ‘surplus.’ This was the deficit between numbers of men and women – so many men had been lost to the war. And a woman, if she could not marry and become a mother, had no real function in the world as it was before the war. Therefore, she was ‘surplus’. Not only were their prospects of marriage much decreased, they had often lost fathers, brothers, fiancés, sons and were grieving. The women who lived through the war deserve remembering as much as the men they lost. In many ways, both the short story Hope in the Heart of Winter (available as a free ebook in December) and my full length novel, Fragile Wings (out in January) are an attempt to engage with the women of this generation, who lived beyond the war but were changed by it. That some of my women are queer is significant, of course, they’re not necessarily looking for men to marry, despite being brought up with an expectation of it. But whoever they fall in love with, they were still affected by the way women’s lives changed as a result of the First World War.
Women worked during the war, in ways they never had. It wasn’t that they’d never had chance to work before – women had always been servants, teachers, seamstresses, textile factory girls and suchlike. But now they could take on new roles, vacated by the men who had marched away to fight. Women became bus and tram conductors and drivers, ammunition and metal factory workers, clerks and administrators, postal workers, even police officers. Women learned new skills and proved they could work as men could. They earned much less money, but they proved a point. In 1919 The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender. This was the beginning of the professions opening up to women.
Moreover, the suffragettes (who had disbanded in 1914 at the outbreak of war, to help the war effort rather than fighting their government) eventually had, in 1918, the first taste of their final victory when the Representation of the People Act extended the vote to some women. There were restrictions, but it was a first step. At the same time, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, allowed women to stand for Parliament and the first female MP was elected that same year (the first woman to take up her seat was actually Nancy Astor, elected in 1919. The first to be elected, Constance Markievicz, was an Irish Republican and did not actually take her seat). Women first served on juries in courtrooms in 1920. The first woman called to the English bar was Ivy Williams in 1922, the same year as the Law of Property Act allowed both husband and wife to inherit property equally. In 1923, grounds for divorce were made the same for men and women. Finally, in 1928, all women were allowed to vote. The 1929 General Election was nicknamed the Flapper Election because so many young women exercised their new equality.
The history books tell us that when the soldiers came back from the war, the women had to return to their traditional roles: Wives and mothers – now often either grieving for their dead or tending their wounded and traumatised husbands and sons – and domestic servants. But the reality is that what was done could not be undone. There was no going back. Those adventurous women of wartime became the ‘flappers’ of the 1920s – the short hair, short skirts, un-corseted waists, smoking, drinking and wild Charleston dancing the outward signs of a hard won leap forwards in equality and liberty. Many of them would not marry, would become the ‘surplus’ women. There was an undoubted tragedy in this for some. But many, many of them thrived in their new independent roles and the younger generation of women now aspired to something more than their mothers, grandmothers and aunts had done. The war could not have been won without them and they now made their impact on the peace.
Their legacy is still felt today. World War One still stands stark in the British popular consciousness, even though it has slipped from living memory. It is largely acknowledged as a great tragedy, any supposed glory mostly faded by knowledge of the reality. But I think the reason it remains so prominent is that it is the first great turning point of the twentieth century and perhaps the most significant. In 1914, Britain was largely still politically, economically, culturally, the imperial, industrial nation it had been under Victoria. The Great War changed everything. Those four years shattered certainties. Empires crumbled. Cultural and moral reference points shifted. For the women, recovery from this fracture in history meant going forwards into a more independent future.
I felt them standing with me at the war memorial, as I remembered their brothers, sons, fathers, lovers. The spirit of those women, mourning but standing strong. Alongside me on that day were the local Police Inspector, Vicar, Borough Councillor, Member of Parliament and a representative of the Army Cadets. I am the Deputy Mayor. All of us women. All of us standing on the shoulders of those who lived through and beyond the Great War and dreamed and dared to be modern.
It is to the ‘surplus’ women that I have dedicated Hope in the Heart of Winter and it is the impact of the Great War and the trauma which stretched through the 1920s which is the backdrop for Fragile Wings. I hope my writing pays some small tribute to the women who are not memorialised in stone but whose legacy lives on nonetheless.