Women have been given very little airtime in historical accounts, and when they are written into anything, it’s to reinforce the age old sterotypes:
– Women did nothing during the First World War except write poetry whingeing about the lack of attention they received from their fiances on the front line, knit socks and dish out white feathers to innocent and unsuspecting young men out of uniform.
– Ancient Athens promulgated the idea of democracy where EVERYONE was involved in voting.
– Women do not and have never held a rightful place in the Christian church.
Well, to the first, if you just read the angry First World War poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, then you will assume that women did very little during the war except what is named in the sentence above. In fact, many women joined up with the war effort as VAD nurses, having to care for all the injured and ill men, became part of the Land Army (yes – there was one in WWI), worked in munitions factories and much more. Are any of these women commemorated? Not obviously.
To the second, the idea of democracy involves all the people, coming from the Greek word that means “rule of the people”. Of course, the Ancient Grecians’ idea of “the people” lacked two major groups – slaves and…women! Democracy? Pah!
To the last, just watch Divine Women, a new BBC series presented by the legendary Ancient History expert Bettany Hughes (well, I think she’s a leg anyway). She proves that women were pretty much written out of Christianity (and other religions such as Islam), so much so that mosaics and writings and teachings were tampered with to make women look like men, and female names like males’, such as Theodora the Bishop changed to Theodor and much more. And why? They were written out because early men in the church believed women were unequals, shameful. This judgement was sealed in 387 AD, when Augustine of Hippo became a Christian and a Theoligan. On becoming a Christian, he also became celibate. The problem was, prior to this he had been a bit of a sex fiend. So of course, he promoted and embellished the powerful concept of Original Sin – sex breeds sin, and women like Eve are dangerous sexual deviants and temptresses. The rest is history – ignorant history.
So, here is my first example of what struck me as a really dangerous job for women: Munitionettes of the First World War.
During the First World War women did not have the vote. The Suffragette Movement was stalled mid-flow on the outbreak of war, as they thought their resources would be better spent focusing on the war/anti-war effort. Despite the obstruction to their vote, the government nonetheless relied on women in the war effort. The government relied on women more than they paid for it (women didn’t get as high a wage as their male equals). This was during what became known as the “shell scandal/crisis” of 1915, when there just wasn’t enough available ammunition for those on the front (the crisis eventually led to the downfall of the Liberal Governement in 1916). Saying that, when I went on a trip to the First World War trenches, I learnt there, at an excavated trench that still held the remnants of a shell gun station, that British shells were notorious for not exploding on impact, and so maybe a little pointless?
Anyway, it took a little while for the concept of women working for the war effort to catch on, as women were expected to stay at home, and were definitely not thought of as capable replacements for men in the industrial, farming, and generally any of the industries that involved any amount of manual labour. No doubt, the women suffered many vindictive games at the hands of the threatened men they worked with in the factories. Still, women played a large role in keeping the home fires burning. They relied on money as much as their male contemporaries, and whilst these men took advantage of becoming soldiers in return for a stable income, so these women took on the roles that were needed during the war.
I came across the job of the munitionettes in the book Voices of the Twentieth Century: Women at War:
Munition workers worked in the factories with raw materials – such as the explosives and gas used in shells. Rules were followed strictly, and disobedience of these were treated serverely. In this book, I found the story of Lilian Miles, who tells of her friend who accidentally dropped a match, when she took out her handkerchief at work. Although she tried to protest her friend’s innocence, her friend was given a twenty-eight day prison sentence by the court. She never got over this, dying a few months later at the age of twenty. It’s shocking, but not so much when you learn that the army sent pilots up in planes without parachutes, during this war, to “avoid cowardice”.
Aside of the fear of a fire erupting in a shell factory – you can imagine why – is what seems to me as the other most dangerous aspect of these jobs, and that was working with poisons. For example, women who worked with TNT were often nicknamed “canaries” because their skin went yellow. They suffered many long term effects even after the war, such as infertility as a result of the poisons. Even those in other fields suffered similarly; the women who workerd with the toxic dye used to make khaki uniforms, developed painful boils.
Elsie McIntyre, gives an account of working at the Barnbow National Shell Factory in Leeds, in Women at War, saying:
“…We had a fortnight in the powder and after the fortnight we had a fortnight on the stencil side. That was the dirty side. You could only do a fortnight. And then you had to come out, owing to the poison. And it was those people that you saw going about, they had yellow hands even through the gloves. We had two half-pints of milk a day to keep out the poison from the powder.”
Milk was used to keep the skin colouring at bay, that was caused by such explosives as cordite and TNT. Despite food rationing, munitions workers were given as much milk and barley water as they needed for this reason. Yet, still this wasn’t enough as Isabella Clarke, a munitionette in the First World War, explains: she says that even the pillow cases they slept on would go pink from their hair, and that you could tell by the discolour of the white of someone’s eyes if the gas they worked with had affected them. Her and her friend were both stopped because their eyes were discoloured – her friend’s were more discoloured than her own. She says:
“I was fortunate, my friend refused this herring that was cooked for us and I was a bit greedy and I ate mine and hers. It made me sick. Being bilious after the herring it was what really saved me.”
Later she was informed that her friend had died.
There’ll be more to come on dangerous jobs for women in later posts.
Thanks to Fountain, Nigel, ed., Voices from the Twentieth Century: Women at War (Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, 2002).