English and French Women and the War

By Harriot Stanton Blatch

[The Outlook; June 28, 1916]

The readers of The Outlook will remember an article by Mr. Richard Spillane on "Canadian Women and the War" (The Outlook for May 10 last). The present article supplements the one by Mr. Spillane by giving Mrs. Blatch's experiences and direct observation as to the activities of English and French women in the war, and the attitude of their respective Governments towards the women and their work. Mrs. Blatch, we need not say, is one of the most active and influential of American women in working for the advancement of women in the National life, and especially as an advocate of suffrage for women. She has been President of the National Woman's Political Union and has been prominent among the founders of the Woman's Party, which has been holding its first National Convention at Chicago simultaneously with the Republican and Progressive Conventions.—THE EDITORS.

As I dropped down New York Bay last summer, bound for Europe, my mind was busy with such questions as—Shall I find women pushed back into conditions of primitive toil? will they be crushed under the idea that physical force rules the world? shall I find that the ever-increasing preponderance of women is making men more and more reluctant to part with their advantages? Though I half expected affirmative answers to all such questions, I genuinely wanted to see things exactly as they were.

The first Englishwoman I met upset my preconceived ideas. She was a well-set-up young woman acting as ticket-puncher at the railway station at Yarmouth, and was alert, efficient, helpful in giving information, and, above all, cheerful. There were two capable young women at the bookstall too. One had lost a brother at the front, the other her lover. I felt that they spoke of their loss as one item in the big national accounting. There was not a tear, not a quaver in the voice, and they were cheerful in "doing their bit." As I journeyed to London through Cornwall, Devonshire, Berkshire, I noticed that the highroads were cut up and unmended, the hedgerows untrimmed; but the cottages looked as neat as I had always known them, the little gardens as gay as ever with flowers. I made the mental note—women are still carefully tending their special vineyards. From the young women at the railway stations en route, just as at Yarmouth, I received the unexpected impression of a genuine spirit of content. There were tears in the eyes of mothers saying good-by to their soldier boys, but the women at work were full of joy.

Throughout my stay in England I searched for, but could never find, the self-effacing spinster of former days. In her place was a capable woman, bright-eyed, happy even when bearing personal bereavement. She was occupied and bustled at her work. She jumps on and off of moving vehicles with the alertness, if not the unconsciousness, of the expert male. She never let me stand in omnibus or subway, but quickly gave me her seat, as indeed she insisted upon doing for elderly gentlemen as well. The British woman has found herself and her muscles. England is a world of women—women in uniforms; there is the army of nurses, and then the messengers, porters, elevator hands, tram conductors very conscious in badge and brass buttons, and the un-uniformed host of bank clerks, bookkeepers, shop attendants, in whom the sense of importance has not yet worn away. They each seem to challenge the humble stranger: "Superfluous? Not I, I'm a recruit for national service!" Even a woman doing time-honored womanly work moves with an air of distinction; she dusts a room for the good of her country. Just one glimpse was I given of the old-time daughter of Eve, when a ticket-collector at Reading said: "I can't punch your ticket. Don't you see I'm eating an apple?"

"This war is 'eaven—-twenty-five shillings a week and no 'usband bothering about!" That is the remark "Punch" has a soldier's wife make in a cartoon. We have always credited "Punch" with knowing England. Certain it is that there is no discipline in the system of pensions for wives of soldiers. No work is required. The case of a girl I met in a country town is common. She was working in a factory earning eleven shillings a week. A day or two later I saw her, and she told me she had stopped work, as she had "married a soldier, and 'e's gone to France, and I get twelve and six 'separation allowance' a week." Never did the strange English name, "separation allowance," seem more appropriate for the wife's pension than in this girl's story. Little wonder was it that in the early months of the war there was riotous living among soldiers' wives! And the comments of women of influence on the drunkenness and waste of money on foolish finery were as striking to me as the sordid condition itself. For instance, the woman chairman of a Board of Poor Law Guardians in the north of England told me that when her fellow-members suggested that Parliament ought to appoint committees to disburse the separation allowances, she opposed them with the heroic philosophy that women can be trained in wisdom only by freedom to "err, that a sense of responsibility had never been cultivated in them, and the country would have to bear the consequences. In reply to my timid inquiry as to how the Guardians received these theories, I learned that "they knew she was right and dropped their plan." That the position taken by the lady Guardian was representative seems to be borne out by the fact that every suggestion to limit woman's right to drink unless man's right is also curtailed meets with instant protest from organizations of women.

The faith of leading women that experience would be the best teacher for the soldier's wife has perhaps been largely justified. The orgy of self-indulgence passed. A labor leader in the Midlands told me that an investigation by his trade union showed that only one hundred women in the ten thousand cases covered in September last were misspending their allowances. In October, when I was visiting a board school in a poor district of London, I remarked to the head teacher that the children looked well cared for. She told me that never had they been so well fed and clothed. There seemed no doubt in her mind that it was best to have the family budget in the hands of the mother. In the sordid surroundings, then, of the mean streets of great cities there are developing in women practical wisdom and a fine sense of individual responsibility.

Perhaps of greater significance than just how separation allowances are being spent is the fact "that women are discovering that their work as housewives and mothers has a value recognized by governments in hard cash. It makes one speculate as to whether wives in the warring nations will step back without a murmur into the old-time dependence on one man at the end of the conflict. These simple, average women may make their contribution towards the changed Europe which the prophets foretell!

Very soon after reaching England I discovered that more than one war had been going on. The most active center of this contest of which we hear so little was in industry, and the combatants were the British Government, trade unions, and women. The unions were doing battle because of fear of unskilled workers, especially when intelligent and easily trained; the Government, in sore need of munition hands, was bargaining with the unskilled for long hours and low pay. Finally, the Government and the unions reluctantly agreed that women must be employed; both wanted them to be skillful, but not too skillful, and, above all, to remain amenable. It has been made clear, too, that women enter their new positions "for the war only." At the end of hostilities—international hostilities—women are to hand over their work and wages to men and go home and be content. Will the programme be fulfilled?

The wishes of women themselves may play some part. How do they feel? Obviously, every day the war lasts they get wider experience of the sorrows and pleasures of independence. The soldier's wife has not only painfully learned how to spend the separation allowance, but has felt the joy of being the court of final appeal. Women are called the practical sex, and I certainly found them in England facing the fact that peace will mean an insufficient number of breadwinners to go around and that a maimed man has low earning power. The women met were not dejected at the prospect; they showed, on the contrary, a spirit of elation in finding new opportunities of service. After I had sat and listened to speech after speech at the annual Conference of the Union of Women Workers, with delegates from all parts of the country, presided over by Mrs. Creighton, widow of the late Bishop of London, there was no doubt in my mind that Englishwomen desired to enter paid fields of work, and regarded as permanent the great increase in their employment. I noted, too, that the boundary-line in each speaker's mind between a desire to render national service and a longing to seize a feminist opportunity was quite faint and vague. No regrets, apologies, or hesitations were expressed in a single speech, and the solutions of the problems of the new situation all lay in the direction of equality of preparation and equality of pay with men. The strongest element in the women's trade unions speaks in the same sense. The great rise in the employment of women is not regarded as a "war measure," and all the suggestions made to meet the hardships of readjustment, such as "a minimum wage for all unskilled workers, men as well as women," are based on the idea of the new workers being permanent factors in the labor market. The same conclusion was reached in the interim report presented to the British Association on September 9, 1915, at Manchester, by the committee appointed a year ago to investigate the "Replacement of Male by Female Labor." The committee found itself in entire disagreement with the idea that the increased employment of women was a passing phase, and made recommendations such as improved technical training for girls as well as for boys, a minimum wage for unskilled men as well as women, equal pay for equal work, and abolition of "half-timers."

But while it had become obvious that the greatest asset of belligerent nations was the labor of women, while learned societies and organizations of women were laying down rules for their safe and permanent employment, the British Government showed marked opposition to the new workers. Under pressure it included women in the registers made in March and again in August, 1915, showing the available labor force of the country, but it did not classify, and so could not make use of the information so far as it concerned women. If the Cabinet did not believe the war would be brief, it certainly acted as if Great Britain alone among the belligerents would have no shortage of male industrial hands. When Germany had five hundred thousand women in munition factories, England had fifty thousand; when Great Britain was on the eve of conscription, the women's lists of the August registry were still an unclassified mass; when England adopted conscription, a vast number of men were exempted from service to do work which women could have performed.

And everything that has been done to fit women into the industrial scheme has been carried through, not by the Government, but by private firms. The heads of factories I visited where the employment of women had been successful recognized that they were capable of a high degree of training, and that it would pay in the end to take off skilled men to teach the new hands. The desire of the women to learn made them ready pupils. In a week's time, I was told, their output was "good," and they soon became "adepts." So far as I could find, women had zest for the munition work and were performing miracles of endurance. The employees from the working-class looked well, and are said to be gaining in strength. Not so much can be said for the "ladies," who, never having done a hard day's work in their lives, often break under the strain. Their part in the deadly work of shell-making seemed to me questionable; they will probably add nothing to the credit of their sex, and they may cut down the wages of sturdy working-class women, who, with the machinery especially adapted to their strength, are leading lives very far removed from the drudgery of primitive times.

In the war service of middle-class and aristocratic women, philanthropic endeavors form the major part. But even here the Government was so reluctant to co-operate that every achievement seemed amateurish as compared with the splendid feats of administrative ability displayed by the women of France. The work of Englishwomen is hedged in. They started immediately, for instance, to deal with the problem of the Belgian refugees; the Government gave no aid, next checked the endeavor, and in the end took it over and did the work badly. The Government did not receive hospitably the efforts of the "Emergency Corps" to bring the woman and the job together, and rendered what might have been a splendid achievement abortive. But such antagonism met its Waterloo in its contest with medical women. The service which they freely offered their country was at first sternly refused. Undaunted, they sought recognition outside the mother country. They knew their skill and they knew the soldiers' need. They turned to hospitable France, and received official recognition. On December 14, 1914, the first hospital at the front under British medical women was opened in Abbaye Royaumont, near Creil. It is inspected by the French military authorities, and carries the official designation, "Hôpital Auxiliaire 301." The doctors, the nurses, the cooks, are all women. One of the capable chauffeurs I saw running the ambulance when I was in Creil. She was getting the wounded as they came down from the September drive. The French Government appreciated what these women were doing and urged them to give more help. At Troyes another unit opened a military hospital and gave the French army its first experience of nursing under canvas.

After France had been profiting by the skill of British women for months, Sir Alfred Keogh, head of the British Medical Staff, insisted that the War Office yield and place a hospital in the hands of women. The War Hospital in Endell Street, London, is now under Dr. Flora Murray, and every office, except that of gateman, is filled by women. From the doctors, who rank as honorary majors, wear khaki uniforms, and receive the pay attaching to their position, down to the cooks, who rank as non-commissioned officers, every one connected with Endell Street has military standing. It indicated the long, hard road these women had traveled to secure official recognition that the doctor who showed me over the hospital told me, as a matter for congratulation, that at night the police brought in drunken soldiers to be sobered. "Every war hospital must receive them," she explained, "and we are glad we are not passed over, for that gives a stamp to our official standing."

It was a beautiful autumn day when I visited Endell Street. The great court was full of convalescents, and the orderlies in khaki with veils floating back from their close-fitting toques were carefully and skillfully lifting the wounded from an ambulance. I spoke to one of the soldier boys about the absence of men doctors and orderlies, and his quick query was, "And what should we want men for?" It seems they always take that stand after a day or two. At first the patient is puzzled; he calls the doctor "sister," the orderly "nurse," but ends by being an enthusiastic champion of the new order. Not a misogynist did I find. One poor fellow who had been wounded again and again and in many hospitals, declared, "I don't mean no flattery, but this place leaves nothink wanting."

As I heard all the spontaneous words of praise; as I looked over the kitchen under the proud guidance of the cook and caught her idea of a menu—"I know what them poor lads wants, and I gives it to 'em;" as I saw the capability of the orderlies, the patience of the nurses, the skill of the doctors; as I heard of Sir Alfred Keogh's comment, "This is the most economical of the war hospitals; you ought to run them all," I could only put the question to which no answer comes: What does ail Englishmen—are they afraid of women?

Beside the stress and storm of British readjustment, the changed life for women in France was like an artistic progress guided by sympathy and understanding. But who is there who has not remarked on crossing the Channel, "France is so different!"

France is sad and frankly mourns. Black and crape are bad form in England; in France every woman wears her badge of loss. One can only hope that England is not what it seems; one knows that France is what it appears. It is profoundly serious, infinitely sad. I shall never forget looking into the very depth of her sorrow when I was at Creil last autumn. The great drive was in progress, the wounded were being brought down from the front, troops hurried forward. Four different regiments passed as I sat at déjeuner. The restaurant, full of its noon-day patrons, was a typical French café giving direct on the street. We could have reached out and touched the soldiers, They marched without music, without song or word, marched in silence. Some of the men were from this very town; their little sons, with set faces too, walked beside them and had brought them bunches of flowers. The people in the restaurant never spoke above a whisper, and when the troops passed were as silent as death. There was no cheer, but just a long, wistful gaze, the soldiers looking into their eyes, they into the soldiers'. "France is so different," and in nothing more so than in its attitude toward its women. Without friction with organizations of men, without hindrance from the Government, women filled the gaps in the industrial army. It was obvious that the new workers, being unskilled, would need training; the Government threw open the technical schools to them. A spirit of hospitality, of helpfulness, of common sense, reigned. And it was not only in industry that France showed itself wise. I found that it had co-operated unreservedly with all the philanthropic work of women and had given them a wide sphere in which they could rise above amateurish effort and carry out plans calling for administrative ability. For instance, when the Conseil National des Femmes Françaises inaugurated its work to bring together the scattered families of Belgium and northern France, and when the Association pour l'Aide Fraternelle aux Évacués Alsaciens-Lorrains began its work for the dispersed peoples of the provinces, an order was issued by the French Government to every prefect to furnish lists of all refugees in his district to the headquarters of the women's societies in Paris. It was through this good will on the part of the Central Government that the women's societies were able to bring together thirty thousand Belgian families, and to clothe, place in school or at work four-fifths of the dispersed population of the reconquered districts of Alsace-Lorraine. And it was in France that I found the group of women who realized that the permanent change which the war was making in the relation of women to society needed fundamental handling. Mile. Valentine Thompson, founder of La Vie Feminine, held that, not only was war an economic struggle and not only must the financial power of the combatants rest on the labor of women, but that the future of the nations will largely depend upon the attitude which women take now towards their new obligations.

No question has been oftener asked of me since my return from Europe than what effect the great war will have on the political side of feminism. Political issues are dead in the belligerent nations. Men are not voting, elections are not held. Women age not philosophizing about the future; they are quite simply living feminism day by day. Probably in that lies the promise of victory for votes for women. Thoughtful advocates of suffrage, especially in Europe, have always known that opposition rested in the main on an honest doubt—widely held, though seldom expressed—of the wisdom of admitting to government a class which has only partially attained to economic independence. The expectation was widespread that this strongly intrenched enemy would retreat in the face of a huge army of self-supporting women; and it does seem reasonable that where the old-time work of wives and mothers is valued in the coin of the realm, the reminder that men escaped serfdom before gaining the vote should cease to embarrass the feminist; and where men are being wounded and slaughtered as rapidly as women are entering office and workshop the old difficulty for the self-supporting woman of asking her male competitors in trade and profession to share with her their political advantage will be broken down under mere weight of numbers.

All modern wars, of course, have drawn women out into wider fields and made them feel their solidarity. Our own Civil War put them in hundreds of industries and gave them class consciousness as workers. But while the same reservoir of labor has been tapped in war after war, I found a wholly new spirit in the old situation in Europe to-day. Until now governments never thought of calling upon women to work nor did women put volition into their acts. Employers used women because they stood handy for use; women worked because they needed bread. In response to no proclamations, without any idea of "serving the nation," women filled up during past wars gaps in the army of workers. "But now we are in an atmosphere of national calls and a citizen response. This new sense of the close relation of women to the nation has touched both men and women too deeply to be effaced. Recognition of the relation deepens as the war continues, for although at first the physical force side of the contest was uppermost, to-day the idea that the energy used in making ammunition and creating national wealth is of prime value has laid hold of the imagination of the warring nations. I talked to trade-union leaders, to heads of organizations, to women in every rank of life, to suffragists and anti-suffragists, and found the conviction uniformly held that the work of women will be interpreted in votes for women when peace is declared.

But if I might prophesy, I would say, in France women will be given whatever they ask for; in England they will get no more than they can win.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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