Women of World War One: The story of women in the First World War is also the story of female liberation

Kate Adie is an excellent guide to women’s battle for equality during the Great War

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The Independent Culture

The frontline isn’t the only place where a war is fought and the military perspective isn’t the only one worth having.

As part of its First World War centenary programming, the BBC promised to tell us some forgotten stories and the Kate Adie-fronted documentary Women of World War One (BBC2) was an excellent example of what that can mean.

Adie’s hosting qualifications go beyond the obvious. As well as being a woman herself (an excellent start), she has more than twenty years’ experience reporting from conflict zones, and is the author of a book on this very subject. Fighting on the Home Front: the Legacy of Women in World War One was published last year.

You needn’t have read Adie’s book to know that the story of women in the First World War is also the story of female liberation, but her insights on the intersection of class and gender were more surprising. This documentary dismantled the notion that the campaign for the vote consisted only of well-to-do ladies in large hats named Emmeline or Emily.

We were introduced to a whole cast of women: music hall recruiters, “vinegary spinsters” and merry “munitionettes” with skin yellowed from the factories (106 of them eventually died of TNT poisoning). These women worked sometimes together and sometimes apart, but all played a part – as beautifully illustrated by the story of an unlikely meeting between the trade unionist Mary Macarthur and Queen Mary, wife of King George V.

When women were eventually given the vote in 1918, nine months before the war ended, it was seen not as a right, but as a reward for keeping the home fires burning. Yet, the most bitter irony of all, as Adie noted, was that the legislation didn’t even fulfil that patronising function. Most of the women who had worked in munitions were not householders and not over 30, and therefore there were still not eligible to vote.

No doubt Adie, something of a female pioneer herself, had a relevant perspective on this that would have been interesting to hear but, a hard-news journalist till the last, humour and personal opinions were kept strictly out of it. Surely she must have been inwardly amused by the revelation that one of the women’s voluntary organisation, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was popularly known as the “FANY”? But no, nothing. Not even a flicker of a smile.