Women’s history in two books

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“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to get meself some false teeth, and I’m going to have a bloody good time.”
Pat Barker, Regeneration

Rachel Brooks reviews Lindsey German’s How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women and looks at it through the lens of Pat Barker’s fictional masterpiece, Regeneration 

On August 14th, 1914, Lizzie, a munitions factory worker in Glasgow claims that for her, peace broke out, because on that day her husband joined the army. She explains to her colleagues on their break that she hopes her husband, who is fighting on the front line, dies.

This is a scene from Pat Barker’s quite spectacular 1991 Regeneration (Penguin, 2008) trilogy. Often the relationship between men who fight in wars and their sweethearts at home is shrouded in romance and mythology; men, bravely fighting for their country, women, hoping, praying and waiting. No doubt there were women missing men, be them lovers, brothers, fathers or friends, but actually, the truth is not always so simple, let alone romantic.

Why is it that Lizzie, in the midst of one of the most devastating wars in human history is talking about teeth? Lizzie, like many working class women in pre-welfare state Britain, would have had all her teeth removed. Fathers, before they married their daughters off, would take their daughter to the dentist to have all their teeth removed, to save their husbands later dental costs. Women, as property, could be expensive.

Now Lizzie, for the first time in her life, was working. Not only was she working, but she was probably earning a pretty decent wage. She can’t get her teeth fitted till she knows her husband is dead, or at least seriously injured, because much like many working class women living in abject poverty, Lizzie was the victim of domestic violence. She knows that upon her husbands return her decent wages, will be spent in the pub, and her drunk husband will return home and knock her teeth out. The truth, as Barker demonstrates in this scene, isn’t always romantic at all.

The female munitions factory workers in Regeneration don’t represent all working class women, by any means, but Barker, a historical novelist, pieced together large swathes of research to create these characters. In many respects the war was good for women, especially working class women, who took the place of men in skilled labour positions. They were well paid and socialized. For Lizzie, the absence of her violent husband was a good thing; she could celebrate a world without men.

It is largely this that is the topic of Lindsey German’s How A Century of War Changed the Lives of Women (Pluto Press, 2013). She begins with the First World War and the huge changes this made to women’s material experiences. Usefully she explores both the First and Second World Wars, and then moves onto the Cold War, protest movements against Vietnam, and their social implications. A large part of the book is dedicated to mass movements against war, with a focus on Britain, and how they mobilized and radicalized women. She rightly looks at the influence of British Muslim women in the anti-war movement in the early 2000s.

German is correct to look at 100 years of wars and how they impact women, and she is correct to focus on more than just the material changes that affected women through the ability to work. Protest movements also represent an ability for women for be socialized, as experiences such as Greenham show. Women being at the forefront of struggles, be them anti-war, anti-austerity or for the environment can develop women’s position in society. Through interviews German draws out different women’s experiences and views on how war has changed their lives, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

However, there is something missing. As Lizzie’s experience (be it fictitious) illustrates, there is a reason why women at first experience oppression and sometimes find ways to fight it: privilege. Lizzie’s husband, also working class, enjoys a certain privilege over her, because he is a man. When he is gone she has the space to better her existence. Of course she is still oppressed, as a working class woman operating under a capitalist system in crisis (war), but her material position is bettered through the absence of her husband. It’s a political knot that socialists have to work through, that it is men that oppress women, even though they are often our brothers in struggle.

The book lacks a strong argument to weave her research and interviews together, and frankly, with so many excellent social histories around that explore women’s lives in the twentieth-century, German’s contribution is lacking. It feels rushed, and it fails to fully address why it is that women’s conditions change during war and movements against war.

It is an inconvenient truth that men benefit from women’s oppression, and some socialists fail to recognise this. Why would a husband not want his wife out protesting? Why would a father take his daughter to get her teeth removed before she is married? Why, after the second world war, were women expected to return to the home? Because men, whatever their subjective viewpoints, benefit from women’s oppression. This is not to say that all men believe in women’s oppression, far from, but providing oppression of some exists, others will reap the benefits.

German is a good writer, and her style is accessible, but it is not exactly clear who her audience is. There are large amounts of social and oral histories that explore women’s experiences during, between and after wars. Her chosen topic is fascinating, but she might have liked to work a little harder on contributing something special to the on-going research into how war impacts women. If you’re really interested in this topic, you’d arguably be better off reading Regeneration. 

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One Comment

  1. Bruno T.
    August 30, 2013 at 8:11 pm · Reply

    Hi, when I saw the title of this article I was very interested in it, unfortunately it turns out that it is a pretty flawed and not very well thought through piece. Actually claiming that this is a REVIEW of German’s book is already somewhat fraudulent. Why do you not give anymore than 2 paragraphs of analysis of German’s book, trying to work out its arguments and showing us where you think she was wrong and how.Instead it is extremely superficial. I enjoy novels, however I think they are no substitute for scientific literature but a great way of complementing it. Sure for some women it must have been liberating getting rid of their abusive husbands. But for all? Are you really suggesting there were no loving and caring husbands and fathers that were brutally torn from their families. I agree with you that men BENEFIT from the oppression of women, saying that working class men are CAUSING that oppression however (which is at least what you seem to suggest) than I think you are rather far off the truth. Why for example did women in the “Popular Democracies” of Eastern Europe not return to their homes after WW2 but stayed integrated into the production process, even though men were in command in these states just as much as anywhere else? Focusing on men vs women, instead of class against class is exactly that part of feminism we should not take up. Instead we should try to understand how the bourgeoisie plays out one section of society against another by granting “privileges” to one but not the other, in the same way a good jail keeper plays out the prisoners against each other to keep them from realising that they are incarcerated all together.

    Imperialist war is always fought out on the back of the working class, with women workers often being hit the hardest. For them as a class war has nothing liberating but puts them in the threefold shackles of capitalism, women’s oppression and national chauvinism. Often war is used to brutalise women and in its course the most horrendous crimes are committed against women, not a relaxation of women’s oppression but an increase manifold times. If you want to cynically talk about “privilege”, a rather useless term as it is a complete abstraction from real social relations, talk about the privilege of British women to say they were liberated in 1914… a privilege (apart from a brief phase in WW2) of not having had war within its own borders. Had Lizzie lived in Germany, Russia or France her judgement about the liberating effects of war might well have been different.

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