Not much has changed, women are still very often the victims of war, they are still used for prostitution and men’s pleasure, in war and in peacetime. In the recent wars, in some of the poorest countries of the world, where poverty is rife, and where life is not very pleasant, war impacts upon the women and children the most. Already impoverished, their lives are turned upside down whilst the men folk indulge in war, some national, some international and some tribal. Women still give birth, look after children, cook, look after their homes – the normality of life still goes on in very difficult circumstances.
Have any lessons been learnt? In the 21st Century we still have war – nasty, bloodier wars, with weapons and chemicals which could wipe out the whole planet. At the time of writing, British and American troops are still in Iraq, British troops are off to Afghanistan and Iran is seen to be a threat. We are also facing the war on terrorism, terrorists are the “unseen” enemy – sadly there are women terrorists, women suicide bombers (victims) and women victims of the terrible atrocities of these bombers.
Women can’t be ignored, and certainly the part they played in keeping Great Britain and the Commonwealth running in both of the major wars of the 20th Century is a great tribute to “the weaker sex”. It certainly was not easy for many British women trying to feed a family on rations, and wondering whether it was her house that would be hit when the bombs came over. But true British grit and the necessity to survive and look after children spurred many women to do their bit. Patriotism and pride in the country played another part in this – everyone must do their duty.
Many women did war work and run households and volunteered for knitting circles etc., - that hasn’t changed as women juggle careers/jobs with domesticity still in the 21st century and the care of children is still largely the role of women, though men’s roles have changed dramatically. Young women did not leave their homes and were the responsibility of their parents, joining the services gave them an independence, though it was still frowned upon for women to have role reversals.
Yet women proved themselves in many jobs in the armed services, other books and articles cover this and I don’t want to infringe upon someone else’s work – there were jobs in the services that were done better by the women – though the glamour usually was with the men.
As we go through this tribute, we see ordinary women – daughters, sisters, wives, mothers even on ships, in field hospitals, balloons doing dangerous jobs, many survived the wars, many didn’t.
Women did not receive the recognition for awards as men, as they were not classed as service personnel but as auxiliaries. Nurses were however, slightly different, some receiving royal red cross or Florence nightingale awards – the same was not bestowed for women in the army, air force or navy – only men receive the Victoria cross or other medals.
Royal Red Cross Instituted: 1883
The Royal Red Cross was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1883 and was the first example of a British Military Order solely for women. The decoration can be conferred upon members of the Nursing Services, irrespective of rank and upon anyone, British or foreign, who have been recommended for special devotion or competency while engaged on nursing or hospital duties with the Navy, Army or Air Force. Since 1977 it can be conferred on male members of the nursing scheme.
Recipients are designated
Florence Nightingale Medal Instituted: 1912
The medal was instituted by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva in memory of the work of Florence Nightingale, to be distributed annually to trained nurses who, in the opinion of the committee, rendered exceptional service in connection with nursing. During World War I, no distribution was made but after the end of hostilities in 1920, it was decided to award 50 of these medals. All National Red Cross Societies were requested to submit recommendations for consideration by the Committee. In this first distribution, 42 awards were presented, five of which were to British nurses. The award is now made biannually and has been extended to include male and auxiliary nurses.
'War is men’s business, not ladies',' we are told in Gone With the Wind, but the total wars of the 20th century have dismembered this concept and forced us to acknowledge that it is just as much the concern of women.
Professor Margaret Randolph Higonnet argues that the advances in military technology and strategy have blurred the boundaries between war zones and the home front, whilst mass communication and psychological warfare have affected all sectors of nations at war.
'Now, it is accepted that women are as competent as their male colleagues in many uniformed roles ...'
Breaking with the past, in 1914-18 women displayed independence by taking over men’s jobs and risking their lives as nurses and ambulance drivers at the front. But in 1919, their organisations were largely disbanded as men again took full control of the business of soldiering.
By World War Two, they had gone into combat in the Soviet Union and joined resistance movements throughout Europe, and the male-female distinction in total war lost any meaning.
As most historians have themselves in the past been men, we should not be surprised that there has been relatively little interest in the female perspective of historical events or personalities until recently. The tide has now turned, and modern historians are devoting a great deal of time and attention to this hitherto unresearched field.
We are now discovering that there has, perhaps surprisingly, been a long tradition of women serving in the armed forces of their country, alongside men, and that their contribution has not been limited to nursing - scooping the wounded, angel-like, to safety and recovery.
And so we start our tribute to these women ……….. and may their lives given in sacrifice, be a treasured memory and a tribute for women everywhere. From their sacrifice we have our freedom.