School Packs >>

Women in Wartime

Women of the Inter-War & Feminism

 Madeleine Blaess was born in 1918, in the year when property-owning women over the age of 30 in Britain were given the vote. In 1924, equal voting rights with men were extended to women over the age of 21. In France, of course, women would not get the vote until after the Liberation in 1944 but Madeleine grew up in Britain, in a country where the first wave feminist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had made a significant positive impact on women’s daily lives and the career and educational opportunities available to them.  The period of the inter-war encompasses the political, cultural and social changes which had the most impact on improving access to higher education for women and the eventual parity of opportunity with their male peers which women progressively gained by the opening of degree awarding courses and programmes. From the end of the 19th century, in tandem with the suffrage movement emerging across Europe and in America, women had begun to make inroads into higher education. The first women-only colleges were inaugurated and when more municipal and public universities were established in towns and cities across America, Australia, France, Britain and other European countries numbers of home and foreign students grew exponentially. It would take time for programmes to offer parity of opportunity to women who had been confined to the lesser certificate and diploma courses outside of the degree programme. But, the foundations of a culture of higher education for women emerged across nations and continents and, in short order, these furnished mobile communities of learners who were able to travel to enhance their learning overseas. As undergraduate ‘home’ courses developed so did overseas postgraduate programmes. Europe, and Paris in particular, became an attractive centre of excellence for further study. A modest democratisation of educational opportunity by way of scholarships and grants also meant students outside of the privileged classes and outside of Oxbridge and Ivy League universities were able to study abroad. The contribution of first wave feminism to opening access to education for women was, of course, central to the development of women’s education over the period of the inter-war as was the Great War which prompted universities to look to women (and women from overseas in particular) to compensate the absence of male students killed or injured on the battlefields. Indeed, it was this wartime wave of women from overseas who arrived at the campaigning height of first-wave feminism who comprised the women who would, ten years later establish the essential extra-curricular infrastructure so essential to supporting subsequent generations of women scholars.

Women in Wartime

The war changed lives. It changed the lives of men, of course, many of whom were conscripted to fight, were injured or died or, as was largely the case in France, were taken prisoner for the duration of the war.  It also significantly changed the lives of young women who had been educated in the inter-war period in the more liberal political and social era which followed the first wave feminist movement which had been active with varying degrees of success across Europe from the first decade of the Twentieth Century.  In general terms, the advances women had made in education and their professional lives were put under pressure by the war. In France, which, between 1940 and 1944, was an occupied territory governed by a right-wing collaborationist regime, disposed to discriminatory and revisionist legislation, the pressures of women to conform, to gender normative roles  were more direct and acute than in Britain.

In France, the Vichy government imposed a raft of regressive and revisionist laws aimed at restoring traditional roles of wife and mother for women. The Married Women’s Work Act, passed in 1940 was a particularly dramatic reversal of the achievements of women in the workplace, because it effectively sacked married women from all State funded employment, which, of course included school teaching. A worsening shortage of skilled workers eventually made this law unworkable and it was abandoned. This legislation together with legislation banning contraception and abortion and laws making it much more difficult to obtain a divorce pressured women to maintain or revert to traditional domestic roles of wife and mother.  In practice, however, these draconian measures were ineffective. Many women had to respond to hardship by going to work and they had to take the lead in running and protecting the well-being of their homes and their families. They were forced to ignore these revisionist strictures because they had to replace the millions of men taken prisoner during the Battle of France in 1940 and deported to POW camps in Germany. They were now in the front-line on the home front, striving to survive the hardships of the war and their lives were very harsh indeed. Food, clothing and material goods were severely rationed. There was very little solid fuel or electricity for heating and cooking and washing, the cost of living was very high, medical supplies and care were also in short supply.  Women had the unenviable responsibility of coping with these shortages which generally meant hours spent queuing or hunting for food to put on the table and hours spent doing whatever work they could find to afford the spiralling cost of living.

Madeleine, like other women, struggled through the practical difficulties and material shortages of the war.  She did not have dependents to care for, but she did have to support herself in a foreign country with no grant income and only a very small network of friends and acquaintances through whom she could find work opportunities.  In the diary it is clear that she sees her studies as her principal objective and protects her scholarly vocation through part-time work she manages to do alongside. Her doctoral thesis takes a back seat to a more pragmatic English degree she takes so that she can teach in French schools if the war drags on for years but she continues to research for it.  In the diary, Madeleine begins to reflect on gender expectations in the summer of 1943, when, with the war looking as if it will shortly come to an end, she begins to contemplate a return home to her parents. What she writes gives an insight into the social pressure to conform to normative stereotypes still facing women in the 1940s. Unmarried and without a job and without her doctorate, she fears pressure to marry from her parents. She wants to marry but she does not want to give up her studies. To have qualifications, a career and a husband was, in the 1940s, not encouraged. Madeleine defiantly envisages having all three, a family and a house of her own in the countryside in a series of imaginings in prose and sketches of building plans.  Throughout the diary, there are glimpses of Madeleine as a woman torn between social expectation and a more modern desire for a career and independence. Indeed, as she contemplates a return to York, she describes herself as much changed by the war. She has aged, of course. She has grown up. But she has also lived a life of fierce independence through years of severe hardship and danger and survived. She is not prepared to return to a life of dependence.