Lewes, as this blog has previously pointed out, tends on occasion towards the alternative or controversial – which is fine by me. So, no surprise that this past weekend’s Lewes Speakers Festival featured contributions from, or about, Peter Hain, Edward Snowden, Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Meades.
First up for me in the programme, however, was Kate Adie talking on the theme of her most recent book, “Fighting on the Home Front – the Legacy of Women in World War 1”.
Defended as something of a national treasure when maligned by such as Norman Tebbit and Alastair Campbell, Kate Adie became a household name in 1980 for her on-site coverage of the Iranian Embassy siege and, later, as the BBC’s Chief News Correspondent for 14 years from 1989. She became a frequent sight on TV screens, reporting from war zones around the world – to such an extent, the story ran, that if squaddies caught sight of her arriving in their midst, the cry arose, “Christ, things must be heating up – they’ve sent Kate Adie.”
We were entertained this weekend to very brief highlights of Kate’s early career as a news reporter. Dashing off with a cameraman in Brighton on hearing of a murder victim hanging dramatically from an outside fire escape and, being new to the game, asking bystanders, “Who do you think did it, then?” And, on returning to the office bursting to “sell” this story nationally, being castigated with the words, “There’s a roomful of ladies in Ditchling been waiting for you for hours to look at their embroidery. You’re fired.” And later, in London, in a “taxi rank” of BBC reporters queuing for their next assignment, “You, Kazakhstan. You, Srebrenica. And you, Kate, Crufts.”
Who better, then, to reflect on the “war to end wars”? But with a difference. There was no shortage of books, new and old, on the 1914/18 conflict, Kate pointed out, but her story was that of British women – what they brought to the war, what it brought to them, and particularly what it meant for the evolving role of women in public life.
We heard of women enrolled into the armed services in supporting roles on “the front”, or working in ammunition factories back home and turning yellow from handling TNT.
There were of course many traditionally “male” jobs thought to be quite unsuitable for women, not least because of their tendency to suffer from their “nerves” – and those seeking to take up these vacancies met with a good deal of opposition and outright hostility from other women as well as men. But work they did – on the farm, in factories, in every kind of shop or office.
Female ammunition workers succeed in overcoming their nerves
With the shortage of chaps to do chaps’ work, it was inevitable that, for example, postal deliveries were entrusted to women – although, until this time, it had been assumed that the silly creatures would never remember the right addresses. (One strongly held view, expressed to loud approbation in Parliament, was that women should not be given the vote as the thought processes involved might lead to their brains overheating. If you feel you have seen evidence of this, it may be as well to keep it to yourself.)
In at least one area of previously male monopoly, the railways, women were able to play to their obvious strengths and experience. Naturally, I speak of …. cleaning. This lead to a major sartorial development. Amongst Kate’s excellent photographs could be seen (what on earth is the world coming to?) women wearing trousers, so they could get properly stuck into cleaning those steam trains and not get their long dresses caught in the firebox.
Managing to avoid their brains overheating…
But there was even more drama to come. Not content with casting off their multi-layered wardrobes in favour of the trouser, these hussies turned out in works’ football teams, drawing crowds of men up to 20,000 strong in search of a glimpse of knee. Must have done wonders for the war effort.
The world would surely never be the same again. Would it? Well, perhaps. When the men returned from the war, they wanted their old jobs back. If women were to be retained in the workplace, they clearly shouldn’t earn the same as men, because, unlike the men, they didn’t have to provide financial support for their families. Ermm.
But many of the women who had experienced paid employment for the first time – or for the first time beyond the customary roles like nursing or domestic service – had glimpsed a different kind of future and the genie was never totally going back in the bottle. Women, provided they were over 30 years of age with property, had “earned” the right to vote in 1918 and ten years later achieved the same voting rights as men.
Kate Adie was able to view her own career as an organic, if not necessarily rapid, outcome of the efforts of those women from WW1. But she noted that some branches of society, including the church, appeared to be on a slower trajectory.
It was inevitable, two days later, during a debate on the “Thatcher legacy” at the same venue, that the speakers should be asked to assess what impact Mrs. T’s own career had had on women’s role in society.
Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee, pointed out that, while the election of our first female prime minister had indisputably broken through one of the ultimate “glass ceilings”, Margaret Thatcher had competed with men on their own terms, in a “man’s world”, rather than through any tide of feminism. She had been highly unusual in not including women in her cabinet.
Listening to the speaker’s effective and largely unanswered demolition job on almost every element of Mrs. Thatcher’s policy and practice, this blog felt a strong sense of regret. The positive changes outlined by Kate Adie set in train a series of advances from which the whole of society has benefited. The election of our first woman PM should have been a milestone to celebrate. Just a pity it turned out so badly.
Footnote: Readers of previous “posts” will be aware that this blog is about to install itself under canvas in Glasgow, from which it expects to emerge occasionally in order to access sundry Commonwealth Games events, commencing – not unreasonably – with Wednesday’s opening ceremony. Until this blog gets to grips with whatever technology is available to it (and this has not hitherto proved to be one of its strengths), it cannot guarantee what form its output may take for the coming fortnight. But it will be “on the case”.