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Christian Biblical Studies
WOMAN IN SOCIETY AND CHURCH
By W. Resume
The previous instalment covered the interwar years 1918 to 1939, a time of profound change in the traditional character of Britain. Various influences were at play: access to a wide range of imported goods; growing relative prosperity; an increase in spare time; radio broadcasting that brought world news and popular music into the home; the cinema, with its glamorous window-on-the-world and the accompanying celebrity cult; a growing range of new opportunities for women in the professions. And after years of campaigning for it, women were granted the vote in 1928. Eleven years on, the nation was again at war . . .
In 1945, after six years of war, peace descended on a weary world and Johnny came marching home, a demob suit in his kitbag and hope in his heart for the future. But what of the present? The family who welcomed him with tears and laughter lived in a flimsy prefabricated house, ate dried eggs and wore faded clothes and patched shoes. Tea was rationed to two ounces a week, milk two pints and Johnny’s son had never tasted a banana or a grapefruit. Life was tough – and would get tougher. A long, hard struggle lay ahead as the nation licked its wounds and got down to the business of re-building a new Britain. – Daily Mail Pictorial History of Our Times: 1945 (Phoebus Publishing Co.; 1975), p. 1.
DURING THE SECOND World War the woman had entered the work force in her millions. She toiled in the Land Army on less pay than a man’s. As a mechanic in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), she kept the planes in the air. In the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WReNS), she worked as wireless telegrapher – intercepting enemy transmissions – or as radar plotter or weapons analyst.[fn1] As welder, motor mechanic, electrician and carpenter with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), she kept the military traffic moving.
At the height of the war there were more than 450,000 women in the armed forces and over 6,000,000 in other war work. Their story is told in the film, ‘Millions Like Us’, released by Gainsborough Studios in 1943 as a morale booster.[fn2] Female entertainers, such as Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields and Anne Shelton, sang to the troops in programmes broadcast by the BBC External Services, and travelled to bases as far away as North Africa and Burma – a dangerous undertaking.
Brave women signed up to the Special Overseas Directive (SOE), working as spies deep within German-occupied territory. They also rendered invaluable service in the code-breaking work at the top-secret location of Bletchley Park, home to Colossus, the electronic computer which intercepted intelligence traffic between Hitler’s headquarters and his commanders in the field, an effort that is said to have shortened the war by two to four years.
At war’s end, the rebuilding of the country meant clearing away thousands of acres of rubble strewn across vast urban areas, the repair of bridges, the laying of new roads and the construction of modern towns to house millions of returning soldiers and their families. Although there was an abundance of unexploded mines and bombs buried under beaches or wedged in the shells of buildings, the country was short of fruit. Petrol was still under restrictions, and some measure of general rationing would remain in force for the next ten years. Children’s shoes being hard to come by, many youngsters were kept out of school.
As she had done all through the war, the housewife continued to ‘make do and mend’, conjuring up reasonably nutritious meals within the ration points available to her. Dried eggs stood in for the hen-laid variety. For children’s milk, many mothers relied on the powdered, tinned variety, available through local clinics. The introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 offered universal medical care ‘free at the point of delivery’.[fn3] This was a timely innovation: the baby ‘boom’ that resulted from the reuniting of husbands and wives and the long-deferred marriages of sweethearts required ready access to pre-natal care.
[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. — Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
THE DECADES FOLLOWING the Second World War are the most well-documented in human history. Advancements in methods of research have resulted in the amassing of scholarly analysis and first-person accounts in print, in sound, on film and in digital form. Vast amounts of it are freely and widely available over the Internet. No other generation has had such an opportunity to study world events in detail as they unfold. The post-war years are awash with information.
Technology is both a product of the period in which it emerges and an instigator of subsequent change. It is self-evident that a light bulb not only could have no worth in a medieval society, it could not have been invented in such an age – one which lacked the necessary science and means of assembly. So it is with the making of war.
As the technology of weaponry improved – especially during the latter half of the 19th century – conflicts became more likely and larger in scope. Military students of the American Civil War (1861-65) and the South African (Boer) War (1899-1902) shuddered at the implications of a war facilitated by railways, long-range artillery and armoured ships. But politicians and generals responsible for waging war tend to keep their fears to themselves, emphasising hope over expectation. Men of the British Empire gladly volunteered to fight in 1914 and marched off to patriotic tunes to engage in a war they thought would be over by Christmas.
The psyche of all those caught up in the First World War was forever altered – as it would be for their children and grandchildren. And in the Second World War, the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 proved the general rule of military innovation: that any weapon developed, no matter how inhumane, must at some point be put to use. The brinkmanship between West and East that ran for the next forty or so years amplified the anxieties, stirring a morbid dread of nuclear attack.
Appropriately enough, in the new global world of trade, the fears would be global, too. And out of this subconscious terror, crazy patterns of behaviour would emerge, similar to, but different from those which characterized previous generations. A world which had passed through the extremes of total war now set the stage for a rise in patterns of extreme societal malfunction. Just as the First World War had upended the traditional social order, the Second World War introduced a brand new phase of history, in which anything might be possible.
Nothing happens without a reason, though pin-pointing cause and effect often proves difficult. The nagging, latent dread of nuclear obliteration ought not to be underestimated as a causative factor in the transformative social changes which have surfaced since 1945. Nonetheless, the most significant markers for change in the 20th century can be labelled either pre- or post-war. This tells us much about that century. The 21st-century social order we inhabit now is the logical outcome of all that has gone before.
Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half so good . . . luckily, it’s not difficult. – Charlotte Whitton (1963, in Canada Month)
SO FAR THE woman had tolerated living in a man’s world. She had even fought in war of global proportions – a man’s war. Not once, but twice. If ever she deserved to be acknowledged as an equal, it must surely be now. Indeed, within a decade of the ending of the Second World War, a flood of legislation in many countries and across several continents gave her full voting rights and the right to stand for election – Argentina, Bolivia, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Liberia and Venezuela, to list a few. In Britain, many women began to enter politics, though few rose to Cabinet posts.
The women of France – many of them members of the Resistance, such as Marie-Helene Lefauchaux, a campaigner for women’s rights – were awarded the franchise in 1944. This egalitarian measure was essential to the rebuilding of the country and in the spirit of inclusiveness prompted by General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces.
But suffrage for women was no longer the main focus of attention. The founding of the United Nations in 1945 opened a panorama of civic rights, intended to redress the neglect of previous decades. With the horrors of the Holocaust still fresh in the collective memory, its adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document influenced in part by the redoubtable Eleanor Roosevelt – set the protection of liberties into the context of international law.[fn4] Within the matrix of this new order of affairs, another phase of feminism burst forth, one more disparate and multi-faceted than its predecessor – some would say more harshly impatient. Once perceived as a single-issue campaign – ‘votes for women’ – the feminism of the post-war years seemed more assured – less a supplication than a command.
Not all women who advanced female equality necessarily viewed themselves as strict feminists. Nonetheless they demonstrated that the female was as imaginative and as capable as the male. The English entrepreneur, Margery Hurst, started the Brook Street Bureau temporary-employment agency in London as early as 1946, expanding it around the country and branching out to Australia and the United States. She was accepted as an underwriting member of Lloyds of London and was the first woman elected to the New York Chamber of Commerce.
Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain, one of the most powerful leaders of the 1980s, is reputed to have said, ‘I owe nothing to Women’s Lib.’[fn5] Other women broke into territory regarded as strictly off-limits to them, such as Stella Rimington, who in 1992 became the first female Director General of MI5.
Others pronounced themselves unabashedly feminist, such as novelist and screenwriter Fay Weldon, author of several books about the complicated role of women in a patriarchal society. The Australian lecturer and author of The Female Eunuch (1970), Germaine Greer, woman’s ‘liberationist’ and anarchist, is stinging in her criticism of men’s domineering attitude toward women. And the American, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), wrote that ‘the problem that has no name burst like a boil through the image of the happy American housewife . . . the actual unhappiness of the American housewife was suddenly being reported . . . although almost everybody who talked about it found some superficial reason to dismiss it’.
Edith Summerskill, a medical doctor, Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Food in 1945, Labour MP and an ardent socialist, was vocal in her support for universal health care and the rights of women. ‘I am astounded’, she observed, ‘that so many have distinguished themselves despite the conditions which society has imposed on them’.
You can never plan the future by the past. – Edmund Burke (1791; letter)
IT MAY SEEM flippant to remark that Progress never stands still, but it is nonetheless a serious observation. Liberty is not a static state – it is more like an horizon that, when reached, reveals another as broad and beckoning as the first. No wayfarer will be content to simply stand and gaze on the scene.
Everywhere women now expect social progress to bring a status equal with that of men and equality of opportunity across a wide spectrum of issues. These include the current disparity between wages paid to women and those paid to men for similar work; access to reliable birth-control and safe abortion; a smoother route to promotion in the corporate office and politics; fair and equal treatment under laws governing marriage and divorce; the opportunity to train for combat service in the armed forces; the right to preach from the pulpit – to name a few.
The next instalment in this series will evaluate the rights of woman in the church.
To be continued
All URLs listed below were retrieved successfully as of February 13, 2013.
[fn1] WReNS: A similarly-named Canadian corps made up of women was integrated into the Royal Canadian Navy. Canada had joined Britain in the war on September 10, 1939, and thousands of Canadian troops were billeted in Britain to help with the defence of the island. The tailored uniforms and carefree manner of the Canadian personnel – and a ready supply of cigarettes – attracted many a British woman.
[fn4] Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the wife of President F. D. Roosevelt, advocated an expanded role for women in American society. In the 1930s she wrote a regular column, ‘My Day’, for American newspapers. She also authored the book, It’s Up to the Women, published in 1933, and others.
[fn5] Ascribed to Thatcher by the Observer, 1 December 1974.
Resources for Further Study
Women in Politics (official UK Parliament site)
Retired army officer calls for UK to allow women in combat
Women hold fewer than one-third of top jobs
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