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Changing Roles (Hardback)

Women After the Great War

WWI British History P&S History Social History Women of History 20th Century

By Dr Vivien Newman
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 216
Illustrations: 20 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526774262
Published: 20th October 2021

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Graverobbers, prime-movers in geo-politics, jailbirds, international football celebs. Such terms are not usually associated with women in the 1920s, as women returning docilely to the domestic cage at the end of the First World War has become part of the accepted narrative. Like many war and immediate post war myths, it does contain some truth, but the story of women between 1918 and 1928 is much more complex, often more positive and certainly far more interesting than previously suggested.

Changing Roles looks at some of the women who forged new identities for themselves whilst exploring how their own or their loved ones’ wartime experiences influenced the roles they stepped into, sometimes reluctantly, frequently enthusiastically, often successfully. It explores how women fought back against the misogynistic climate of the 1920s, used the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act to achieve their goals, played their part as full citizens and how the legacy of their global endeavours, achievements and occasional failures is still with us today, spreading far beyond our shores.

By telling the stories of both ordinary and extraordinary women whose actions disturbed the status quo, shook the Establishment to its core, and sent shock-waves across the Atlantic, this book presents a cast of fascinating characters ranging from crowned heads to girl gangs, business women to philanthropists, inviting readers to exclaim, “Gosh, I never knew that!”

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


How I loved this book.

Dr Vivien Newman incorporates the familiar accessible nature of the Pen & Sword publications with academic thoroughness; where appropriate, a deftly comic touch; and a range of interesting, arresting women whose post WW1 activities make a wonderful read.

The introduction sets the post WW1 scene – a time of claims about the wonders women had performed during the war, and the bitter reality they faced as they were expected to return to their former pursuits. Some of the women who refused to do so changed roles. As social innovators they also changed other women’s lives. Their stories are told in Chapter 3, Changing Others Lives. Other women made their impact in a less socially conscious way. For example, Chapter 4, Murder Most Foul, includes writers, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and, from the Thomson and Bywaters Case, Edith Thompson.

All the stories are engrossing, from the sports women in the first chapter, Team Spirit; the mothers and other women who tried to keep soldiers’ memories alive through contributing to distant war cemeteries or fighting to bring bodies back to local cemeteries, in Remembering Them, Chapter 2; the aspiring professionals in the intriguingly titled Becoming a ‘Person’, Chapter 4; to the fascinating political women in Chapter 6, The Paris Peace Conference: Promises to keep.

Some of the women’s stories, such as those of Agatha Christie and Edith Thompson are well known to me, but nevertheless were compelling. Agatha Christie’s choice of a Belgian as her first detective, her experiences, and their introduction to some of her novels, and the way in which Miss Marple was developed makes interesting reading. Newman brings a strong feminist approach to the story of Edith Thompson. Although I am aware of this material, what was not familiar is the information in the rest of the narrative in which the changing environment, and the impact on other women threatened with the death penalty, is considered. Becoming a person, the story of women’s attempts to achieve personhood, so they become entitled to education and the fruits of that education, is an excellent read. Again, the issue is familiar. However, Newman’s new material on the role of women and juries is an excellent read. The idea that a woman is not a person seems so bizarre it is worth raising over and over, particularly in such an accessible manner.

However, most of the material is unfamiliar. The women in Chapter 2, in their pursuit of an emotional cause, is enlightening in demonstrating their practical successes. Sportswomen’s clubs and the identity woman achieved, even if short lived makes a compelling story. Marie Stopes, a controversial character, and her continuing impact is an important medical story. Unlike my familiarity with Christie, Dorothy Sayers’ role in highlighting the impact of ‘shell shock’ makes such fascinating reading. Where I found particularly enticing and new material is in areas that introduced not only a woman who adopted a changing role but provided an impressive journey through a portion of history with which I was quite unaware. The Queen of Rumania is written with that deftly comic touch mentioned above, together with a thoroughly detailed account of her political efforts on behalf of her country, and determination that agreements made were kept. Even more enlightening, at least to me, was the role of Gertrude Bell as a ‘key’ member of the British wartime Arab Bureau. This was an educational read indeed.

The narrative is well referenced, with endnotes, an index, and a wonderful bibliography.

This is a wonderful book, with a fascinating cast of women, intriguing history, and an insight into one significant aspect of the post Great War period.

NetGalley, Robin Joyce

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Women did what they had to do during the Great War and wanted to continue the momentum into the era following the war. They were not content to step up and then melt into oblivion. This book is about the women who gave their all to combat misogyny and become citizens in every sense during the fascinating years of 1918-1928. Some were not exactly those to aspire to but they defied notions regardless.

Female football burst onto the scene and became a massive hit, so much so that even some tea houses started a healthy rivalry. Teams even traveled and entertained thousands. Brazen women formed a girl gang called the Forty Elephants in London, something I had not heard of before. They robbed stores, necessitating the need for security. Some of the girls resorted to violence when necessary. They were often abandoned and impoverished and had a desperate need to belong and survive.

One of the most interesting stories involves advocating to bring remains of soldiers home rather than being buried where they fell abroad. Very heartwarming and heart rending. Similarly, Gertrude Jekyll adamantly felt that cemeteries should be pretty and cared for like gardens. She and others also felt that soldiers should be honoured by headstones.

Feeding impoverished children orphaned after the war, regardless of their ethnicity, was a goal of many women. Fresh milk was sought after and supplied. In order to garner financial support, a shocking pamphlet of a malnourished toddler was distributed. But it did work. Beautiful, beautiful story.

Female authors began writing detective novels. Agatha Christie even wrote a female sleuth, Miss Marple, into her books. And then there is the story about the queen who used her position against Bolshevism and for humanitarianism.

My sincere thank you to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the privilege of reading this inspiring book! Well worth reading.

NetGalley, Brenda Carleton
Dr Vivien Newman

About Dr Vivien Newman

From ‘noisy’ involvement in History lessons aged six to a PhD that demonstrated that war poetry neither was, nor should be, considered an exclusively male genre, Dr Vivien Newman relishes turning accepted historical truths on their heads by seeking out women’s overlooked stories. Following six books about the Great War which, according to a reviewer delivered ‘cascades of insight and epiphany’, she takes readers into the 1920s and, like the women she writes about, once again challenges pre-conceptions and accepted views.

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