Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Women of the Past Part II: Britain and America in WWII

Last week I wrote about women in Nazi Germany. I pointed out that women who lived through the period were often very frustrated, not to say outraged, by the way modern behaviours and mores were projected backwards. They complained that most films and novels produced today but set in Nazi Germany got things very wrong when it came to the behaviour of women.

Hard as it is for many women today to believe, the same is true for British and American women in the Second World War. The woman’s movement, the pill, equal opportunity laws and successful role models have all contributed to a significant – but often subtle and gradual – alteration of women’s behaviour, attitudes and role in society. I’m not talking here about rigid stereotypes of dumb blond housewives versus savvy modern career girls. Particularly in wartime Britain, many women were doing men’s jobs from factory work to flying. But they did it differently. Most saw their role as supportive, not leading, and they were neither surprised nor offended to be paid less for doing the same work. They thought, as many told me personally, that the pay differential was ‘only fair.’

Likewise, although there was an increase in unwed pregnancy, given the fact that there was inadequate sex education, a widespread lack of effective contraceptives, and the huge emotional stress of a war, the numbers reflect a far lower level of sexual activity than is common today. Yet because the women of World War Two don’t seem as strange to us on the surface, as say, the women of the Civil War or medieval Europe, it is very easy to forget how different they were – and forget some fundamental differences in attitude.

For those interested in a study on women’s roles and men’s attitudes toward them in the Second World War, I recommend my non-fiction study: Sisters in Arms: British and American Women Pilots During WWII.SISTERS IN ARMS: British & American Women Pilots During World War II

My novels set in wartime Britain reflect that research. Here are two scenes from The Lady in the Spitfire that highlight the frequently forgotten fact that “nice” women didn’t wear trousers, at least not in a social context. Thus, even when a woman’s uniform put her in trousers there could be consequences socially.

The Lady in the SpitfireEmily removed her skirt from her parachute pack, thinking again how lucky she had been not to have to use the latter. She removed her flying boots and trousers and changed into the skirt, stockings and pumps. She packed the boots, trousers and Robin’s flight jacket into the parachute bag (frowned upon but practical), slung the parachute pack over her shoulder and re-emerged.

Although a woman pilot and an officer, Emily cannot enter the officers’ mess at an RAF station in her flying uniform. She must always carry a change of clothes with her.

The next example highlights the attitude toward women in trousers that was even more extreme among Americans, who at this point in time (1942) were less used to the sight of women in slacks.

“You saw those sluts come in –“

“What sluts?”

“The girls in slacks!”

“WAAFs, you mean.”

“WAAFs, sure!” Brier sneered, curling his lip derisively. “We know what they’re there for! Service the RAF, don’t they, sir? Well, why not us? What’s the big deal? Just because we’re American, we’re not good enough for them, or what? Since when are whores so fussy? I told her she could have a pair of nylons! You would have thought I spit in her face.”

“Worse,” J.B. told him bluntly. “Where have you been hiding the last three months? Those WAAF all out-ranked you, corporal!”

Another huge difference between now and the 1940s was the attitude toward women in the workforce. Again from The Lady in the Spitfire:

“Barb,” (this was third and youngest of J.B.’s sisters) “wants to quit her job at Jacobsens and go work on the assembly line at Willow Run. She says they pay a lot better, but your father won’t hear of it.”

“I should hope not!” J.B. agreed. “Doesn’t she know what it’s like on those assembly lines? Work till you drop isn’t the worst of it! Jeez, Mom, I’ve heard the worst stories – you know, if a girl is so hot on being down there with a bunch of guys, then they figure there’s only one thing she wants!”

“Well, you talk to Barb about it. She says she knows lots of girls who’ve quit their ‘five-and-dime’ jobs to earn ‘real’ money, and she says they’re all nice girls.”

“Well, that may be what they were when they quit work at Jacobsens or whatever, but it sure the blazes isn’t what they are after they’ve been working in some aircraft factory for a few months!

In the next example, also focussing on women in the work force, I focus on another aspect of job discrimination. This time not sexual, just stereotyping. It too is from The Lady in the Spitfire and describes the USAAF.

“I mean, can you believe it? I’m a great driver and I can fix a tire or change a spark plug better than half the guys in the motor pool. They send me over here, which I thought was because I was so good. But when I get here I find out I’ve been assigned to the motor pool, alright – as a clerk! I’m not allowed to drive anything! Just sit in the office and keep track of who’s driving what. It’s crazy!”

The below example from Chasing the Wind is set in a Salvation Army Seaman’s mission in Portsmouth England during the early summer of 1940, and again addresses attitudes toward women working.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” He put his look into words.

Chasing the Wind: A Story of British and German Pilots in the Battle of Britain“What makes you think I’m a nice girl?” Emily quipped back without even thinking, falling back into the kind of repartee that was so much a part of her university days.

He laughed, but retorted without missing a beat, “Innocent until proven guilty – or some such thing.” The he gave her another quick but observant glance.“So what are you doing here?” He pressed her.

“Oh, well, in case you missed it, there is a war on, and I wanted to do something useful.”

“Most girls seem to be flocking to the Women’s Services – WRNS and WAAFs and all that. A bit more glamorous than the Salvation Army, surely?”

“Well,” Emily drew a deep breath to answer his question with sufficient forcefulness to assure him that she was not the kind who had eyes only for a uniform. “Glamour is not the issue. I simply don’t want to be a member of a military organization. I admit, Hitler has to be stopped and only military force is going to stop him now, but that does not mean I have to personally join an organization whose raison d’etre is war.”

“Well, it’s not as though the women’s services are being asked to carry guns or drop bombs. Most of what they do is just clerical, answering phones and all that,” the young man pointed out reasonably.

“That may be, but I’d still be part of an organization that quite frankly has been involved in a great deal of oppression – particularly in the colonies....”

Finally, after so much talk about “nice” girls, a dominating distinction throughout the period, I want to highlight the double standard of the time with an excerpt about the hero of Chasing the Wind. The scene takes place at his mother’s house, when his aunt comes upon him after a hasty telephone call.

“Just who was that?” Hattie asked giving him a piercing look.
“Virginia Cox-Gordon.”

Chasing the Wind: A Story of British and German Pilots in the Battle of BritainHattie’s eyebrows went up. She didn’t read the gossip pages, but many of her staff – and of course her sister Lydia – did. She knew exactly who Virginian Cox-Gordon was: daughter of a millionaire, debutante and “catch of the season” just last year, before the war started.

“You know your other girlfriends call my flat,” she told him in a low, reproachful voice.

“I’m sorry—“

“Just how many girls did you give my number to?”

“Only two.” He thought about it. “Three.”

Hattie sighed and gazed at him sadly.

“I am sorry they bothered you,” Robin insisted, looking contrite. “I told them not to call unless it was an absolute emergency, and—“

“Yes, well, I’m sure things look very different from your superior male perspective, but to us poor females here on the ground, the fact that you were last seen duelling with two Messerschmitts over the ruins of Calais in the midst of the worst rout in English history seemed very much like an ‘emergency.’ I can’t say I blame them, but I do wonder about you sometimes....”

Robin concluded this might not be the best time to ask her for Emily Pryce’s telephone number.

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