Appreciation of WWI Heroines on International Women’s Day: “My dear lady, go home and sit still!”

So infamously said a war office official to Dr Elsie Inglis, who did not go home and sit still, but instead founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

I love the attention that historical figures get on International Women’s Day. I love the appreciation that women involved in the First World War now receive — so different from thirty, twenty, even ten years ago (when the wikipedia articles I’m linking to didn’t even exist. And no, I didn’t write them). I read with interest this article on Huffington Post about women rockin’ the boat during WWI, now making the rounds on twitter. No going home. No sitting still. I’m really glad of the well-served attention Elsie Inglis is finally receiving, including a residence in Belgrade being names after her. But it made me wonder, is that the most commonly used quote regarding women and the First World War?

Asked to name women who contributed to the war effort and you get the same list of names. Vera Brittain. Edith Cavell. Elsie Inglis. Flora Sandes. Marie Chisholm and Elsie Knocker. The same people over and over again. It’s in danger of becoming a cliche.

Don’t get me wrong. I think these women are kick-ass. And I do find it slightly ironic that many of them are part of a story of the war far removed from the usual tale of mud and blood in the trenches of the Western Front. Elsie Inglis and Flora Sandes have become canonized as part of the women’s roles in wartime story, yet the Balkan front is so far from being recognized as part of the great war that most people have never even heard of Salonika. How can these women be IN Britian’s war story, but not OF it?

Let’s widen the story. Let’s include everyone! Everywhere! And let’s talk about some new women. There were a lot of women making waves during the first world war. These articles do include a few others as well as the usual suspects. Here are some of my favourites:

Isabel Galloway Emslie Hutton
Isabel Galloway Emslie Hutton

Isabel Emslie Hutton
Another woman doctor who received a similar response to her initial offer of her services to the war office. Dr Hutton (Emslie was her maiden name) joined the SWH, served in France, Greece, and Serbia, made advances in the treatment of malaria on top of running a surgical word and later, and entire hospital. After the war she went on aid missions to the war-torn Crimea and malarial Albania, and when she returned home she fought for the right of women doctors to continue practicing after marriage, pioneered developments in modern psychiatry, and wrote a sex manual that went through ten editions and was in print for over forty years.

Olive King
Olive King

Olive King
An Australian adventurer and poet Olive King was accidentally arrested in Belgium as a spy before joining the SWH where she made friends with Hutton and drove an ambulance before enlisting as a driver in the Serbian Army. She was made Sergeant, awarded for her bravery during the great fire of Salonika, and founded a canteen organisation to aid the Serbian army and the starving population at tail end of the war.

Elsie Corbett and her brother, from Red Cross in Serbia
Elsie Corbett and her brother, from Red Cross in Serbia

Elsie Corbett
A socialite through-and-through, during the First World War Corbett did her socialising on the Balkan front. Being too young to volunteer for France, Corbett joined a hospital in Serbia because both she and her father enjoyed how the prospect scandalised their more conventional friends. She worked as a VAD until she was taken prisoner by the invading Austro-Hungarian army. After repatriation, she and her partner Kathleen Dillion joined the SWH as drivers where they caused no small amount of scandal with everything from their inability to cook to their inability to be follow discipline. After their triumphant advance on Belgrade, Corbett and Dillion retired to a life of leisure, travelling to visit their wartime friends who scattered around the world, and establishing a donkey sanctuary and abolishing the pub (hey, no one’s perfect) in Dillion’s native village in Oxfordshire.

Katharine Harley's funeral, © IWM (Q 32783)
Katherine Harley’s funeral, © IWM (Q 32783)

Katherine Harley
Revered and reviled in turns by all who worked with her (including the three women mentioned above), Harley was a formidable lady. When she found she couldn’t keep the SWH transport unit under her thumb, she went to Monastir (which was still being heavily shelled) to do relief work, where she was killed by shrapnel in March 1917. Her death cause a huge stir in Britain and especially among the community in Salonika, where her funeral because a spectacle of officials and royalty. A Serbian minister gave a speech including the words: “Noble daughter of a great nation, though not a sister of ours by birth, still dear to us as a true sister…” There’s a memorial to her in the military cemetery at Salonika to this day.

I could go on. There’s more interesting women where they came from. There’s also more interesting women from every front. Let’s not stop there!

Contraception during WWI

A few months ago I found myself in need of knowing what access a feisty, experienced but unmarried girl would have to birth control in 1917. I took myself to the quick and dirty fountain of information, Wikipedia, where I learned that the most common methods of contraception at this time were condoms and cervical caps.

The US was the only army during the war that did not distribute condoms to their troops (figures; but this must have changed by the mid-twentieth century because I remember it being mentioned in ANGELA’S ASHES). But a girl with a trusted friend or lover in one of the other armies could potentially use the soldier as a source of contraception.

The US promoted abstinence during WWI rather than providing troops with condoms. Very effective. Source: Wikipedia
The US promoted abstinence during WWI rather than providing troops with condoms. Very effective. Source: Wikipedia

I was surprised to read about how common cervical caps were, but it’s not difficult to see they have many advantages over condoms, being reusable and in the woman’s control. They needed to be professionally fitted, so an unmarried girl wishing to use a cervical cap would need access to either a sympathetic physician or one not questioning fabricated martial status.

I read with interest Lesley A Hall’s post on contraception in the 1920s following an episode in Downton Abbey. Sadly I stopped being able to enjoy Downton Abbey after a hideously inappropriate incident of sexual violence, so I didn’t see this scene but it’s exactly the sort of thing that interests me. I was somewhat surprised by Hall’s assertion that it was unlikely the character would settle on condoms as her contraceptive of choice. I assumed that, given their availability and ease of use, condoms would have been a popular choice for preventing pregnancy. But perhaps their association with the prevention of venereal disease made them unpopular amongst otherwise respectable girls. How common was condom use amongst monogamous couples, married or otherwise?

The use of “sheaths” is very common in romance novels, but these usually depict an earlier era when the cervical cap was not yet invented, and also might be an example of a benign anachronism, where the promotion of safe sex takes precedence over strict historical accuracy.

I haven’t come across any overt discussions of contraceptive use in my research, but perhaps that is unsurprising. Descriptions of sexual activity, if present at all, tend to use such coded language that I wonder whether I just have an overactive imagination and I’m reading too much between the lines.

So what seems the most likely scenario? A cervical cap, fitted by a sympathetic doctor? Condoms acquired through either a trusted friend or by the man in question himself? Or an even older, less effective method of birth control? More research needed, I think. Perhaps at the British Library rather than Google.

To be continued…