Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson is subtitled Women’s Lives During the Second World War. I read about this book on someone’s blog, one which I regularly visit, but sadly I can’t remember which one. Anyway I thought that after reading two books recently which were mainly about men in the war, I thought this would be a nice change, it was more than that, it was really interesting. This book was first published in 2011, just in time really as by then an awful lot of women who were active during the war were already dead. The wartime home economist Marguerite Patten features in the book and of course, she died recently. The Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison also features in it, another one no longer with us.
Inevitably a book like this has culled material from various other books on the subject, so some of Nella Last’s diary extracts appear too. It’s about every aspect of women’s lives at the time, from having to take in refugees from Belgium and Holland, or children from London. Choosing which service to join if you were unmarried, apparently thousands applied to join the Wrens (Navy) because the uniform was much more flattering than the others, and the hat was very fetching!
Those who ended up working in factories often had to put up with men who were resentful that the women were there, so they played tricks on them all the time, or the boss seemed to think that putting up with being groped by him was in the job description.
All in all it was a tough time for women, some of them might have enjoyed the friendship of their colleagues, especially if they had lived very narrow lives until then, but others were obviously happy to marry just about any chap to get pregnant and escape back to civilian life.
As you would expect, it seems that the strict moral code which most middle and working class women adhered to went out the window when you didn’t know whether you would wake up in the morning or you would be killed by a bomb.
At the end of the war, when the men eventually began to trickle home again, it wasn’t all milk and honey, with the husbands being keen to get back to the way things had been before, with them being head of the house. Seemingly they had no idea that the women had had things so tough. In some ways it was easier for those who were off in the services, they had their food put down to them and didn’t have to worry about clothing coupons as they were in uniform. It must have been quite a shock to see how much work went into just trying to get enough food when they got back to civvy street.
The book mentions that one woman in the ATS put on 2 stones in weight during the war, because they were being fed stodge I suppose, and I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere that you could tell the women who had been in the forces because they all looked bloated. I had already noticed that from photos I had been shown by women I’ve known over the years.
There’s a small bit in the book about women who had been conscientious objectors, apparently they were given a tougher time than their male counterparts. As the women would never have to kill anyone it seems that they were seen as just trying to dodge doing anything at all. The one man that I knew who was a ‘conshy’ during the war actually had a really awful time of it as he accepted work as an ambulance driver in London, which meant that a lot of his time was spent in gathering up body parts and taking them to a hospital mortuary. There were women doing the same thing, really it’s a wonder they didn’t all go mad.
Peacetime brought divorce for a lot of couples who had married in haste, hardly knowing each other at all, and never really expecting to survive the war. For the GI brides things were even more precarious. Think of leaving your own family behind to be with someone you hardly know in a strange country. Not being able to run home when your husband started beating you up is a distinct disadvantage. No doubt some of the marriages were successful, but I remember my mother telling me that she knew a few girls who had been GI brides and went off to the US – all starry eyed, no doubt thinking of Hollywood, but when they got there they discovered that their husband’s home town was way out in the sticks, a sort of one horse town and definitely stuck in the past as far as the brides were concerned. What a disappointment!
Back to the book, it was a time of huge social upheaval obviously and working class women and ‘toffs’ were thrown together as they had never been before, an education for all concerned no doubt. I haven’t mentioned the make-up, apparently it was thought that women should wear make up, as a moral booster for everyone. I rarely use the stuff but I do admire that generation of women who had so much pride that they never opened their front door if they didn’t have their lipstick on (my mother) – but I hadn’t realised it was encouraged by the government!
This book used diaries, autobiographies, memoirs and interviews with the few who are still around. A very good read.