Learning from a marvellous regiment of women (or, What I Did Last Weekend)

There is something utterly exhilarating about attending a conference for, about and run predominantly by women and the Women’s History Network‘s annual conference, Home Fronts: Gender, War & Conflict, was no exception.

It took place in the former Worcester Royal Infirmary, presided over in its time by a succession of innovative Matrons, and concluded in the grounds of the former Stanbrook Abbey, built in 1871 as home for an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns, founders of the one of the oldest private presses in England.

As a member of the judging panel for the WHN Community History Prize, sponsored by the History Press, it was a privilege to congratulate the winners, St Ives Archives, for their fantastic research into the women textile workers of the town.  The judging process was a tricky job since the panel were presented with such a high calibre of community-focussed research projects carried out by and about women.  It was exciting to find such enthusiasm for uncovering the hidden stories of women’s experience, led in many cases by first-time researchers, guided or supported by professionals.  The creativity and assurance with which their findings were presented bodes well for the continued promulgation of contributions to the field.

Although the focus lay on Home Fronts of the C20th, there were a number of papers relating to earlier history that demonstrated the universality of key themes.  One such was a thread concerning the forms of relief and support for wives and families surviving during their husbands’ time away at the front.  Susan Mary Grant led, in the first keynote, with her examination of the Dislocations of the Home Front for Southern women during the American Civil War, when the Front was literally camped in some of these women’s front yards.

The next day, John Black’s paper on the influence of the Women Volunteers in the Army Pay Office at Woolwich during 1914 in distributing separation allowance and outdoor relief, demonstrated that behind every faceless administrative system, there are people who work to ensure that it is as humane as possible.  This thread was picked up in Paul Huddie’s investigation into Victims or Survivors: army wives in Ireland during the Crimean War.  Curious as to why so many Irish wives were not claiming the relief payments to which they were entitled from the Royal Patriotic Fund, Huddie uncovered evidence that some feared to apply lest their Catholic children were whisked away to be converted by the Anglican administration (not the case, protested the Bishop in the press), or were indeed making their own way by taking work in service or as shirt-makers in the army towns.

Appropriately for the location and the date (the anniversary of the Battle of Worcester falls on 3 September),  some papers examined women’s experience during the English Civil Wars.  A standout for me was Talya Housman’s paper Two English Scripts of Ravishment: Divisions between Royalist and Parliamentarian Utilisation of Rape, which focussed on the C17th legal definition of ‘ravishment’:  to seize (property) by violence.  In the Royalist scripts examined by Talya, the consent of the woman was of lesser importance than the representation of rape as theft of property from a man: a husband or father.  To the Parliamentarians, however, the scripts act as a metaphor for the polis: an emerging idea of an offence against the person, without their consent. So, just as a woman is sexually assaulted against her will, so, the Parliamentarian script reads, King Charles ruled without the consent of the people and stole their freedom of action.  The offence is still viewed through the filter of male experience, but at least a step closer to understanding that a woman might not be a mere chattel after all…

I could go on – with apologies to those whose papers I have travestied in an attempt to summarise them.  There were so many elements to take in.  I was thrilled to chair Deborah Thom’s outstanding keynote on how the Imperial War Museum has presented the Public History of Women and War since its establishment in 1917; whilst conversations over coffee cups  about Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the protocols of grief in time of war, the visual rhetoric of the women’s recruiting poster and the hierarchies of women’s work will keep me thinking for a long while yet.  I would like to say many thanks to the Women’s History Network for my bursary – I hope that the work I produce as a result will prove it was well worth the investment!

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