Thursday 3 March 2016

Women and the War

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The copious records of women's work in connection with the war with which the newspapers teem daily are of the highest significance. They indicate that the women of the United Kingdom are all alive to the gravity of the situation and to the supreme call of public duty. Everywhere women are asking themselves what they can do to help the Empire in its supreme struggle; what they can do to inspire our troops with courage; to arouse men to rally to the standard; to provide needful comforts for soldiers in the trenches; to nurse the wounded; to do work of every sort for the production of munitions and for the maintenance of all branches of industry; to initiate methods of saving so as to economise our resources; to make personal sacrifices commensurate with the necessities of the times; in a word, to do what they can to win a speedy and decisive victory over our enemies. But the public reports in the newspapers give us only a very small account of the work in which women are actually engaged in this terrible conflict. From countless homes women are sending to sons, and husbands, and brothers and lovers in the camp, the fruits of their hard work and affection. They are denying themselves many a coveted indulgence, and foregoing many a legitimate luxury, that they may minister to the men who have gone forth to fight for their defence and to lay down their lives for their country. Not only so, they are suffering bravely in private the sorrows of the war; the sorrows of bereavement for the brave men who have fallen in battle; the agony of suspense for lives dearer than their own who are in daily peril on land or sea or air. The war has aroused the womanhood of the United Kingdom as it never was aroused before. It is said that at the present moment there are not fewer than 200,000 women engaged in war contracts! These women belong to no trades union and threaten no strikes. They work at severe manual labour week in week out full hours, and get through their full tale of work. In addition to this noble army of women workers in our great centres of munition factories, we have on many of our railways women ticket-collectors, and booking-clerks; we have in the public service women letter-carriers, policemen, tram and bus conductors and commissionaires; we have an increase of lift-attendants, of scavengers, of grocer-assistants, gardeners, chauffeurs, and van-drivers. All these and far more have pressed into the fields of industry to take the place of men who have gone into the ranks of the fighters. Surely these women are doing their duty in the present distress. My chief fear of them is that they may be over-worked, and our politicians would be doing a great public service if they would cease debating in Parliament and take effective measures for their protection.

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Higher in the scale of social service is the great company of woman who have dedicated themselves to nursing. Multitudes have abandoned ease and luxury and devoted themselves to the severe drudgeries of the hospital. Ladies of wealth and fashion have enlisted themselves in the ranks of those who scrub the floors of hospital wards, who make poultices for the wounded, or moisten the fevered lips of the dying. The discipline they undergo, the dangers they incur, the sacrifices they voluntarily make, the stern sense of duty which they manifest, the skill with which they organise the British Red Cross Society, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and the voluntary aid detachments, the private hospitals which were sent to Serbia, where they grappled with the insoluble problem of an army ill-supplied with medical comforts and attacked by various deadly epidemics, the ambulances which were sent to the French, Russian, and Belgian fronts, required courage of the very highest order. Who shall say that such a nurse as Miss Cavell did not stand in the very foremost rank of heroism? And hundreds of nurses just as brave as she are at this moment giving their lives for the alleviation of suffering in the face of deadly epidemics or the constant peril of the emissaries of the Kaiser. The women of the United Kingdom surely never showed to greater advantage than in the present crisis. The Empire needs them, and they have left home and kindred, ease and culture, positions of affluence and refinement to put down their hands, to spend their days and nights, to devote their brains and spirit in the Divine work of ministry. It was fortunate for us that for a generation we had been diligently pursuing a new and better ideal of womanhood than ever before. The education of women had departed from the old school of artistic accomplishments, and had entered upon the much saner pursuit of genuine mental development and bodily culture which were necessary for the creation of a race of strong and gentle women. In the open air, in active pursuits, in the bracing atmosphere of public and private duty, a new generation of women had unconsciously prepared themselves for the crisis which the war had suddenly brought upon us, and hence it has come to pass that the women of the Empire were just as well prepared as the men for the rough tasks of the emergency. Womanhood is playing a noble part in the whole campaign, and marks a miraculous advance in the whole standard of our civilisation. There is a beautiful passage in the Divina Comedia of Dante, in which the great poet describes his ascent towards Paradise in company with his young heroine Beatrice, and he rightly measures the degrees of his ascent by the growing beauty and brightness of Beatrice's face. There is no test of civilisation so good as this. It is the splendour of woman's face that is the measure of our progress, and surely it is the face of British womanhood at the present time that marks our position in the present and projects our destiny in the near future. Whilst this war lasts nothing will so fire the men of the Empire as the thought that their women must be protected from the brutality of the savages who outraged Belgium; and nothing will so hearten the Empire for the future as the knowledge that in the new order which victory will secure there will be a kingdom for the enthronement of the noblest type of womanhood which this world has ever seen.

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The British Empire is going to be saved by its women. It is British women who are saving our industries now and are nursing our wounded. It is British women who are to plan our economies in the future, and to teach the coming generation to bear bravely the burdens of the entail of the war. I will go further, and say that it is British women who are to save our politics from degradation and ruin. They will purify our public life from selfish venality. They will shame out of existence the self-seeking political parasites who have fastened upon the Empire, and who bleed it of its very life-blood. All this they will do in the woman's way, by taking their full share of duty and responsibility in public life, and by building up for us pure homes on the foundations of religion and liberty. There is an Italian proverb to the effect that man builds the house, but woman builds the home. Let men do their part and women will do theirs. It is the house now that is in danger. If we fail to protect it, then there is nothing left. But if we secure the house and drove the German Boeche back to his own land, then the home will come all right, and the wife and mother will rule it with a sceptre strong in its integrity and gentle in its love.

Mr. Buchan, in his history of the war, says of the women of Britain -- "From the beginning they realised the gravity of the struggle. The women's movement in recent years had given to a large class a special organisation and discipline, which was turned to admirable purpose. The leaders of that movement in the Press and on the platform did a great work in rousing the nation, and none dealt more trenchantly with counsels of supineness and peace." This is true; and it furnishes the best answer that has yet been given of the capacity of women to deal with the subject of war. For years we have refused to give women the vote because it was believed that they would embarrass the Empire in dealing with the question of war. It now turns out that the women of the nation have far clearer ideas and for more capacity for forming a policy for its prosecution than the male politicians who refused them the franchise. A Cabinet of women could hardly have been guilty of the blunders which have been practised by the Asquith Cabinet. They would not have gambled with 200,000 men, the very flower of the British race, in the Dardanelles fiasco; and they would have drowned in the depths of the sea that prolific parent of all our misfortunes, "wait and see," unless, indeed, they had been a Cabinet of very "old women." The war will bring about new adjustments in reference to the political status of women. It will become abhorrent to all patriotic men to refuse a vote to such women as Miss Cavell, and give it to every slacker and shirker whose only known qualification is the boast that he belongs to "the superior sex.” The Empire owes already far too much to its noble women to refuse any lawful demand they may make in the future. Other adjustments will also necessarily follow, in the field of industry, in the field of commerce, in the field of scholarship, in the manifold fields of public and private life.

This article by "Southern Presbyterian" appeared in The Witness, 3rd March 1916.

1 comment:

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