The 20th century’s two world wars played an important role in advancing women’s equality struggles. This much is fairly well known. The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, leading an army of women into factories and other non-traditional workplaces to replace the men who went off to war, has become one of feminism’s most recognized symbols.
But there were important equality struggles that took place outside of wartime industries, and outside of the wars themselves. These are the struggles that inform Sarah Lonsdale’s fascinating study Rebel Women Between the Wars. She’s interested in the equality gains that took place around the margins of feminism’s more well-established history, and some of the most important of these were forged during the interwar decades. From journalism to mountaineering, the gains these women cemented were all the more notable for not being directly related to the urgency of an ongoing war effort, unlike the more well-known factory workers.
Lonsdale’s book focuses particularly on women journalists, and mostly in the UK. Some of them published in non-traditional magazines — articles for mountaineering journals, for example. When journalist and mountaineer Dorothy Pilley wrote about her ascents for the widely-read Alpine Journal in the 1920s, she was breaching two frontiers: the male-dominated sphere of mountain climbing and the equally male-dominated sphere of writing about it in recreational magazines.
Other women published in obscure, little-known journals. During the Spanish Civil War, a number of women reporters arrived on the front lines as war correspondents, but most of them had only tenuous connections to small, relatively unknown, independent publications. Because the larger newspaper chains were reluctant to hire women as international correspondents, many of them wound up freelancing their way through conflict zones, which put them at far greater risk than their male counterparts. Their work nonetheless played an important role in portraying the nascent struggle against fascism to a western readership that was all too slowly waking up to the threat.
Even so, their role was often trivialized by editors. Virginia Cowles, who covered the Spanish Civil War for the Sunday Times as well as the Hearst newspaper chain, was given the bylines “American Girl” and “NY Society Girl”. Florence Roberts entered the civil war helping her father captain boats that ran fascist naval blockades to resupply Republican forces. The News Chronicle was amazed at the bravery of the 20-year old Welshwoman and commissioned her to write articles. They gave her the byline “Foodship Girl”.
Many of the early women reporters coupled their journalism with an ardent anti-fascism, and were equally willing to undertake secret missions of a partisan nature. The networks of informants that reporters cultivated, along with the obvious justification for their presence in sensitive conflict zones, gave them ideal cover for espionage work.
Shiela Grant Duff conveyed messages and information on fascist troop movements to Spanish Republican forces, and also looked for Republican agents who had gone missing in fascist-held territory. Elizabeth Wiskemann played a similarly important role in Germany, covering the Nazi rise to power in such critical depth she was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo over her reporting in the 1930s.
The world wars also brought new opportunities for women, and not just in the well-documented sense of filling wartime industrial labour gaps. The rapid expansion of non-partisan relief agencies to help refugees and civilians, many of them run by religious organizations like the Quakers, provided new outlets for women seeking non-traditional opportunities in life.
Francesca Wilson was one example of a lower-middle-class woman who sought a more adventurous, active life. Denied what few exciting work opportunities existed for women by dint of her social standing, she consigned herself to life as a schoolteacher, the one active role that was relatively accessible for women of her class. However, the First World War brought new opportunities. She eagerly applied to work abroad with wartime relief agencies and eventually succeeded.
Her diary offers a pleasantly honest confession of motives: she was after adventure and wanted to see the world. (I’m sure many relief workers are driven by similar motives however much they deny it.) Her initial applications to Quaker relief committees were denied because senior administrators suspected she was a proto-feminist adventurer. They were right, but she proved immensely capable both at relief work as well as journalism, which became important to support that effort.
The intersection of religious-motivated relief work and journalism offers one of those interesting examples of a feminist gain that reshaped the industry in which it occurred. The religious groups spearheading wartime relief work–such as the Quakers–also produced newsletters. They actively encouraged relief workers to write articles about their experiences in war zones and relief camps, since these accounts played such an important role in soliciting donations to fund the relief agencies’ continued work. Many women writers and journalists not only got their first experience of the world abroad through working for Quaker relief agencies but also did their first writing for these newsletters.
Denied direct access to the front lines as well as the traditional corridors of power and the male policymakers who inhabited them, they instead focused on writing about what they saw: the suffering that politicians and armies left in their wake. They wrote about refugees, about towns and villages struggling to rebuild, about injured and disfigured soldiers returning home. Their attention to the human dimension of war and conflict created an entirely new type of journalism and an avid audience for it. Much of the genre of conflict journalism was developed and built by these early women reporters.
Women’s friendship networks were important in this process, and Lonsdale pays them special attention. The friendship of journalists Alison Settle and Edith Shackleton, which comprises the bulk of one chapter, offers an example of the important friendships that mingled the personal with the professional. Settle was editor of British Vogue in the ’20s and ‘30s; Shackleton became the first female parliamentary correspondent in the UK during the same period, and later worked as chief literary critic for the Evening Standard.
The two women supported each other not only personally but also by promoting each other’s work and helping each other find work opportunities throughout their careers. Archived correspondence between other women writers and journalists also reveals the importance of these wide-ranging friendship networks for women’s careers at a time when all of them faced deeply institutionalized sexism. Lonsdale explores several of these friendships.
Such networks could also work to disadvantage women, she observes. Close friendship networks sometimes engendered generational conflict, with women in senior leadership positions working to deny opportunity to younger generations of women whose views they feared and distrusted as being too radical. Of course, this dynamic is not exclusive to women, but it’s important to bear in mind that networks of influential women were not an unmitigated force for progress and change. They could also restrain feminist progress when professionally established women attempted to regulate the more demanding attitudes and expectations of younger generations of women.
Rebel Women Between the Wars is a fascinating study, exploring the lesser-known but equally vital gains that occurred along the margins of mainstream feminist history. Lonsdale’s work touches on the lives and careers of dozens of women who contributed to the broader momentum of feminist progress yet whose names are mostly forgotten today.
While feminist movement studies often generalize about the collapse of the organized women’s movement after suffrage victories in the early 20th century, Lonsdale argues the movement didn’t collapse but transformed. “[T]he movement simply altered its cellular chemistry, as it were, and the fight was joined not just by large, single-issue organisations but by thousands of smaller groups and individual women enacting multiple assaults upon the fortress of the masculine public sphere, often in intensely private and personal ways,” she writes.
Facing a backlash from the male sphere following the suffrage movement, women started pushing for change in new ways, keeping a culture of resistance alive in the process. Their methods encompassed direct action, intellectual activism (writing, journalism, lawsuits), as well as acts of everyday resistance like studying engineering, climbing mountains, or becoming a freelancer in order to cover conflicts abroad. By deploying a biographical approach to these women’s lives, Lonsdale not only helps to recover them as fascinating, vibrant individuals; she also makes the book an accessible, gripping read.
Rebel Women Between the Wars is an accessible academic study and a compelling read, but perhaps most importantly it offers a ray of hope at a time when women are still grappling with many of the same challenges that characterized the interwar period a century ago: the rise of fascism, male backlash, bigotry and organized hate movements.
There are interesting parallels here with queer struggles. Much as feminist activists lamented the fragmentation of the suffrage movement after winning their goals in the early 20th century, some queer activists today lament the lack of a large organized rights movement akin to that which won the struggle for equal marriage in the early twenty-first; especially at a time when there is a profound backlash against queer and trans rights.
Yet the proliferation of smaller activist groups, fighting for trans rights and against the wave of homophobic legislation gripping many parts of the world, reminds us that the struggle continues even while its form changes. These individual women and their close-knit personal and professional networks continued to change the world a century ago even without a structured movement, and their contemporary counterparts will no doubt continue to do so today, often in ways that are indiscernible until they are reflected on decades later.