By Jenny Wilbraham
At the beginning of twentieth century Britain, the well-established ideal role of womanhood was one of powerlessness in a patriarchal society. Woman:
the keeper of morality,
the epitome of purity,
the guardian of religion,
of submissiveness ( to men),
of obedience and self-control,
Her role was to make the home a sanctuary for her family and her husband, the breadwinner.
The intellectual woman was frowned upon, thought of as a freak.
Public visibility was often associated with loose sexuality;
her clothing was restrictive.
She was thought of as delicate and physically weak, and had to be protected from harsh experiences because her reproductive organs made her physically ,emotionally and intellectually frail.
‘The home, the last middle-class refuge to which a man could retreat from the soul-destroying horrors of the marketplace, would be destroyed when women were made “unfit” for that refuge by education and career. With women joined in the crass and ignoble jungle battle for economic advantage, the home without its guiding spirit and votary would cease to be anything but a structure [void of] such necessary virtues as grace, gentleness, beauty, courtesy, and piety). (259-60).
Cogan, Frances B, (1989).All-American Girl: The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America
The roots of such beliefs ran deep, shaping the restrictions on education, career opportunities, voting rights, social freedom and marriage rights for women.
In 1862, John Stuart Mill laid before Parliament the request for women to be granted the power to vote in Parliamentary elections. It was thought that the granting of the vote to women would eventually lead to greater reforms. – It was rejected.
This lead in 1897 to the formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, (The Suffragists) lead by Millicent Fawcett.
In 1903, six years later, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (the main Suffragette movement).
The Suffragists believed that respect for the law, reasoned debate and persistence would eventually win over the Government. However, the Suffragettes, frustrated by thirty seven years of failure thought otherwise.
1904 The Suffragettes went to war.
Their first tactic was to disrupt the campaign meetings of the Liberal Party, which was led by Prime Minister Asquith who was against women’s suffrage.
- Saw the first arrests of Suffragettes for disruption of a Liberal Party meeting in Manchester and the first of many imprisonments for public order offences over the next few years.
Criticism in the press was rife and often depicted the protestors as mad.
‘a bedlam..all sense of decency lost..it was a melancholy and disheartening spectacle; and the pity of it was that they were very often women who in saner moments would be treated with tender respect as gentle ladies’.
C.P. Scott –The Manchester Guardian
The campaign of civil disobedience was extended to include hunger strikes by imprisoned Suffragettes as a protest against the refusal to grant them the status of political prisoners. The result was violent forced feeding.
In November 1910, the police were ordered to break up the march of 10,000 Suffragettes to the Houses of Parliament.
Violence against women had sunk to new depths. The police tried unsuccessfully to prevent publication of this photograph in The Daily Mirror:
As the First World War loomed, the Suffragettes’ violence escalated. They resorted to setting fire to post-boxes, smashing the windows of public buildings and arson by fire-bombing.
In 1913 Emily Davison was killed by a horse’s hooves when protesting at The Derby.
Meanwhile, the Suffragists pursued a different course of action. They campaigned peacefully and relentlessly by petitioning and keeping the issue of women’s votes on the political agenda until the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.
By August 1914, neither the law-abiding non-violent approach of The Suffragists, nor the violence of The Suffragettes had worked. The male- only government was still denying women the vote. If we look beyond all the political campaigning, all the violence and the publicity, it is clear that the age-old attitudes and beliefs about womanliness still prevailed amongst the British parliamentary establishment and large sections of society.
Nevertheless, despite political failure, upper middle-class women were experiencing less resistance in other areas. The Slade Art School had admitted women since its inception in 1871; many provincial art schools provided opportunities for women, even though the Royal Academy art schools remained as bastions of male privilege. Girls’ schools were offering a high standard of education. Universities and some professions had started to admit a trickle of women. Opportunities for travel were broadening experience and boosting confidence.
Furthermore, the pre-war Suffragette campaigns in industrial towns had generated awareness and support amongst the women, many of whom had acquired a basic education, and a small number had benefited from scholarships to grammar schools. Despite the lack of connections and the privileges accorded to the affluent classes, many were confident and exercised a modicum of power within their own community.
August 1914 – Outbreak of the First World War
A wave of patriotism swept through Britain, and it was then that Millicent Fawcett came into her own.
All campaigning for women’s suffrage ceased as Suffragettes and Suffragists alike rallied to her call
‘.war makes a call upon women for service’.
Patriotism and Propaganda
For the first two years of the war, all recruits to the armed services were volunteers. Conscription did not exist. The Government recognised how vitally important it was to persuade men to volunteer, thus it set up the Parliamentary Recruitment Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Asquith himself. The committee recognised the vital role propaganda could play in targeting the ordinary young men it needed in the army. It was the first time propaganda played one of the major roles in army recruitment, and part of that propaganda required the creation of persuasive posters.
In December, 1914, one of the first artists the Recruitment Committee turned to was 46 year-old Lucy Kemp-Welch, amazingly, despite Kemp-Welch’s sympathies for the Suffragette movement and Asquith’s stubborn opposition to women’s suffrage. Kemp-Welch was part of the usually conservative art establishment, probably for two reasons; first, she was known to be a strong opponent of Modernism in art and secondly, she was respected as possibly the best painter of animals in Britain at the time. She had the distinction in 1897 of having one of her paintings purchased by the Tate Gallery, only the third woman to be accorded that honour. She became chair of the Animal Painters Society in 1914. Kemp-Welch responded by producing the art work for a poster.
The painting deserves to stand as art in its own right. The aggression, speed, power and overwhelming dominance of this muscular mount, nostrils flared, muscles bulging are intended to be terrifying. The effect is intensified by positioning the viewer at close quarters and lower than the horse. There is nothing in the washed-out background to detract attention from this fearsome weapon of war. The message is clear: The British will crush the enemy beneath their feet.
However as propaganda, the days of posters like these were numbered. Yes, representational art could be expected to appeal to the majority of the population. Nevertheless, cavalry charges belonged more to the Napoleonic Wars than to the attritional trench warfare and the gas attacks. As the war ground on, and tanks appeared in 1916, it was becoming evident that the use of cavalry was becoming anachronistic. The particular skills of Kemp-Welch were no longer needed by the Recruitment Committee. Her war-horse paintings, inspired by her observations at the Royal Artillery Bulford Camp, were rejected.
The Class Divide
Middle and Upper Class Women
As men volunteered for the armed forces, upper middle-class women offered their voluntary services to the war effort. Voluntary organisations blossomed, overwhelmingly peopled by confident, upper and middle-class women. For example, The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry sent some members to work as volunteer ambulance drivers and nurses close to The Front. Others worked as nurses at home.
When war broke out, 37% of the workforce (excluding domestic servants) already consisted of women, mainly working class women. Most were employed in the textile mills where the work was hard, unhealthy and unglamorous. These women therefore, were tough and no strangers to paid employment when the campaign began in 1915 to recruit more women as replacements in factories for men who had volunteered for the army. Also there was a rapidly increasing demand for women workers in the munitions factories.
This poster, by Baden-Powell projects a conventional view of men and women at war, with its comforting, hierarchical structure. At the top of the hierarchy, the nation is being defended by soldiers and sailors. The eye is then drawn down to the dominant figure of the blacksmith, doing men’s work, with the two smaller ( and therefore less-important) female workers , the one a middle-class nurse in the conventional role of carer, the other a factory worker. The importance of a Boy Scout is ridiculously over-emphasised.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information was recognising that the power of art to act as propaganda could be extended beyond posters. In a bid to attract more working-class women into industrial production, it commissioned Flora Lion, a society portrait painter, to visit munitions factories in Leeds and Bradford and to produce paintings of working class women at work.
The painting conveys a range of messages. By setting it in a women only environment, Lion is suggesting safety. The sergeant’s and lance-corporal’s stripes, visible on the sleeves of a woman seated on the left and the woman on the far-right, hint at a disciplined and orderly working atmosphere. The two central figures are arms-linked in companionship, and there is a youthful, elegant attractiveness about the woman holding the gaze of the artist, always useful for the selling of an idea or product. There is also an appeal to supporters of the Suffrage movement in the togetherness of the two central figures and the assertive stance of the woman on the far right. The purple and greens of the palette are those of the Suffragette movement.
Nevertheless, the painting was rejected without payment first by the Ministry of Information and then the newly-formed (1917) Women’s Work Sub-committee (WWS) of the equally new Imperial War Museum. It was eventually donated to the IWM in 1927 by her family.
Women in the Forces
By the end of 1915, the war on the Western Front was at stalemate with the realisation that the war would not end quickly. Thus, the compulsory registration for work of all women was brought in. The armed forces needed more men to both replace those killed and to swell their ranks. In January 1916, conscription was brought in, followed soon by the formation of the official Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and finally, in 1918, The Women’s Royal Air Force.
The command structure of the WAAC differed from that of the men’s army, it strongly reinforced class divisions. At the top was a well-connected Edinburgh doctor, Mrs Chalmers Watson. Instead of officers there were ‘controllers’, ‘administrators’, and instead of NCOs there were forewomen, deemed to be working-class.
The Compulsory Registration of all Women for Work
This 1917 painting by New Zealander Edith Collier demonstrates not only the numbers of women signing up for registration at The Labour Exchange, but shows the cultural change that was taking place. Alongside the staidly-skirted, hatted, demure, conventional women, a modern woman, skirted and trousered for practical action is striding out round the room. There’s an atmosphere of busyness. The war was changing far more than the balance of political power in Europe, and presumably more than men like Baden Powell liked. Moreover, Collier has eschewed the staid, conventional representational style in favour of the voguish Expressionism.
Nevertheless, this was a step too far for many and Collier was forced to return to anonymity in New Zealand, spending her post-war years as an unpaid hand on the family farm, her skill as an artist unrecognised.
The Creation of The Imperial War Museum and its Women’s Work Sub-committee
The IWM was tasked with creating a record of the experience of World War One. Reluctantly, the main committee agreed to the formation of The Women’s Work sub-committee.
Although the leading figures Agnes Conway and Lady Priscilla Norman were both powerfully connected and had themselves gained first-hand experience as nurses behind the front line, they had to fight against male opposition to the inclusion of the work of women artists in their collection. Art was only added to their remit in 1918. Before that, women artists had been shamefully treated, particularly by the War Memorials Committee. Only Kemp-Welch, Flora Lion, Anna Airy and Dorothy Coke had been approached to produce work, and Kemp Welch had been the only one who was actually paid for anything.
The budget that the Women’s Work Sub-committee was granted by the main all-male committee was paltry. Again this is indicative of the lack of recognition accorded to women for their war work and their standing as artists.
Yet Conway and Norman, both Suffragist sympathisers, were determined that the importance of women’s work should be recognised and deemed worthy of the vote. Unfortunately, neither was an artist and both were Suffragist sympathisers. Thus, they favoured a non-confrontational, representational style of painting, and certainly they would never have been able to accept a painting like this.
The Vorticist, Helen Saunders, produced this composition in 1915, inspired by the war, but the WWS would never have considered it as it was not representational. It emerged from obscurity when the artist’s sister presented it to The Tate in 1963.
The WWS turned to Anna Airy, another well-connected artist, who was commissioned towards the end of the war to produce paintings showing women at work in heavy industry. At least she was remunerated, but only for half the fee that had been negotiated.
Her atmospheric painting, Women Working in a Gas Retort house, shows the bravery of women, clad in trousers, applying all their strength to operating heavy machinery and in danger of explosion death from burning or scalding, certainly a long way from Cogan’s
‘such necessary virtues as grace, gentleness, beauty, courtesy, and piety’.(2)
Here, Airy employs chiaroscuro to good effect to increase the painting’s hellish atmosphere. The fluidity of the steam and flames contrasts well with the dark angular shapes of the machinery, but the artist views the scene from a distance, slightly diminishing its effect.
Middle Class Women at Work on the Home Front
The WWS saw it as important to cover a broad spectrum of women’s work on the Home Front. Clare Atwood was commissioned to paint the activities of middle-class women working in the voluntary sector, important since they were the ones likeliest to gain the vote.
In this painting, Atwood shows the work of The Green Cross Corps, who from 1916-1919 worked at major stations around the country guiding returning injured soldiers to waiting ambulances. Atwood creates an atmosphere of busyness about this painting, a milling crowd of soldiers emerging from the gloom of the station (the war at The Front ?) into the light of comforting families and women in uniform. Uniformed women had excited derision in some quarters, even when, as here, they are wearing skirts.The arch dominating the structure emphasises this dichotomy. The eye is drawn through the station concourse by the white cloud of billowing steam to the light beyond the arches in the background which frame a church, signifying the existence of Christianity in the land to which the soldiers were returning. Whether intended or not, the painting would have been seen thus by many familiar with this kind of interpretation. Predictably, there were no funds to pay her, and again the painting was donated to the museum by the artist.
Archways were put to use by Lucy Kemp Welch in this painting, The Straw Ride: Russley Park Remount Depot, Wiltshire, but with totally different effect.
Here, the archway is used as a frame to give a sense of order and to highlight the two central horses, silhouetted against the light, prancing down the ride, full of energy, their red-capped rider calm and controlled. In front, a rider struggles to control her mount; behind, a horse rears. All are riding astride the horses, presumably in breeches. The overall effect is one of calm and control, a long way from the disorder of war.
Although the painting of cavalry horses in battle for propaganda purposes was now frowned upon, they were still being used for that purpose and for transporting equipment and heavy artillery guns to the Front.
The horses were trained in England by middle and upper-class horsewomen in Remount depots across England. With the depots set for closure following the end of the war, the WWS was keen to record their activities. However, yet again, having commissioned the artist, the committee failed to pay her and the painting was donated in 1919 by Kemp-Welch.
Artists as Volunteer Workers on the Home Front
Although several women artists were professional artists commissioned to observe women at work, some produced paintings and sketches based on their own experiences as volunteers.
Ursula Wood was one of the many educated middle-class women who joined the Land Army. Government propaganda equated this with going to war. Whilst working, Wood was able to do several sketches. Wood offered this and other sketches to the WWS which was only able to pay her a derisory 15 guineas for each one.
This sketch suggests how war contributed to the beginnings of a re-definition of womanhood. The women are practically clad in breeches and gaiters. The poses are masculine; two stand with hands in pockets, a third sits legs akimbo on a log, but nevertheless, they are clearly identifiable as women by their body shapes and long hair. One, cooking over a fire, is wearing an apron, symbol of domesticity.
A Woman’s Place?
The appointment of an overwhelming number of men as official war artists was based on the belief that a woman’s place was firmly on the Home Front, and that the recording of the ‘real’ experiences of war could only be recaptured by men on or near the front. This was compounded by the persisting attitude amongst some of the establishment that women couldn’t paint anyway.
The statistics tell a very different story:
3,100 served as VADs in France
8,500 served in the AAC
13,000 were in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
Nearly all of them were middle or upper-class women. There were numerous other voluntary groups providing nurses and drivers who operated close to the Front in appalling conditions.
They might not have served in the Trenches, but they experienced at close-hand the horrors of its effects: – the mutilated bodies of the dead and the dying and the horrific injuries of men fighting for their lives.
Additionally, they were subjected to mysoginist insults about their motives. According to Speck(p.63), one academic proclaimed ,
‘Nurses took on the work
“to observe closely the intimate details of the male organism” ’.
Some claimed that the attraction for female nurses was in the power they had over men, others that they could act as spies.
Trolling is not a new phenomenon.
As the war drew to a close, Lady Norman and Agnes Conway were determined that the work undertaken by the women serving abroad should be acknowledged and recorded. Neilson-Gray was commissioned to record the work of the all-female Scottish Women’s Hospital units that operated in the European war zones. Her brief was very specific, and is reflected in this painting.
It is clear from this painting that its purpose was to counter the prejudice against women, and show just how capable they were of organising and running a hospital without male colleagues, achieving the highest standard of care possible. Thus, the painting is rather studied and idealised. There is no sign of blood or discomfort. The beds and the wounded soldier’s hair are neat and tidy, all rather mis-leading. The uniformed soldiers, about to be discharged from the hospital’s care, reinforce the image of high standards. Not only are they leaving alive, they are walking out. Nevertheless, Neilson-Gray was simply providing the kind of painting that Lady Norman and Agnes Conway wanted,
‘When this Lousy War is Over…’
This painting is by Nellie Isaac who worked on the factory floor at the aeronautical engineering firm, Watney and Company. It shows the workers’ reaction to the news of the Armistice by waving white cloths in celebration of the return of peace.
Olive Mudie- Cooke
Most of the paintings discussed here were completed in the final stages of the war, or even commissioned shortly after it. The WWS members were aware that funding was coming to an end and that the sub-committee itself would probably cease to exist. It did so in 1920.Thus with a sense of urgency, it commissioned Olive Mudie-Cooke to record her experiences working close to the Front. Previously, the WWS had been restricted to focusing on women working at home.
Few women could have served in more battle zones than the artist Olive Mudie-Cooke did in the World War One. In her work for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), she was posted to Ypres, Peronne, Paschendaele, Camiers, Calais, Boulogne, Rouen and Genoa.
This painting stands in contrast with Neilson-Gray’s formal, posed Abbaye at Royaumont painting. The use of watercolour is ideal for catching transient, intimate and tender moments like this –a VAD lighting a cigarette for an injured soldier. The momentary flare of the light against the darkness of the night and the ambulance highlight their faces and the concentration on this one small act of comfort. Nevertheless, it is very different from the remoteness of some of her other paintings.
In this painting, the artist stands well back from the action, distancing herself and the viewer both physically and emotionally, but the use of dark, neutral tones against the dull light of the train and absence of a detailed foreground suggests the bleakness of war.
Following the end of the war women photographers and artists such as Mudie-Cooke were now free to visit the battle-sites. This greater freedom also applied to the content and style of their work. This painting, without any human figure, suggests the total destructiveness of war, achieved without any depiction of lurid detail. Mudie Cooke has moved away from the representational art favoured by other women war artists and the WWS.
Sadly, Mudie-Cooke committed suicide in 1925. Perhaps she was suffering from PTSD (not recognised then), as a result of her time spent in close contact with the dead, the dying and the mangled. Perhaps what appears to be self-censorship in her work was evidence of her need to avoid the re-living of the horrors she had experienced.
Unchanging Attitudes to Women’s Art
Throughout the war, the collection of women’s artwork was the specific responsibility of the WWS. Before its formation, its commissioning and curation was incidental to the purposes of the Government’s War Memorial Committee and The Ministry of Information. The War Memorial Committee completely ignored women artists, but the Ministry of Information did use some of it in propaganda posters.
Mainly, the IWM took on the role of collecting both paintings and posters of WWI. To mark the end of the war, it put on its first exhibition at The Whitechapel gallery in 1918, but there were no examples of women’s art.
There have been few attempts by the IWM to promote it since.
In 2014, The IWM published its book, Art from the First World War.
Art From the First World War forcibly demonstrates just what artistic freedom was given to male war artists, compared with the restrictions placed on women. The men’s work ranges from representational art to Futurism and fully abstract Vorticism, whereas a similar freedom was not granted to women.
Shamefully of the sixty four images in the IWM book, only three are by women, two of them by Anna Airy and one by Flora Lyon., It is hard to justify the exclusion of the work produced by Mudie-Cooke, for example.
It appears that little has changed in the IWM’s attitudes to women’s art in the hundred years since 1914.
Speck,C. (2014).Beyond the battlefield: women artists of the two world wars. London: Reaktion Books.
The Trustees of the Imperial War Museum( 2014). Art from the first world war. London:IWM.
Norah Neilson Gray
Olive Mudie –Cooke
German artist: Kathe Kollwitz
(A Munoz Women in First World War Britain: exploitation revolt and betrayal. In Defence of Marxism (2014) https://www.marxist.com/women-in-the-first-world-war-britain.htm )