I must admit, I have always tended to shy away from Gender History. Or, in fact, any part of history that mentions the word ‘women’ too much. I guess its only natural, after one of my first year tutors at Uni tried to tell us that the most important effect of the first world war was that women started smoking and riding motorbikes. I guess the millions of men being killed didnt occur to her.
Having said that, I know that women have often played an important, and usually overlooked, role in times of War. All too often we can become too fixated on Planes, tanks, and Generals, when in fact total war means exactly that. This new book by Ann Kramer should go a long way to redressing the balance for one of the Women’s services that has been perhaps the most maligned of all – the Women’s Land Army.
Aware that once war started millions of men would be called up, the Government drew up plans to recruit women to replace male agricultural workers. Thousands volunteered, and served throughout the war in their distinctive slouch hats and green jerseys. Without their sterling work througout the country on farms, and also performing forestry work, they made a vital contribution to keeping Britain’s supplies of food stable. We only have to look at the fact that Britain is an island nation dependent on imports, and how close the U-boats came to starving the country, to see what might have been if the Land Girls had not played their part.
But it wasn’t all green fields and nice summer evenings. The work was a big shock to many of the girls, a fair proportion of whom came from towns and were unused to rural ways. Indeed, many countryfolk were very sceptical about the potential of women for working on the land, and the Land Army had to go a long way to prove their worth, and to overcome fairly entrenched social attitudes and snobbery. And then at the end of the war, they were given scant recognition for many years – a truly glaring ommission, like the country’s failure to recognise the service of the Bevin Boys.
The story of the Land Girls is at the epicentre of many of the important social development of the second world war – attitudes to gender, changing roles in society, class and the relations between rural and urban Britain. The needs of total war always seem to bring about a lot of social change in a very short change of time, and this case is no exception.
This is a very interesting book, and I am sure that it will contribute much to the history of women during wartime. Kramer makes interesting use of oral history interviews with surviving Land Girls, which in my opinion is absolutely crucial in a book like this. My only criticism might be that the way these accounts are presented, often in separate boxes, does break up the text a little. But this is a relatively minor point, I enjoyed reading this book immensely.