Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The voices of a Suffering Sisterhood

I recently finished a book called A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the First world War. It is a collection of essays edited by Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw.

As the title suggests, the book focuses on the contributions and the struggles women and girls faced in Canada during The Great War. This was a time of great social change in Canada and North America. The inklings of universal suffrage were being seen, and after the war, things would never really be the same for women who advocated for equality.

The issues discussed this book are varied. The essays are grouped into four sections: "Mobilizing Women," "Women's Work," "Family Matters," and "Creative Responses." The last section was one of the most intriguing, as it focussed on the poetry and fiction of women at that time. One essay depicted how women handled disabled returning soldiers; specifically, what that demanded of women. It also revealed the tension between traditional roles for women and what had to change as women confronted new challenges.

When we think of women at work during the two world wars, we naturally think about women in factories. That was definitely a factor, but what interested me more were the accounts of women volunteers for medical service. Many women gave up their income to volunteer either in medical facilities or overseas. Some women, already professional nurses, did likewise. They did this for various reasons, but the essays I read revealed not only was patriotism an influence, but also the expectation that women would contribute to the war effort in their own way. This was a great opportunity for those who already wanted to do so, but I suspect that the expectation was not always welcomed by those who were struggling as it was to keep body and soul together in the absence of their fathers, husbands, or brothers.

The first section had some interesting pieces about how women used domestic skills to serve, specifically knitting socks. I can't help but wonder if today that some would regard that as a very menial and lowly a way to assist in the war. It was crucial, though. Having good socks was often a matter of life and death. Wet feet were prone to infection and gangrene. Dry socks were a precious commodity. I admired greatly how these women used even the most basic skill to help the war. It demonstrated their patriotism and their hearts for service. How many women today would be content to knit socks?

I don't think women today understand what women faced as their husbands, brothers, and fathers left for war. It often meant serious financial struggle. This was long before the days of social safety nets. The structures that were set up to maintain the families of soldiers were often abused by the soldiers themselves, who found going to war an easy way to get out of a bad marriage. As a Canadian who takes social safety nets for granted, it was interesting to see how things were in the early days. It is not surprising that women became more vocal about getting property rights. I don't think we appreciate today how vulnerable women were before such things existed. The war highlighted such things, and after the war, women would not be content for such vulnerability again.

Above all, what impressed me the most from these voices of first wave feminists was the sense of duty that accompanied their efforts. In the context of a war where the majority of their male friends would never return from, they were motivated by a sense of loyalty to their country. I don't read enough second and third wave feminism to know if duty has anything to do with how women utilize the equality they desire.