About The Author:
Kate Furnivall didn’t set out to be a writer. It sort of grabbed her by the throat when she discovered the story of her grandmother – a White Russian refugee who fled from the Bolsheviks down into China. That extraordinary tale inspired her first book, The Russian Concubine. From then on, she was hooked.
Kate is the author of eight novels, including The Russian Concubine, The White Pearl and The Italian Wife. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages and have been on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Did the War break or boost the role of Women? by Kate Furnivall
I know. The answer seems obvious. But you can’t blame me for asking. The advent of war in 1939 opened up the world to women in a way that they had never experienced before. It gave them opportunities to push back the traditional boundaries of their lives. But then it snatched them away.
By mid-1943 almost 90% of single women in Britain and 80% of married women were working in factories, on the land or in the armed forces. This radically altered their expectations. Gender roles were changing.
The outbreak of World War II brought major changes to the fundamental structures of British society. Picture it. Up until that point most women didn’t work outside the home after they were married, unless they went into the drudgery of domestic service. In fact, hard though it is to believe now, in many jobs a woman was fired once she got married. In those days the majority of women focused their lives on home and children, while the husband was the sole bread-winner. Their day was spent in a constant round of cooking and cleaning, sewing and polishing, as well as fighting a teeth-gritting daily battle with rationing queues.
When the war swallowed up the male workforce, suddenly women were going out to work on farms as part of the Land Army. Or building aircraft in factories. Transporting coal on barges and driving fire-engines. They were even recruited as agents and parachuted into wartime France by Special Operations Executive. A whole new world opened up for them. And, more to the point, women started to earn good wages which brought them unheard of independence. Younger women were out dancing with soldiers at the local dance-hall, splashing on lip-stick and wearing shorter hemlines. Life becomes more intense when a bomb with your name on it might be just around the next corner
Inevitably wives and mothers became the decision-makers of the household. The relationship between mother and daughter is always a complex one, but now in time of war it became even more so. With the men gone, mothers and daughters needed each other for support more than ever, clinging for comfort, but often it ended in a clash of wills, as youth chased its own dreams. We see this new independent spirit reflected strongly in books such as Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulks and in The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.
But one major problem that mothers faced during World War II was the evacuation of their children, when youngsters were packed off to safer rural areas to live with strangers. This enforced separation must have had a profound impact and it is one of the themes that I examine in The Survivors, in which I explore the unsung heroism of wartime motherhood.
So did the war break women? Of course not. But it came close because the men finally returned from fighting the enemy and took back their jobs and the reins of the household. Yes, women had to slink back into the kitchen for a while, but they had tasted freedom and it wasn’t long before they were marching forward. Arm in arm together with their daughters.