Archives par mot-clé : Oral History

In Brighton Looking Back — Women’s Memories of World War Two


World War II, Women and War, Oral History

This paper explores the findings from interviews made with women about their experiences of war, in keeping with practices of oral history begun in the 1970s. Four interviewees from the Brighton area represent different age groups and varied experiences of the war which are commented on in some detail.


            The research this article is based on is part of a personal research project focusing on representations of women in the Second World War. It is linked also to the four-year research project, “Women and Conflict”, which the gender group, “Groupe études [genre]” (affiliated to the “Cultures anglo-saxonnes” research team at Toulouse – Le Mirail University) is currently engaged in. My personal focus is mostly on wartime cinematographic representations of women. The analysis of a large number of films of the period, which portray women in fairly innovatory gender roles, led to a questioning as to the possible genuine gender role evolution during the war and the articulation between these changes and cinematographic images. My article, “Women and War Films in Britain (1939-1945): Signs of Emancipation or Cases of Manipulation”, published in LISA[1] was motivated by the desire to investigate whether these films were portraying, on the screen, authentic gender role changes in society or whether, as organs of propaganda, the films were promoting gender roles which the State and a certain number of well-placed citizens deemed useful to the nation during this period of armed conflict.

This above-mentioned, first article on the subject called on interviews carried out with women, in relation to their war experiences, which had already been published and on other printed source material. Although aware that many researchers have already interviewed women about their wartime experiences, thus perhaps making any further contributions appear unnecessary, I was also aware that there is debate, in some cases, over the interpretation of some of the interview content. Furthermore, I was interested in coming to terms with the whole area of oral history and the methodological and theoretical issues it raises. I was keen to carry out a number of interviews personally, in order to gain additional, direct information regarding women’s own evaluation of their experiences and to check on the veracity of some affirmations made about the intrinsic value of women’s oral narratives of their experiences. The first task was to select some possible candidates for interviews.

Oral history: theory and the beginnings of practice

I chose the Brighton area as I had some contacts with an association devoted to the development of local history research – East Brighton Bygones Local History Society[2] and other contacts with women, thanks to family networks, who had lived through the war.

Before proceeding any further in the description of the panel of interviewees and the results obtained it is pertinent to refer to some of the methodological hazards which the practice of oral history engages one with. In her article “Women, Wartime and Autobiography: Gendering the Genre”, to be published in a coming issue of LISA, Karen Meschia, member of the “Groupe études [genre]”, offers a comprehensive synthesis of the interest of the domain of oral history for feminist historians and also points out the pitfalls in relation to which the approach has been criticized. For my own appraisal I have drawn, in part, on her comments.

The practice of oral history in Great Britain developed significantly from the 1970s onwards[3]. Drawing on methods borrowed from sociology and ethnology, the interview and observation of a population, its apparent possibility of giving historical visibility or voice to social groups previously ignored by historians was met with enthusiasm. Paul Thompson, a major figure in the development of historiography in the direction of oral history, talks of obtaining “evidence from the underside”[4]. He firmly believed that oral history would enable dominated social groups to re-appropriate their own histories. “History becomes, to put it simply, more democratic” [5], he claimed, thanks to the fact that “witnesses can now be called from the underclasses”[6]. For feminist historians the concept of “underclass” was well suited to qualify female populations which were seldom represented in the foreground of historical constructions. They were thus quick to adopt the methods of oral history with the aim of recounting “how it really was” for women. However, some among them were almost as quick in beginning to question the methodological and epistemological reliability of this aim. For one thing it was pointed out that women are said to “mute” their own thoughts and feelings[7]. So, to what extent can we consider that they will recount their lives in their own terms, their experience “as it really was”, rather than simply adopting the “terms of prevailing concepts and conventions”[8]. Other researchers questioned whether “women”, as such, form a coherent group: “[…] there is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women”[9]. They wondered whether gender identity unites women into a coherent group more than ethnicity and class identity divide them. Denise Riley[10]  and Jane W. Scott[11] go so far as to assert the impossibility of using women’s accounts at all. In turn, this methodical methodological deconstruction of the potential of oral history for the study of women, the suggestion that in no way could women obtain “agency”, alarmed a number of feminists who were keen to hold onto an opening towards women’s voices, onto a possibility of placing women within history, via their own accounts[12]. Penny Summerfield thus proposed that the researcher should concentrate on the manner in which the account is constructed and on the way in which individual accounts interweave with collective accounts, in effect, on a form of intertextuality between individual and collective accounts. Summerfield thus establishes the context first with a corresponding typology of female assessments of their roles – one finds the “stoics” and the “heroics” (those who claim they just acted because they had to and those who uphold a dynamic, activist opinion of their participation) and she examines how her cases fit into the picture.

Meanwhile, Graham Dawson draws attention to the therapeutic function of autobiographical accounts, stating that they enable people to achieve a form of “composure”: at once a composing or putting together of self, via the telling, and the reaching of some form of tranquillity, thanks to this formulation of the experience[13]. However, the examination of one of her cases leads Summerfield to wonder whether on some occasions the recounting does not have a “dis/composing” effect on the narrator. Indeed, she observed that Anne Tomlinson, one of her interviewees, fitted into the “heroics” category as regards the beginning of her narration (“This was a marvellous moment”[14]) but as she advances in the time of the account she seems to be led to call in question more and more the possibility of occupying an active role outside the home and ends even by questioning the usefulness of her action as a mother within the home. She thus seems to move more towards “dis/composure” than towards “composure”[15].

It is within this theoretical framework that the accounts of the Brighton interviewees are examined. The focus is turned towards the extent to which they seem to be, indeed, united by gender identity or opposed by class or ethnic identity or other considerations: in the light of their accounts the article addresses the issue as to whether one can talk specifically of “women’s experiences” and “women’s voicings” of the experience, in their case, looking at the degree to which there are shared elements in theirs narratives. Attention is turned to whether they appear to “mute” their own voice, providing stereotyped discourses on women’s experiences during the war, rather than authentically individual ones. The research also questions the extent to which their discourse seems to correspond to a process of “composure”, as Dawson suggests, or rather to “dis-composure”, as Summerfield intimates is sometimes the case.

As Karen Meschia points out there are a multitude of organisations and institutions in Britain which have set up projects around the gathering of individual memories of the Second World War. One of the most ambitious, national in scale, is that of the “BBC People’s War Archive”. However, there are also numbers of lively local initiatives and it is one of these with which contact was established: “East Brighton Bygones”. Four of my interviewees were known to one of the association’s volunteer coordinators and she arranged for me to interview them. They are here named as Eileen, Eve, Iris and Beryl. The fifth, here named Marie, I met via a family network of relations. The link between them is that they all now live in or near Brighton[16], although they are not all natives of the town, nor did they all spend the War in Brighton. Beryl is Brighton born and has always lived there, on the eastern side of the town. Eve and her parents lived for a time in Brighton before the War and were there when the War broke out, living on the western side of the town. Marie and Eileen are both originally from the north of England. Marie, from near Manchester, spent part of the War in Scotland and moved to Brighton after the War when she followed her husband, a southerner, down south. Eileen, from Howarth Moor, spent the War in Manchester and ended up teaching in Brighton, some time after the War. Iris was from Oxford, spent the War in London, went back to Oxford after the War and moved to Brighton six or seven years ago.

At the time of the outbreak of war they were aged four (Beryl), nineteen (Iris), twenty (Marie), twenty-four (Eve), twenty-five (Eileen). There are evidently variations in their stories and points of view, in relation to their age differences, in particular, naturally, as regards Beryl’s account. The number of interviewees is small but the material they give access to is extremely extensive, partly because each woman, in fact, refers to experiences of other women apart from herself – particularly mother, aunts, grandmothers or friends and colleagues – so that there is a multiplication of the original sources. Furthermore, quite by chance and not due to any pre-conceived plan of selection (although this should have been the case), the five women offer an amazingly varied cross-section of class background and of possible women’s roles during the War. They run from an upper-middle class member of the Women’s Volunteer Service whose father taught at Eton (Eve), who says, “But we had lots of friends who had cars. Even with chauffeurs” (3)[17], to Beryl whose parents ran a greengrocers’ shop in east Brighton, who would probably be considered lower-middle class. Eve was a trained journalist (London University) but, before the War, quickly replaced journalism with work in advertising. She was also a highly skilled and trained fencer who took part in European Championships before the War. Marie Boole says of her parents that they were “medical people, though Mummy didn’t work any more then. She had been a nurse and my father was at the hospital” (1). They had a large house, with six cellars and she says: “I would never tell people what our house was like because it was like showing off” (3). She herself joined the WAAFs once she had overcome her parent’s objections to their daughter going into the forces. Eileen says she came from “a typical bourgeois Baptist family” (3), with a father who went from “being a Liberal to a Conservative” (3) and a mother who “was a feminist” (3). She took a degree in French at London University, before enrolling for a secretarial course for graduates and, by the time the War started, she had travelled “[…] round the world, paying [her] way, doing secretarial work” (1). She joined the Communist Party just before the War. At the beginning of the War she went into War Control, then “[…] went into the munitions industry as personnel manager” (1). At the outbreak of War Iris King, aged nineteen, had already been training to be a nurse for two years. She would have dearly loved to be a doctor or, as second best, a teacher but she says of herself and her family, where she was one of four sisters and a brother: for a “[…] young girl of my kind of education, nursing was extremely badly paid but you were kept and you had your training and it was one thing you could go into. I mean, if you were very, very bright you could get to University but in those days you had to be extremely bright and get bursaries and scholarships and that kind of thing, to be able to go to university because not many women went to university anyway and even teachers’ training colleges which a lot of girls would go to, my particular family couldn’t afford to send me […] (2).

Women’s accounts of the War

In the short space of this article it is not possible to draw on all the material these women’s accounts provide: as mentioned above, they cover experiences running from that of the child observer to the Women’s Voluntary service worker, or the member of an armed force for women, the employee in the munitions industry, the nurse. That is without counting the extensions of the interviewees towards their mothers or aunts, variously participating in fire watch duty, running a shop, taking in evacuees, working as Red Cross volunteer, growing vegetables to sell for the benefit of air force widows and so on.

Thus for each woman a particular aspect or event, sometimes more, has been chosen which seemed to be given priority in her account, it being understood that the account of each contained many other aspects it would be of interest to dwell upon.

Being a child, Beryl’s role in the War is very much that of an observer and her account brings to the fore events of her and her family’s daily wartime life. At the start of the War she was four, a young age to remember clearly, yet she does remember the day war was declared: “[…] we were fishing at Slackham Ponds, with my aunt and uncle in their little car […] we threw everything in the car and hotfooted back to Brighton […] And we got home and sat in the basement with our gas masks on, for hours”. (1) By the end of the War she was ten, so remembers many aspects of daily life, for example, being at school during air raids: “[…] to get to the shelter we had to go out of the door, down some steps and across an open playground […] most of the time we weren’t able to get to the shelters, so we sat in the corridor […] on the floor, arms and legs folded […] and they used to get us singing as loud as we could”. (1) On one occasion, when she was at school, her own street was bombed: “[…] the butcher’s shop […] had a direct hit and the butcher was killed […] And we had a big hole up in the passage wall and my mother’s front room that, you never went in, you know, high days and holidays, it was a mass of rubble and dust”. (1) She talks with admiration of her mother running the shop, with one assistant, after her father joined up. She also brought out the many letters written home by her uncles serving abroad, so her account unfolds on a variety of narrative levels. One of the memories which is the most forceful to her or “poignant”, as she says, concerns a letter, addressed to “Rose and Beryl” (Rose being her mother), from one of her uncles, who wrote home telling of what he had seen when, whilst serving in the area, he was able to go on a visit to Rome and he ends: “I’m looking forward to being home again, Cheerio, Ern” (8). He was killed two weeks later, leaving an eighteen month old daughter. Beryl says of herself: “I was heartbroken! Absolutely heartbroken!”. She dwelt for a considerable time on the death of her uncle and on how, subsequently, her aunt found a job, got herself some qualifications and brought up her daughter and a nephew whose mother left his father for someone else during the War.

As is apparent in Beryl’s account, Brighton was not a safe place to be yet, at the beginning of the War it was deemed safer than London and was chosen as a destination for evacuees. At the outbreak of War Eve had recently married an Australian naval officer and had intimated to her husband that she would join the WRNS. However, he was not greatly in agreement and asked her to follow him to Australia. Eve hesitated and her mother, a member of the Women’s Voluntary Service [WVS] said: “I think you’d better join it until you know what you are going to do”. (1) So Eve obeyed and set to helping to collect and to sort clothes and to find volunteers to take in evacuees. As she says, she went “[…] round all the places that I knew where people lived which, of course, was the wrong thing to do. We went to people who had rather nice, rich homes” (1). The WVS was then told that within the next three weeks “[…] ninety pregnant women with their other children […]” would be sent down. “Pregnancy! We had never thought of that!” says Eve, who re-contacted the “nice, rich homes” saying: “Some of them may be…mildly…pregnant, you know. They might have a couple of children with them” (3). Eve describes the arrival of the evacuees: “[…] it was a terribly windy day when they arrived and, of course, none of them had real luggage. They had brown paper parcels and string bags. And one child had brought a canary in a cage. And many children had brought dogs. And some of the dogs escaped in Brighton station […]. And, I suppose, about sixty per cent of the houses who said they would have people said, ‘Oh no, I’m afraid we couldn’t possibly have a pregnant woman, that really wouldn’t do!” So, Eve went to the working-class, Whitehawk end of Brighton, Beryl’s east side and through her mother’s cleaning lady found places for many of the women. But, having a number left over, she went to the two large seafront hotels the Metropole and the Grand where she knew the proprietors – “I always had danced every Saturday night at the Metropole, in my young days, so I knew the man who managed it, very well” – and he agreed to house the pregnant women for the night, on the ballroom floor (3). Eve hired about thirty lilos [inflatable mattresses] for the women, from two establishments which hired lilos out to swimmers and “[…] was up nearly all night, running round the houses that needed extra blankets and pillows. And we also, of course, had to get food then”. (4) The next day the hotel proprietors rang to say they had been up all night too: “We’ve had six or seven births” (4). At the end of her tale Eve says: “So, that was the sum total of what I did for the WVS because I was leaving on November 5th or something, fireworks night. So that was the only work I could do in England. But when I got to Australia […] I was immediately hauled in to do fund-raising for the Red Cross” (4).

Iris, who had started nursing, in 1937, at seventeen, in a children’s hospital in Hampshire moved to London in 1940 in order to pursue her training and arrived there at about the same time as the bombing started. She worked at the Middlessex Hospital in the middle of London. She says of her experience: “[…] we were kept extremely busy because […] every morning you would have all the bomb casualties coming in and some of them were just the ordinary people who’d been bombed in their houses and some of them were the workers, the firemen and those people who were out, you know, on their ladders, hosing down the fires, getting them under control. They were wonderful men, they were, up their ladders and one young man, a bomb landed in the middle of his ladder and he had every bone, I should think, in his body fractured but he lived and was wonderful to nurse” (2). When not on duty during an air raid the nurses were supposed to be in the air raid shelter, in the sub basement of the hospital which Iris disliked intensely: “[…] there were three different pipes, one was hot water, one was cold water and the other was sewage and I could imagine, you know, a bomb coming and I would be drowned in hot water, cold water and sewage” (4). She preferred to be “[…] on night duty when [she] could be up and on the wards and not down in the shelter” (4). The advantage of nursing was the kindness of people towards the nurses: “People were extremely good to us, as nurses, you know, invited us to their homes […]” (4). “There would be a set of families in the area who put open invitations to any nurses to go and have a meal with them or stay with them. I made very good friends, you know, I’ve still got today […]” (5).

Marie had been teaching for a short while when the War broke out. She was in a reserved occupation and could have gone on teaching but she very much wanted to get into the armed forces. At first her parents opposed her request but they ended up by allowing her to join the WAAFs[18]. Their hesitation was no doubt due to fears for Marie’s moral respectability as her mother said, when Marie was leaving, “Well, hun, don’t come back if you do anything wrong” and Marie says today: “I had no idea what to make of it because you didn’t talk about anything because you had to be good, not like today. If there were girls of eighteen and they were pregnant and having a baby we used to cross over in the country lane and not speak to them. We weren’t allowed to because it was a disgrace” (2).

Marie was delighted with her life in the WAAFs. She found that above all else it gave her “freedom” (2). The word appears many times throughout her account; When she finished her three months training and went home to see her parents she was really “[…] delighted to tell [her] parents that [she] would be allowed two late passes, until 23.59, a week and the other time was ten o’clock” (2). She considered that her time in the WAAFs taught her a lot, in particular “[…] to mix with everybody”. The word “mix” is recurrent and she says it gave women “[…] a chance to travel and to leave their villages […]” (2). For Marie the WAAFs seemed to open up horizons for herself and other women. She uses the words “open”/“open up” on many occasions to describe the nature of the war experience for women. After her training in Shropshire she was sent up to Forres, near RAF Kinloss. She went by train and she says: “[…] I’d never travelled on my own before…So, it did teach you a lot because I never went anywhere unless my father took me or Mother did and I went all the way, right up to Scotland on this train […] Then you went up to Forres and there was a station master and he was a station master and a gardener, lovely things used to come up and he had different hats for the occasion. And it was lovely. And I loved it in the winter time. I had one leave up there and I really enjoyed it. […] Oh, it was lovely” (7).

Eileen’s account differs from the others due to its more politicized nature. It is perhaps correct to say, in her case, that the War was characterized by her working life which was no doubt politically determined since she decided to work in the munitions industry, in an industrial environment, and by her concern with the supporting the Soviet Union in opening up a Second Front. As she says she would “[…] go around chalking on the pavements: ‘Open up a Second front” (2). She was a personnel manager in the munitions industry and she says of her work: “I would go out to all the little towns around Manchester to talk to the women, to ask what they needed, to struggle for better nurseries, for better welfare for women in the factories” (2). “I would go out to talk to the women. ‘What do you need?’, ‘Better childcare?’ ‘You must fight for it’. This led to, after the War, the election of the Labour government with an incredible majority. That was another campaign I worked for” (2).

When asked if she considered that the War created opportunities for women she uses the same concepts and vocabulary as Marie in her reply: “It certainly did. I think it opened up tremendous opportunities. […] It brought them freedom – in the forces” (2).

The hazards of war: danger/fear/death

None of the accounts make light of or forget the dangers of war and references to bombing and death appear in each woman’s account. Beryl begins by talking of the bombings in her district and talks of her uncle’s death. Iris, on the equivalent of the second page of her account tells of the bomb victims. Marie, after talking of the opportunities War brought immediately turns to the dark side of the experience: “A lot of sad memories, yes, because…Everybody seemed free and easy and especially in the air force because you didn’t know if those boys were going off that night or that morning so everybody made the most of everything. I lost a few friends, yes” (7). None of them really talk of fear, apart from Iris, to the extent that she says she was afraid of being drowned in hot and cold water and sewage in the sub basement bomb shelter. I asked Marie if she was ever frightened to which she replied: “No, do you know, I can never…In fact, I think, with being young, when I look back it looks more like excitement, a lot of us, I think, did like that but I think the older generation and our parents were very, very concerned but I was young, it’s like when you, you, you, I mean they don’t see danger” (9). However, Eileen sums up perhaps best the strength of the experience when she says: “I happened to live through a crisis period of history…colouring all our experiences since. Blair never went through the War. The War is our reference point still. Everything we did was authentic because we did it ‘devant la mort’[19]. It was like that for us” (3).

A shared “women’s discourse”?

Eileen uses the plural “our”, “we”, “us” referring to all those people who lived through the crisis period of the War and the object of this paper now is to ask to what extent we may consider that women have a specific voice with regard to their wartime experience. In reaction to comments made by historians such as … to what extent may we refer to this group of individual experiences as being those of “women”? Can it be said that their experiences or the voicing of them have specifically feminine characteristics? To what extent do they share a discourse as women? Are they in fact more separated by social background and life experiences than they are united in being “women”?

Firstly, one can consider whether the concept of a “muted” woman’s voice appears to be appropriate as regards these five women’s accounts. Certainly not, if one takes into account the level of their capacity to describe their diverse experiences in very lively and personal terms. The figures of speech and the personal details lead the accounts away from what might become a stereotyped tale. Marie Boole makes one comment which could correspond to a stereotyped formula but it is immediately countered by her own real concern: “You wanted to help your country and also it gave me freedom […]” (2). And her summing up of the protective value of the Home Guard is both lively and a long way from being a propaganda stereotype: “They wouldn’t have stood a dog’s chance, if the Germans would have got here […]” (9). Her enthusiastic presentation of her time in the WAAFs is also balanced by her comment relating to a certain lassitude towards the end of the War and a desire to return to more simple feminine concerns: “Towards the end I was getting to want…because we used to have thick grey stockings and thick black stockings…I was longing to get into silk stockings […]” (3). Again this is immediately countered with the regret for the end of the experience: “[…] you missed it when you came out […]” (3).  Eve is very down to earth in her comments on her voluntary work – she gives an almost cinematographic account of the evacuees’ arrival in Brighton and describes the evolution of her involvement without either playing up or down the significance of the action. In Australia she presents her participation in Red Cross work as rather a chore, using the verb “hauled in to” to describe how she joined in but later comments indicate that she took pleasure in participating: “[…] sorting clothes is really rather important[…] (4) and “[…] I was quite a good organiser […]” (5). Her mode of expression creates an effect of authenticity.

The five women share in their discourse the expression of a strong assertion that the War opened up opportunities for women and each of the adult women (Beryl’s mother included) was involved in taking up these opportunities. Equally, in the discourse of each, one glimpses the boundaries to these opportunities and the way in which these boundaries are or were more or less accepted: it seems to me that the existence of these boundaries and the women’s attitude towards them unites them in the need to confront obstacles specific to women, although it is also true that, due to class differences, the boundaries were not always placed equally for each of the women. Eve with her pre-war career in advertising, the confidence her status as a fencer could give her, would seem to have little in common with Iris who could become neither a doctor nor a teacher. However, even Eve, when she had a child had to bend to the accepted convention: “[…] when I had a child, of course, I couldn’t do any more war effort […]” (4) and further on she says, “[…] unfortunately, you see, when you have children you’re precluded from doing anything physically […] (5)”. Iris has obviously never accepted the fact that she could not take up the career which she wanted to, due to lack of money and being a girl. This leads her to be almost self-critical towards what she did do, to, apparently, de-consider the role of nurse: “I’m afraid I’m not a true woman in the war. I know, my mother, she was wonderful. Again at making do and mending […] the kind of cooking they did […] I rather got stuck being a nurse […] I couldn’t really get into the forces. I think I would have done had I finished my training earlier. I would have gone into one of the forces, definitely, yes” (8). Later she implies of herself that she was not a “real” nurse: “My sister…She was a real nurse…She wanted to be a nurse. I mean I didn’t” (10). Marie achieved what she set out to achieve in face of the War crisis, to overcome her parent’s objection to her going into the forces and her WAAF experience, she says did her a lot of good: her only worry was that she would not be a satisfactory interviewee, which seemed to me, probably, a very specifically feminine concern. If Eileen herself achieved much in her life she is well aware and vocal on the way in which women were put back in their places after the War, as women: “We [the women in her factory] were all very high-powered. We did all their policy after the War. And within six months we’d been replaced. I got the flu, so they gave me the sack. I got three months’ salary” (2). She expresses the idea that women, as women, have still not achieved economic equality with men: “You look at a picture of an EEC meeting and they are all men. There are a few token women. We’ve not really got far economically. Personally and sexually, they’ve got on, but not economically. Equal pay here has not been achieved” (2).

A further factor which I see as uniting them, as women, is that of the multiplicity of roles they have carried out in their life times, including those of caring mothers and grandmothers. Naturally, bringing to the fore the importance of the role as mother may be “feministically” incorrect, however, it is a role which has occupied time and energy in each of the women’s lives and each speaks with pleasure of their child or children and grandchildren. In spite of the objections of Denise Riley I am not sure we can ignore this domain of feminine experience[20]. Who is the researcher or interviewer to deny the interviewees’ stated personal centres of interest?[21] Motherhood is certainly a shared characteristic, as is the multiplicity of roles these women adopt simultaneously or in succession. Beryl underlines how her mother ran the shop, looked after the house and her daughter and took delight in doing her fire watching. Eileen had three children, worked and “[…] worked nationally for CND” (3). She says of herself: “I had a very full and fulfilling life. I’ve been very fortunate” (1). At the end of the War Marie married, had children then went back to teaching and has followed her grandchildren’s development with enthusiasm: “I wanted to live long enough to see what they’re doing and how they’re going to grow up” (15). Iris went on nursing because she and her husband needed the money. She believes small children would be best looked after by their mothers but in the impossibility of doing this herself it was her mother who looked after the small grand-daughter when Iris was at work. Eve also had several children and helped her husband run a language school in Iran.

Finally, these women seem to present a form of unity, beyond differences in social background and life experiences, thanks to their capacity to construct their “history”; they seem to illustrate equality in the face of constructing their own and their family’s history and show equal pride towards it. This may not be an activity which is specifically attributable to their gender identity. However, they do each bring to the fore female members of their families, particularly mothers and grandmothers and we note that the militant Eileen centred her attention in wartime on trying to help working mothers with their childcare problems. It seems clear in this group of women that they see gender as having determined a significant part of their lives, that they have shared experiences as women although gender is, no doubt, only one amongst other recognized identities.

As regards the women’s attitude towards the telling of their stories I consider that they are accounts related to the concept of composure rather than “dis-composure”. Even in the case of Iris who tends to undermine the value of her nursing because it was more an imposed, rather than chosen, profession. Each woman took evident pleasure in sharing her story and it seems to me that the central issue is quite simply to witness how these women recount their wartime experience and evaluate its importance to them. As they stand and as they account for themselves they are a part of a historical process and we can and, I consider, should listen to them.

[1] La Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. IV n°3/2006 ISSN 1762-6153.

[2] Society started by Mr Netley (Manor Road, Manor Farm, Brighton) in 2003. It was awarded funding by the Scarman Trust to enable it to build a website. It has rented a shop on Manor Farm, Brighton where members will be able to meet, work on their personal projects and put on photograph exhibitions. Article on the Society: “Amateur historians who won’t let bygones be bygones”, by Karen Hoy, in the local Brighton newspaper The Argus, Monday February, 20th 2006: 22.

[3] Creation in 1973 of “The Oral History Society” in Great Britain.

[4] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past. Oral History [1978] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 8.

[5] ibidem, 8.

[6] ibid., 112.

[7] See the work of Shirley Ardener, Perceiving Women, New York: John Wiley, 1975.

[8] Kathryn Anderson and Dana Jack, « Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses”, in Sherner Berga Gluck, Daphne Patai, eds;, Women’s Words. The Feminist Practice of Oral History, London: Routledge, 1991.

[9] Judith Butler, GenderTrouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990, 1. S.B. Gluck and D. Patai share this point of view.

[10] See Denise Riley, “My conviction is that […] there can be no version of motherhood as such which can be deployed to construct a radical politics”, Denise Riley, “Am I that Name? Feminism and the category of ‘Women’ in History, London: Macmillan, 1988, 1. “To put it schematically: ‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories, which themselves change; […]”.

[11] Jane W. Scott, “Gender: a useful category of Historical Analysis”, in Jane W. Scott, ed., Feminism and History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 152-180. 

[12] “ Scott’s theoretical position seemed to deny such an endeavour [to discover women’s agency in history]; it seemed to deny agency”, Penny Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998, 10-11.

[13] Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes, British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities, London: Routledge, 1994.

[14] Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives, 86.

[15] “Dis/composing the Subject. Intersubjectivities in Oral History”, in TessaCosslett, Celia Lury, Penny Summerfield, Feminism and Autobiography. Texts, Theories, Methods,London: Routledge, 2000, 91-106.

[16] The only one who now lives outside Brighton spent many years in Brighton before moving, recently, a little further away.

[17] Figures in brackets refer to the page numbers of each separate account.

[18] Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

[19] Eileen uses French.

[20] “ My conviction is that […] there can be no version of motherhood as such which can be deployed to construct a radical politics”, Denise Riley, “Am I that Name? Feminism and the category of ‘Women’ in History, London: Macmillan, 1988, 1. “To put it schematically: ‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories, which themselves change; […]”.

[21] The central issue is the importance of the female voice. The respect for that voice should be maintained even when the “content” of the discourse does not please the opinions of the receiver.

Elizabeth de Cacqueray was recently Senior Lecturer in English Studies at University Toulouse Le Mirail. Her research focuses primarily on the portrayal of women in British Cinema during World War II. She contributed « Official Art of World War II by British Women Artists: Directing the Gaze » to Constructing the Memory of War in Visual Culture Since 1914, The Eye on War (Routledge, 2018), edited by Ann Murray.