Sabine Grimshaw, a Collaborative Doctoral Award Student at IWM and the University of Leeds, discusses her research into female war resisters during the First World War.
Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a conference organised for International Women’s Day at Liverpool Hope University on the topic, ‘Women in Peace and Conflict.’ Embracing the theme ‘Make it Happen’, the conference offered a fascinating insight into the myriad ways women have participated in warfare, peace activism, conflict resolution and post-war state building in twentieth century conflicts.
The themes presented in the conference resonate with my own research which, in part, looks at female war resisters during the First World War. Although many women’s wartime experiences are by now familiar, notably the entry of women into the labour market for the first time, the experience of women who resisted war is less well known. In fact, women were instrumental in anti-war activity, both in women’s only, international organisations such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and its national offshoots such as the Women’s International League (WIL) and also in mixed organisations such as the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF).
The IWM holds a varied and insightful collection of material relating to this subject and they can offer crucial insights into the way in which anti-war organisations and individual women thought about and experienced the war. One of the most intriguing documents that I have come across is a letter sent by the Women’s International League to the Prime Minister in 1916 outlining their opposition to conscription. This letter offers a unique window into the way feminist pacifists linked their opposition to the activities of the state military machine, an overwhelming masculine arena, to their belief in the social and political advancement and equality of women.
Whilst organisations have left behind a substantial amount of documentation about their anti-war activism, it can often be much harder to trace the experience of individual women. In this respect, the IWM sound archive has been particularly useful and a more intricate picture of women’s antiwar activity at a personal and local level can be observed. An interview with Dorothy Louise Bing, for example, whose brother Harold was a Conscientious Objector (CO), is especially revealing of the ways female family members of COsjoined together locally, not only to resist the war, but also to form vital networks that offered support in the face of an overwhelming pro-war, often jingoistic, environment.
Finding the voices of anti-war women in the First World War highlights this neglected facet of women’s experience of the conflict. They also demonstrate the ways in which women related their engagement with the conflict to their understanding of gender equality and advancement.