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“Not being a man, I wanted to do the next best thing”: Female Gentlemen and the First World War

Vera Brittain worked as a voluntary nurse in France and Malta during the First World War. After the armistice, she went back to university, but by 1920 she wrote that the memories of the war “and its extraordinary aftermath had taken full possession of my warped and floundering mind.”[1] She was, she exclaimed, “Nothing but a piece of wartime wreckage, living on ingloriously in a world that doesn’t want me!”[2] Brittain was one of many British female medical volunteers who nursed or drove ambulances on the Western Front. She and others witnessed the carnage of the war under similar circumstances as male soldiers, and they too suffered psychological damage as a result. Because of the predominance of the shell-shocked soldier in cultural and literary history, very little attention has been paid to the psychological trauma of front-line nurses and ambulance drivers.

In 1914, there were two official volunteer organizations that British women could join: the Red Cross as Voluntary Aid Detachments or the elite First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). Because both the VAD nurses and the FANY ambulance drivers had to fund themselves and were not paid wages, these organizations tended to attract economically privileged women.[3] Though privileged, however, these women were also seen by contemporaries as disrupting gender boundaries. Women in uniform attracted derision as well as fascination, and the volunteers had to prove that they were capable of working in a war zone.

To do so, they held fast to class-appropriate “gentlemanly” concepts of duty, self-control, and honor, which enabled them to continue to function under the pressures of providing medical care to soldiers. Though they attempted to align themselves with their male counterparts, the women and their writings have been analyzed usually through the trope of the plucky and resilient “Rose of No Man’s Land,” a caring and selfless figure tending the wounds of British men.[4] This repeats contemporary depictions of women as somehow untouched and unsullied by the violence around them and positions them as the recorders and observers of male suffering.

The conditions under which the female volunteers experienced the war, however, were not so different from those of male soldiers: “both groups suffered loss of autonomy, performed exhausting work in cramped conditions, underwent bombardment and were continually exposed to death and mutilation.”[5] The FANY and the VADs served under perilous conditions, risking their lives to transport and nurse the wounded and dying. These women understood themselves to be under the same code of moral obligation that determined their brothers’ behavior: they volunteered because they felt it was their duty, and while they were not allowed to fight, they could “do the next best thing,” as VAD Vera Brittain wrote to her parents, even when doing so cost them dearly in terms of mental health.[6]

Women who volunteered were of a similar age and grew up in the Edwardian period. This was a time of transition for women, with the first wave of feminism and the suffrage movement achieving milestone moments in the years before the war. During this period, education for young girls was more similar to that of their male peers than ever before. Secondary and higher education now provided middle and upper-class girls and young women with a rigorous classical education and promoted the values of service, duty, self-control, and honor, as well as physical fitness and team spirit. While the public school education of the time is often provided as an explanation for why so many young men volunteered, the extent to which this played a role in female volunteers’ feelings towards the war and the traumatizing experiences they worked through is often ignored.

Finding that traditional feminine norms now felt inappropriate, these young women crafted gendered identities based on the masculine norms and values from their socialization and education. This code of morals, known as “gentlemanliness,” was set loose from its aristocratic origins throughout the nineteenth century with the rise of the middle classes.[7] Instead, gentlemanliness became something that was not solely dependent on breeding, but could instead be aspired to and followed (through self-help books and novels) by the bourgeois male. Young women determined that if gentlemanliness could be learned by non-aristocratic men, then women, too, could learn it.[8]

Read entire article at Nursing Clio