The war that liberated women

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Stylist Team
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Next month, a new BBC2 drama The Night Watch, based on Sarah Waters’ bestselling book, is set to bring the Blitz to life. Stylist explores the years that saw the birth of the modern woman...

There’s something incredibly stoic; almost romantic about the time known as ‘the Blitz’ – the unrelenting eight-month period in which British cities were systematically bombed by Hitler’s air force during World War II. Taking place over 76 consecutive nights, beginning on 7 September 1940 with a 10-hour raid on London which saw 436 people killed (the total number of civilian deaths would be 43,000 by the time the Blitz ended on 16 May 1941), the onslaught is often cited as the most testing time of the 1939-1945 conflict and – thanks to the resilience of the British people – spawned the immortal phrase ‘Blitz spirit’.

It’s not just an era that shaped national character; it was an instrumental time in the evolution of British women. Personified in films as feisty females with rolled hair and red lipstick, wearing seams drawn in pencil down the back of bare legs and engaging in immoral affairs with American GIs, or femme fatale spies helping Le Resistance, the Forties woman entirely embodied this ‘Blitz spirit’. Immortalised in war posters emblazoned with the words, “We Can Do It!” and “Your Country Needs You”, women raised families single-handedly, ran factories, drove ambulances, and built vehicles, trucks and ammunition while their men were at war.

Following on from Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007) and the BBC One series Land Girls (2009), next month women of the Blitz era are to be brought vividly to life again, as Sarah Waters’ bestselling novel The Night Watch is given the BBC treatment. Set in Blitz-ravaged London during and after WWII, the story traces the destinies of three women: Kay (Anna Maxwell Martin), Helen (Claire Foy) and Viv (Jodie Whittaker) whose lives were transformed by the unfolding Blitz. Most memorable is Kay, who found liberation and acceptance by wearing a man’s uniform during the war, only to struggle when the conflict ended and she was once again expected to be a conventional female. It’s Waters’ darkest and most melancholy novel by far, a subtle exploration of what makes girls into the women they become.


Socially, the first major revolution for Blitz women was in the workplace as previously, in the Thirties, women were expected to stay at home (despite having won voting rights in 1928, patronising attitudes towards women prevailed and married women were not expected to have jobs). The breakout of war changed all that, when male conscription in October 1939 caused a nationwide labour shortage virtually overnight.

For the first time – as well as volunteering in civil defence, as part of ARP (Air Raid Precautions) and the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) – it became clear that women were also desperately needed in industry for assembling weapons and building ships and aircraft, as well as driving army trucks or providing logistical support in the civil service.

By late 1941, women aged 18 to 60 were conscripted into the war effort, choosing between working in the services, nursing, factories, transport or the Land Army. Women’s status was undergoing rapid and profound change. Historian Carol Harris, author of Blitz Diary: Life Under Fire In World War II, says: “There has been little official acknowledgement of the enormous and crucial contribution those British women made to the lives we live now. Women ran fire stations and drove ambulances while cities burned and bombs exploded around them. They kept their families going, as single parents while husbands were in the Forces.”

In factories women not only acquired technical prowess, but also found camaraderie among women from very different backgrounds. A former maid might work alongside a debutante, both of them clad in boiler suits and bonding over a shared cigarette. Mothers were offered flexible working hours, free nurseries and time off in the mornings to shop for food. It all sounds remarkably modern.

“War opened up opportunities for women,” says Virginia Nicholson, author of Millions Like Us. “Their activities offered an emancipation unimagined by their mothers. One woman surveyed at that time said, ‘For a housewife who’s been a cabbage for 15 years, you feel you’ve got out of the cage… it’s all so different, such a change from dusting’.”

What women had to adjust to was a whole new identity. The Blitz-era woman had grief, fear, uncertainty and material instability to cope with as well as greater practical responsibilities thrust upon her. We were no longer “the gentle sex”; we were fighters. Wives, mothers and sisters were also at war with Germany and necessity had handed them their own weapons with which to join in the fight.

At the start of the war the idea that a woman would be flying a plane at all would have been anathema. By 1941, however, the public couldn’t get enough of the so-called ‘Spitfire Women’, the 164 female pilots of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary). While not flying in combat, these women transported newly built or repaired planes to the war zone. In all, the ATA delivered 308,567 aircraft, including 57,286 Spitfires, 29,401 Hurricanes, 9,805 Lancasters and 7,039 Barracudas. In mid-1942, when British aircraft production reached its peak, the ATA was moving more planes each day than British Airways did on a typical day in 2006.

Female secret agents also played a vital role, as members of SOE (Special Operations Executive) parachuted into occupied France. The most famous female SOE members were Violette Szabo and Odette Sansom Hallowes, both awarded the George Cross for the dangerous work they did supporting the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944. Both were captured and tortured, and Violette Szabo was murdered by the Gestapo while Odette Churchill survived the war


It was not through work alone that women found liberation: their social lives expanded in the Blitz, too. The class divisions of the interwar years had vanished, replaced by a feeling that “we’re all in it together”. Women flocked to the cinema during wartime, at least two or three times a week, to watch Hollywood stars – Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. At a shilling a time it was affordable entertainment. “The main function of the cinema was escapism,” says Terry Charman, senior historian at London’s Imperial War Museum. “War-themed films were made, but most people went to the cinema to lose themselves in movies. No young woman wanted to stay in every night so she’d escape by going to see Vivien Leigh in 1939’s Gone With The Wind or Carmen Miranda in Down Argentine Way (1940).”

Much of the Blitz-era ‘what the hell’ spirit was found at the dance halls. Every large town had a dance hall – such as London’s Hammersmith Palais. “Big-band jazz by Glenn Miller and his orchestra, swing music, boogie woogie and the close harmonies of the Andrews Sisters filled the floors with dancers. And the women that went to dances dressed up accordingly,” adds Charman: “It was a badge of honour to look your absolute best at these functions.”

It wasn’t easily achieved, but a well-groomed, feminine appearance had been stipulated by Winston Churchill’s government as a “morale booster” for both sexes in this time of strife, to the extent that hair salons were under less pressure to sacrifice their staff to war work. Make-up was scarce, however, so many women improvised with beetroot juice instead of rouge. In the absence of foundation, calamine lotion was mixed with cold cream to create a base for face powder.

Ruth Durrant, who worked in the wartime censorship office from 1941-1945, remembers, “Red lipstick was considered essential if one was to be ‘attractive’ – the modern word is ‘sexy’. Another essential was high heels – I tottered about like mad. In photographs of me from that time I’m always in red lippy, heels and manicured eyebrows, even though my front tooth is chipped from when I was hit by shrapnel.”

Clothes rationing was introduced in the summer of 1941. The basic annual ration was 66 coupons, with a dress typically costing 11 coupons and a coat 13. Unsurprisingly, fashion followed military lines with square shoulders, plain shirts and boxy skirts reflecting women’s new, more masculine role. It was now acceptable for women to wear trousers at all but the most formal occasions – those that did so hoped to look sporty and chic, like Katharine Hepburn.

When it came to fashion, women were typically resourceful. Knitting became an obsession, while clothes-recycling schemes, such as Make Do And Mend, and Sew And Save, showed women how to turn existing clothes into ‘new’ garments – an old dress cut down to a blouse. Blankets, which were not rationed, were bought to be made into winter coats in fashionable, wide-shouldered styles with broad lapels. Parachute silk was often recycled for bridal gowns and lingerie.


Elsewhere, barriers of formality between men and women relaxed dramatically in wartime, and women weren’t going to stay home alone. The novelist Mary Wesley, author of The Camomile Lawn, described war as “very erotic”, recalling of her experience of WWII Britain, “We had been brought up so repressed. War freed us. We felt if we didn’t do it now, we might never get another chance.”

In this seize-the-day atmosphere, out-of-wedlock sex was no longer taboo with many women starved of male company and imminent danger acting as a powerful aphrodisiac. In 1942, the first of two million American GIs arrived in Britain, en route for Normandy. British women fell hard and fast for their smart collar-and-tie uniforms, their generosity with food and nylon stockings from their own military stores, and what they imagined to be Hollywood glamour (even if their soldier was a conscripted farmhand from Iowa). This freshly hewn sexual liberation was followed by a steep rise in STIs, unwanted pregnancies and divorce. There remained a stigma attached to having an illegitimate child, so risky backstreet abortions – of the kind seen in the 2004 film Vera Drake – were all too common. Divorce rates in 1945 were double what they had been in 1938.

For many women, the sense of camaraderie was remembered as being the best thing about the war, along with sexual liberty and the partial breaking down of class differences. However, when the war finally ended in 1945, it was taken for granted that civilian women would quietly stand down from “men’s jobs”, re-focus on home and family and raise the next generation in a new era of peace.

“When employers said: ‘Thank you ladies, but the servicemen are returning and need their jobs back,’ there was a sense of disappointment for many that had relished independence,” says Charman. But there was also a desperation to see society “return to normal”, and women stepping back into a domesticated role was part of this. This explains why the remaining years of the Forties and the Fifties represented a backwards step for the emancipation of women.

It was only in the Sixties that women, who’d glimpsed their mothers’ brief foray into equality and liberation, took up the fight once more. Durrant agrees, “There is no doubt that the spirit shown by ordinary people during the war generally, and during the Blitz in particular, was a wonderful inspiration and source of strength to all of us. It was a good time to be British, and a woman. We were proud of it.”

Picture credits: Rex Features and Getty Images

The Night Watch is on BBC2 mid-July