Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review: Wartime Women - A Mass Observation Anthology

Wartime Women
I first learned about the book Wartime Women and the Mass Observation Project on Hannah Stoneham's blog.  I was immediately fascinated.  The Mass Observation Project is just such a good idea.  According to the website, it "was founded in 1937 by three young men, who aimed to create an 'anthropology of ourselves'.  They recruited a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers to study the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain."  Thus, many Britons throughout World War II would answer open-ended questionnaires or keep diaries and send them in to the organization, detailing everyday thoughts and feelings and reactions to issues great and small.

This particular book focuses on women's responses to specific issues before and during the war, with specific emphasis on employment, family life and morale.


My interest was completely engaged.  I was already sold on the premise- I love the idea of people in an extended crisis taking the time to answer targeted questions or write in a diary about their activities and emotions.  I thought maybe that the respondents would hold back or not be completely honest- but when you are writing to a faceless organization, I guess it's easy to hold nothing back, and the depth and breadth of information provided was amazing.  Please indulge me as I think this review will be full of quotes.

I enjoyed learning more about life in Britain (mostly England) during the war, but what truly captivated me about this book were the personalities that jumped off the page.  I didn't love every woman I "met," but for those that I was with for more than a page or two, I felt instantly that I knew their personalities and might even recognize their speaking style if I were to meet them on the street.  It was so eye-opening to see so many different types of women responding to the call for information and doing so with such a refreshing (and sometimes appalling) lack of political correctness.  For example, one woman heard that a young unmarried co-worker was pregnant.  Her reaction?  "I can't understand it at all.  She's such a slovenly messy looking girl.  If it had been one that used lipstick and dyed her hair it would be different, but this girl, she's most unattractive." 

Wartime Women
And she is not the only one to speak as such.  Many of the respondents are so casual in their prejudices that I am shocked at how far the world has come in just a few generations.  There were comments about the Irish, about the Germans, about the Americans and about the Jews.  Even more than the racism, though, was an inherent and all-permeating sense of classism.  "I think it should be made easier for a woman to have a job and a family at the same time.  Otherwise the offspring of some of the best women, who when faced with the choice, choose their careers, are lost to the country and we are not in a position to be able to dispense with the breeding of the better types."  Another observer said,
This feeling of uncertainty, the tendency of working women to leave all the difficult things such as politics, ARP, opinions about world affairs, to their husbands, has come up many times in our surveys...Middle-class women are better educated, better informed, more able to visualise the future and make decisions independently.
I am being unfair by pointing out these disturbing quotes first.  There were many women who delighted me with their dry wit and ability to see the humor in a bad or terrifying situation.   "The special treat was five minutes in the gas chamber, followed by tea and biscuits."  My favorite observer was Mrs. Trowbridge, whose entire section had me laughing with her fabulous descriptions of people.  She had a simile that compared a working girl taking orders from an officer as "a kitchenmaid being interviewed by an ill-bred duchess."  So many of the women had a keen sense of the ridiculousness of situations that I admired.  And their fortitude came out so strongly and fiercely and wonderfully that when I did come across examples of women demeaning women, I was bowled over.  How could a woman who managed to make lemonade from lemons say something like, "Wish I knew a clever man who would tell me his views.  Clever women would be no use.  Women's views limited to welfare of loved men- whether grown up or tiny."

In a way, that was the most interesting aspect of the book for me- seeing how conflicted women were about their roles, and the way those expectations changed from the beginning of the war to the end.  But when I say "most interesting," it is a very relative term because all of this book was interesting to me.  I loved, loved, loved having so many first-hand accounts of life in Britain during the period.  I wish I could have read so many more.  Because while I enjoyed learning more about these particular women's thoughts on those issues, I did not learn anything about other topics that would have interested me.  For example, how did they feel about the Nazis?  Did they know about concentration camps?  What was their reaction to the atomic bomb?  Had they lost anyone in the war?  Really, the only downfall of this book is that it isn't much longer and I didn't get to know my friends in it on the much deeper level I craved.

Wartime Women
And that must be how it felt for those organizing and archiving Mass Observation- some people corresponded for years and years and must have built up a real kinship with the organizers.  Others come through fleetingly, and you are left wondering what happened to them.  And so many will give minute details about one aspect of their lives, but be so brief on the others that you are left wondering, "Did she have any children?  How did she manage to work and volunteer and manage her house?"  In a way, that's frustrating, but in a way it is also so wonderful that even with such detailed accounts, we can be missing such basic information about someone as whether or not she had children.

I could go on and on, but I will contain myself.  I truly enjoyed reading this book (and it marks the completion of the Women Unbound challenge for me!), and I look forward to learning more about Mass Observation and the effects of World War II on the home front.  The next book on the topic I hope to get my hands on?  Demobbed:  Coming Home After World War II.  It sounds just as fascinating.  I will leave you with one last, long quote from this book that made me smile and be grateful that such a collection of first-person accounts exists.  It's by a woman who was asked why she became a midwife if she doesn't think the world needs any more people:
I mean, I think babies that are born should have the best chance you can possibly give them, and that's our job.  Like a little while ago, we had a little Prem[ature] born- it didn't weigh above two and a half pounds, and nobody thought it would live.  But we worked at it.  We did everything we knew...And you can't imagine the thrill when it first began to suck!  I was on duty at the nursery that morning and I was putting the tube down its throat and all of a sudden it got hold of the tube between its little gums and started to suck like mad!  I was so thrilled I could have just danced about the nursery...Well, it's that kind of thing that makes me love the work.  You feel it's really worthwhile, if you can save a little life like that that doctors have given up.

18 comments:

  1. Maybe a book for me when I am in the mood for something more real, it does happen once in a while

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  2. This sounds great, the real views would be so interesting and I love how it sounds like people were so honest about everything. Great review - loved all the quotes :)

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  3. This sounds amazing. Well reviewed, I am certainly going to keep an eye out for books on this period of history.

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  4. This sounds wonderful! I stumbled one other book of ordinary people's written responses (A British newspaper ad asking people to describe the "imaginary worlds" they invented for themselves as children), that made me so excited! It is something special when people are asked to tell the important stories they might otherwise bottle up, and they do it.

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  5. Blodeuedd- It's very interesting, even if it sounds like a serious subject.

    Amy- Glad to know the quotes didn't get annoying!

    Sudha- YES, do it. Then we can discuss them. Though I feel we should also do a read of an inter-war period book. So much to read...

    Trapunto- The imaginary world book sounds great! What is it called? I am always so impressed by people's imaginations as children. And then saddened by the way they tend to disappear :-(

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  6. What a beautiful and insightful review! I loved reading about this book and think that this is also something that I would really enjoy. I think it's so interesting to get such a multitude of opinions and voices about life during this time, and the quotes you provided really caught my attention. I agree with you when you say that reading them is like hearing each woman talk in her own unique voice in your head, that's the impression that I got while reading them as well. This one bypasses the wish list and goes straight into the cart!

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  7. This sounds fascinating. I recently read two Persephone books, Good Evening, Mrs Craven and Miss Ranskill Comes Home which have reawakened my interest in World War II Britain, so I think I'd probably enjoy this one.

    Congratulations on completing the Women Unbound challenge, by the way!

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  8. I love the Mass Observation project--the book on Britain at wartime drew heavily from the contributions made to it. I wish there was such a thing now. Except I guess there is and it's called the Internet, and the "Mass" part of it has gotten out of control.

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  9. I'm really fascinated by the Mass Observation project - I read a book recently, Our Longest Days, which seems similar with the excerpts, although it included men. I think this book sounds awesome, too - I'll have to seek it out.

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  10. Oops - that last comment was me!

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  11. I have heard about the Mass Observation Project before but hadn't realized books were published containing the questionnaires and diaries. This book sounds fascinating.

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  12. This sounds so interesting in so many ways - just as I hoped. Roll on September so I can get it from my new library!

    The casual bigotry of this time period always gets to me too. But it IS interesting to notice how it was all kind of beginning to fall apart, especially the classicism (though clearly we still have some way to go in all of those areas). Or maybe that's just me being hopeful :P

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  13. Zibilee- I think you'd really like it! I loved all the personalities that came through.

    Helen- I have seen many reviews of Good Evening, Mrs Craven lately, and it's on my wish list. I think WWII Britain is fascinating, too- though I prefer the inter-war period.

    Jenny- Yes, you're right. I guess the organization of Mass Observation is just much easier to deal with :-)

    Meghan- I'll have to look into Our Longest Days!

    Gavin- It is!

    Nymeth- Yes, I'm sure it's MUCH easier to find in England than it is in Portugal. And you're right- the bigotry was slowing beginning to disappear...but I think there was another generation to go before people started really thinking about things in the ways we might now.

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  14. sounds good there was great tv drama housewife 49 shown here from a mass ob work ,all the best stu

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  15. This book sounds SO amazing! I love the Mass Observation stuff and I will definitely be seeking this book out. Great review, Aarti! Oh and that bigoted attitude is still alive and well in my grandparents' generation...when I get offended or embarrassed I just have to remind myself that they are products of their time.

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  16. I first heard of the Mass Observation project when I read Our Longest Days edited by Sandra Koa Wing. I wonder if some of the same quotes were used in this book?

    I hope it's okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.

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  17. Sounds like a must read for me. I loved Nella Last's War [she was a mass op diarist]

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