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."
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.
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.