English Words in War-time

Women and the war of words; writing gender identities in autumn 1914.

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The separate spheres of war, as documented in Clark’s ‘Word in War-Time’ collection, can seem all too plain. If Clark tracks a language of militancy in various ways between 1914-1918, it is clear that militant women, and militant men, were often seen as serving in very different ways. Men dominate, for obvious reasons, in reports which are sent from the Front. Women, as earlier posts have explored, are instead often depicted in terms of their dedicated service on the Home Front— ‘The Ladies Emergency Committee of the Navy League’, as an  extract from the Scotsman  on 14th September illustrates, demanded action of its members in terms of knitting. Defence was relocated to a domestic sphere, from which comforts where to be sent to the Front:

Navy League Wants for our Sailors’. ‘earnestly asks for 5000 woollen helmets and 5000 woollen mufflers for our sailors now in the North Sea’ (Scotsman, 14th September 1914).

Helmets, as Clark observed, offered another shift of use when compared to the first edition of the OED, where helmets were metal, leather, or felt.

As Clark realised, gender, history, and language could nevertheless all intersect, offering other interesting aspects of change. Militancy itself, as one of Clark’s early notebooks shows, was itself on the move, revealing other absences within contemporary histories of words:

Miss Pankhurst … urged the necessity of unity in the face of danger to the country, and said as a militant women she hoped to do something to rouse the spirit of militancy in men. The future of democracy was at stake. What was in the best interest of the state women would do, but it argued no inferiority or diminution to their claim of political inequality if they took no part in the fighting’ [Scotsman, 9th September, 1914].

Militant women, in Pankhurst’s sense, did not exist in the OED, while militancy – given the fact that evidence in the OED stopped in 1876 — also seemed to attest new departures.Women’s non-military roles, however, were often brought to the fore in news reporting. When news does focus on women at the front, they are, for example, often used to focalize the effects of violence and depredation. A particularly telling use of language in this respect, as Clark noted, was the depiction of petticoat troops, soldiers whose advance into war was made by means of a human shield of women and children. As in the Daily Express on Tuesday 15 September, this was made to offer further evidence of German brutality, in an all too negative configuration of the enemy.

Some of our chaps could hardly believe their eyes at first, but it soon made our fellows as angry as thunder. We solved the problem by getting these petticoat troops on our flank, when we were able to attack them’

Here, too, the OED was silent. The entry for petticoat had been published nine years earlier. Defined as ‘the characteristic or typical feminine garment’, the petticoat, as the Dictionary explained, hence operated as ‘the symbol of the female sex or character’. Used with reference to men, it operated as a markedly negative term, as in constructions such as petticoat pensioner ‘a man paid by a women’, petticoat-governed, ‘ruled by a women, or hen-pecked’. Petticoat troops, however, was a new departure, caught by Clark’s acute observation of words in a time of war. Here, the petticoats which emblematised female identity mark out the transgressive patterning of enemy power and female powerlessness; women, as Clark observed, formed a living screen, behind which the troops attempted to seize tactical advantage.

Gender and its representation became another recurrent topos in Clark’s notebooks, whether in documenting the casual sexism of words such as granny (used, as Clark noted against an article in the Daily Express,  to denote anyone who might seem to behave like a granny, or, in other words, as he explains, like a women who is fussy and unnecessarily interfering), or in tracking other omissions in the OED such as mother’s help (which Clark found in an advertisement in October 1914). Other readings of gender and gender roles also, importantly, start to emerge. The heading ‘Ladies in Riding Breeches. Work for the Wounded in Belgium’ on p. 2 of the Daily Express on 11 September proved a particularly useful example:

The British corps of lady farmers, nurses, horsewomen, girl motor-drivers, women doctors, men doctors, and dressers under Dr Hartnell Beavis left Ostend to-day for Antwerp on the orders of the Queen of the Belgians

Women in this article are headed for the ‘The British Field Hospital for Belgium’, and are used to exemplify modernity as well as determination. ‘Ladies who are close-cropped, booted, and spurred will ride the horses drawing the ambulance vans, and these, with motor-cars, will dash towards the front, pick up the wounded from the army bearers, and bring them back to the hospital’ , we are informed. Booted and spurred, such women are by no means defined or symbolised by petticoats. For Clark, the article as a whole offered a range of new locutions, from close-cropped to horse-ambulance. To be close-cropped was, Clark pointed out, another compound on which the OED seemed out of date. The OED’s entry represented an earlier era. It offered close-bodied, close–coupled, and close-fisted — but not close-cropped. Yet, as the Daily Express makes plain, close-cropped women – whose hair was cut short – can be used to image a peculiarly feminine motif of ‘doing their bit’ in a time of war: ‘Englishwomen who have sacrificed their hair in their keenness and devotion to their great work were busy getting everything in trim for their start to Antwerp’. Women here were seen as committed to the militant cause of war, and dedicated service at the front, in a form of emancipation which receives thorough commendation. In tracking words in war-time, the diction of gender, and gender-identity, would, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, come to offer yet another productive site of change.

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