English Words in War-time

Words and women II: writing gender and identity in early 1915

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Woman Porter on Neasden Underground station.© IWM (Q 72569). http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205184101

A marked feature of war (and comment on war) in early 1915 was, as Clark observes in the Words in War-Time archive, the labour shortage which arose following the departure of some two million men to the Front. Historically, this would be resolved, at least in part, by a range of changing opportunities for women to enter the workforce. In terms of language, as the Words in War-Time archive documents, this would, however, bring opportunities of a different kind – generating constructions which, in various ways, reflected women’s increasingly visibility outside the home. By March 1915, there were some ’10,000 Women War Workers’, the Daily Express recorded. Language and the women war worker, as Clark realised, offered yet another fertile domain of enquiry in his attempt to fuse historical principles with the documentation of on-going change.

War worker, as the modern OED confirms, is itself an interesting creation of WWI. Given as a coinage of 1915, war worker remains deeply expressive of the ways in which combatants and non-combatants were yoked together in the enterprise of war. War effort could be expended at home, while effort (and endeavour) of a different kind were demanded on the battle field. While women war worker, alongside other related coinages, did not appear in the OED, the Words in War-Time archive yields some very interesting results in this respect. Even in December 1914, Clark was, for example, carefully noting down airwomen, here in relation to the Russian Military. The Princess Shakovsky ‘has been permitted to join General Ruzsky’s staff as a military airwoman’, as the Scotsman recorded on December 2nd 1914.**

The novelty of such transferred roles under the exigencies of war would, in fact, generate plentiful evidence of relevant words. Agent nouns such as porter were, for example, formally unmarked in terms of gender – but their use, and meaning, had  traditionally been constrained by underlying assumptions of male as norm. For the Star, for example, change in this respect was, in another telling combination, made to constitute a war phenonomen in its own right. Here the move from  from porter to woman porter is described in ways which extol female willingness to ‘do their bit’ even as a certain surprise is  evoked at women’s successful adaptation to the roles now being extended to them.

Another war phenomenon has appeared in the person of the women who understands time-tables. She does not speak of ten minutes past twelve, but of 12.10 with all the glibness of an accustomed traveller. She does not come panting on to the platform one minute after the train has gone, nor stand helpless amid a pile of luggage. If she is surrounded by luggage it is not her own, and she is far from helpless, for she is the new woman porter who has sprung into existence at Marylebone.

Traditional gender stereotyping – and its discriminatory overtones — could, as this suggests, both be challenged, and reinforced, in this respect. Woman porter, as other evidence in the archive proves, would by no means be an isolated example of this form. A similar article in the Daily Express, also from April 1915, celebrates the endeavours of the porters in petticoats for whom changed social roles – and sustained femininity – are made to unite.

As other news articles in the archive confirm, such shifts, and the overt gender marking which relevant forms acquired, formed a significant part of what was seen as war change – the transformative effects of war on ordinary life. Women carriage cleaners are recorded in the Daily Express in April 1915, railway women in the Evening Standard on April 7th 1915, and women air mechanics in the Scotsman (even if these are, in reality, French rather than English)

Women mechanics have proved very successful. A great number of them, having been employed in motor or engineering shops practically from girlhood, have become quite clever as turners or in the manipulation of machinery. They are found to be regular at their work and persevering and do not waste time. (Scotsman, 15th April 1915)

The Evening News even began its own collection of these changing images of identity:

Within the last few weeks we have had the girl district messenger, the lift-girl at Harrod’s, the girl ticket collector at Paddington, the girl in the newspaper stall on the Piccadilly Tube …’. (Evening News, 28th April 1915)

Evidence in the modern OED, we might note, can remain distinctly at odds – lift-boy, for example, is the sole form it records. Lift-girls do not appear. ‘Lift-boys always have aged mothers’, and ‘Chauffeurs, waiters, lift-boys…they are the operators’ states the accompanying evidence, in citations from 1904 and 1967. The Words in War-Time archive will therefore often tell a somewhat different story  – tracking the changes by which gender and identity were represented and recorded in response to the social and economic pressures of the war years.

By May 1915, the Daily Express was even extolling the advent of the ‘the First Call Girl’ – a form which is, however, perhaps likely to be read with raised eye-brows when read outside the immediate context of war – and the register of the theatre on which it depends. As the OED confirms, a call-boy, is ‘a youth employed (in a theatre) to attend upon the prompter, and call the actors when required on the stage’.  Call-girl in the OED has very different resonances (call-girl (orig. U.S.), ‘a prostitute who makes appointments by telephone’, being dated to 1940 with the evidence ‘Call Girls Die Young’). The call-girl of 1915 instead epitomises other aspects of war change. ‘Innovation at Shaftesbury Theatre’, as the Daily Express proclaimed.

 Tovey, the call-boy at the Shaftesbury Theatre, has joined the Army as a trumpeter, and Mary Powell, who is only fourteen, has taken his place. She has the distinction of being the first call-girl in the world. (Daily Express, Fri 28th May 1915)

Some apparently transgressive forms can nevertheless be produced by the combination of changing social role and overt gender marking, as in the girl page-boy which the Daily Express records on May 11 1915:

The girl “page-boy” is the latest outcome of the shortage of labour owing to the war. She has made her appearance, neatly uniformed, in the service of a leading Harrogate hotel, and meets guest on their arrival at the railway station

Perhaps especially interesting in early 1915 is, however, the diction of the war woman. ‘The manner in which war is affecting the character of woman is a matter of vast importance’, the Daily Express commented. The war woman who appeared, for example, in the title of a series by Miss Lorette Aldous, linked what was described as ‘real history’ (located in the female experience of war, on both Home and Western Front) with  ‘a modern woman’s ambition and revolt’. Like her antecedent the new women, the war woman is thereby rendered interestingly transgressive; if she emblematises modernity by means of her confidence  in taking on new activities in the public realm, she is potentially dangerous too, offering dissent, discontent, as well as ambition. As later posts will explore, such conflicted images can remain in evidence across the remaining years of war, as well as in its aftermath when women, no longer required to ‘do their bit’, were expected to retreat, invisibly, into the life of the home.

** Revision of the OED in March 2008 traced usage of airwoman to 1910. No evidence for the war years is provided, however, and a gap of 30 years intervenes in evidence after 1911. See airwoman, n.”. OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 29, 2015).

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