A is for Amazon. Being Amazonian in WW1.


women munition workers
women munition workers in WW1. Imperial War Museum.


Amazon was, in 1884, one of the first entries to be published in the Oxford English Dictionary. Deriving from the classical languages, it had already acquired, as the dictionary explained, a range of meanings in English. Historical reference led back to the mythical female warriors ‘alleged by Herotodus (among others) to exist in Scythia’, while later extended use had given the general sense ‘female warrior’  – even if this tended, of necessity, to exhibit largely hypothetical or figurative uses in English use. As in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, ‘play[ing] the Amazon’ implied the appropriation of a suitably intransigent demeanour, rather than the decision to bear arms against a common foe.

A further shift of meaning was located in the mid-eighteenth century. An Amazon of this kind was different again, implying, as the dictionary specified, ‘a very tall, strong, or masculine woman’.  First illustrated by Samuel Johnson in an 1758 essay in the Idler which in which an amazon rides a thousand miles in less than a thousand hours, thereby winning a wager, the link to war is demonstrably severed in favour of achievements which are distinct  from those which  conventionally appear in  canons of feminine behaviour. That these are also placed outside  regulative  female norms can, however, be plain.

‘To the man an Amazon never fails to be forbiddding’,

as James Fordyce warned in his Lectures to Young Women:

The amazons of war-time discourse can therefore offer some interesting changes – and continuities — in this respect. An early citation for airwoman in the Words in War-Time Archive, for example, extols the achievements of ‘the Princess Shakovsky, a well-known sportswoman, who holds a flying certificate’ and who had ‘been permitted to join General Ruzsky’s staff as a military airwoman’.  Yet conflict remained, prototypically, a man’s business:

The Czar refused permission for the formation of a regiment of Amazons which three hundred society women were desirous to join.

Twentieth-century Amazons also appeared in news discourse in Britain, affirming similar impulses towards action. A lengthy article in the Scotsman in December 1914 focussed, for example, on responses received to the recent questionnaires on enlistment (and eligibility) as sent out by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee.  As these made plain, in circumstances where no men were available, a number of women had attempted to volunteer instead. In the Scotsman, ‘the brave and patriotic spirit in which the women of our country are facing the situation’ was duly extolled:

Some women, who, to their sorrow, have no men to send to the firing line, express the wish to go themselves – a fact which suggests the possibility of the formation of an Amazons’ Battalion. “Regret,” writes one, “we have no men in this household. Just wish you would give women a chance’

As the Scotsman added:

The same brave Amazon spirit finds forcible expression in the following offer from a lady not a hundred miles from Glasgow Cross: – “I regret we haven’t a man of any age in this house. If a strong, healthy, and willing woman of uncertain age, past the first flush of youth, would be of any use to you, I’m at your service, without money and without price.

Such offers of active service were politely refused; war, as the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee’s own posters stressed, was an exercise in ‘playing the man’ – in a diction of performance and masculinity from which women were excluded.

By 1916, the diction and framing discourse of the Amazon had nevertheless taken on a new prominence.  In a Punch cartoon from early 1916, the Amazon is, for example, now seen as a recognisable type, in vigorous existence throughout the nation.  Framed by other stereotypes of war-time identity, such as the slacker and the rumour-monger, the Amazon instead appears, in uniform, striding across the page. Unencumbered by the hobble skirts – or long hair — of the past, she exhibits a sense of freedom and purpose, as well as a determined engagement with the war effort.  A timorous new recruit (also female) meanwhile hovers uncertainly to her right, in a distinctly underpowered version of her future self.

Amazons, in war-time discourse, would, in reality, assume a variety of forms. By 1916, a range of erstwhile male roles were, for example, being performed by women as more and more men went to the front (first as volunteers, then via the Derby Scheme, and finally via conscription). As other posts explore, these changes generated their own issues of taxonomy – if clerks were male, was a female clerk a lady clerk, a clerkess, or a girl clerk?  Similarly, was a conductress or a conductorette to be preferred? Or a woman- or lady- or girl- conductor? Amazon clearly offered in some respects a useful generic – not least in signalling commitment to active war service on the Home Front (and as opposed to the prototypically domestic service of the past).  Railway amazons hence populate the trains, trams, and tube as drivers and conductors rather than passengers; as in the War Budget in March 1917, the ‘Amazonian ranks’ are given as being visibly increased by  new roles assumed by women in the pharmaceutical industry or as portresses.  Other amazons are located on the land, in hotels, in motor work, in ambulances, or in industry. Munitionettes, too, could equally testify to the Amazonian spirit and its salience in war. As the Scotsman commented, using transparently military diction to describe life in a munitions factory:

The Amazonian column that had passed in files along the central passage of the factory had apaprently formed up in line on reaching the canteen and charged up to the barrier — a long counter held by a garrison of voluntary women workers who had for some time been preparing in expectation of the attack … On the further side, the voluntaries moved briskly about, successfully keeping out of each othere’s way, and trasferring plates of ham, poached eggs, pots of tea, toast, and other edibles appropriate to a high tea, from the cooking range to the counter.

As War Illustrated affirms, the amazon was, in such new incarnations, surely part of a ‘social revolution’ and  a significant player in the forging of a ‘new England’:

Neither on this farm, nor on the farm adjoining did I see a man. Girls were doing everything, and doing it splendidly. Homeward bound, skirting the coverts, we paused at a rustic stile at the moment a shapely, gaitered leg swung over it. Another Amazon! This fresh version had a gun over her shoulder. Velveteen breeches, a loose-fitting tunic with deep side-pockets … “My head game-keeper –Miss Smithers’ cried Mr. XXX, in proud introduction.

We might compare the news journalist Michael MacDonagh writing in his diary in 1916:

Women are to be seen at work everywhere. “Men must fight and women must work.” … You see them at the wheel of motor-cars and motor-drays. You see them handling the reins of horse-drawn vehicles. They are ticket-collectors at Underground and tube stations. At hotels and offices the lift-boy has become a lift-girl. The hall-porter at some of the big hotels is an Amazon in blue or mauve coat, gold-braided peaked cap and high top-boots.

If, in the OED, the amazon is depicted as defeminised and ‘other’, the amazons of 1916 and after can present some interesting readings, in which strength and ability are positively constructed (at least in terms of their alignment with the war effort), while — as in the examples above, amazons can also be rendered subjects of the all-too-approving male gaze. As MacDonagh confesses to his diary, the hall porter amazon is ‘a gorgeous figure that fascinates me’. Yet ‘my favourite’, he adds

 is the young “conductorette” on trams and buses, in her smart jacket, short skirts to the knees and leather leggings’.

Uniforms, donned as visual symbols of the public and professional identities which were assumed ‘for the duration’, could have disconcerting effects. That war-work, or being a war-worker, did not preclude attractiveness is a recurrent aspect of comment of this kind.

If the peacettes of 1915 evoke a sustained engagement with an anti-war rhetoric (being, in turn, negatively constructed in mainstream news discourse, along with their peace prattle), amazons can therefore appear as their antithesis. They are situated, too, in positive contradistinction to female versions of the slacker and shirker whose abilities are wasted, and whose contributions to the war effort selfishly remain unmade. As in the campaigns for ‘Women’s Right to Serve’ in 1915, which stressed women’s suitability for war service of various kinds, war-time amazons are therefore often framed in diction which suggest their status as metaphorical soldiers, mobilised for the war effort, and who, as volunteers (rather than conscripts) also willingly respond to the nation’s call. An ideological commitment to war is translated into war service in a range of legitimised forms.  Altruistic amazons of this kind  offer their own forms of self-sacrifice – in which work is constructed as part of war-time duty and properly patriotic endeavour. Meanwhile, by volunteering for active service in industry, transport, or munitions – or, indeed, in new structures such as the Women’s Reserve Ambulance Corps with its formal appropriation of a range of military ranks) women might also, in another well-established collocation of the day, ‘release a man for the front’,  in what remained a far more direct engagement with conflict per se.

Being Amazonian occupies therefore an intriguingly conflicted position in war-time Britian. It both evokes and elides direct military participation; if, for the OED, amazons are ‘female warriors’, their fight is, in 1914-18, relocated onto the front lines of the economy, munitions, transport, or food production, or in their work as nurses or ambulance drivers (among a wide range of other roles). Just like men who have volunteered for the Front, women too could gain a range of forms of insignia and visual validation, such that armlets and badges (as well as uniforms)  made active service plain. The amazon can therefore be used to express (and affirm)  a range of forms of female endeavour, resolve, and duty, while being amazonian can, as contemporary collocations confirm, be a matter of martial spirit and war-like resolve in which readings of ‘otherness’ can often be deliberately  suspended — at least ‘for the duration’. Amazons in 1918 would, however, face a very different future, as later posts will explore.

“Pinkers”, “pink forms”, and being “in the pink”.

‘I am still in the pink. Terribly dirty, but as happy as a kid with mud. Still in the same place. Awful slaughter. Two more of our men were wounded last night by a shell. One had three fingers blown clean off’.

This letter was reproduced in the Evening News in October 1914 from where, carefully clipped out (and with in the pink underlined), it made its way into  the Words in War-Time archive.  Originally written by Corporal Bert —- [the surname is elided],  it reassured his family in Walthamstow of his continued good health at the Front.

Royal Library of Belgium; Free Access-Rights Reserved.

Moving from private to public domains, the letter hence participated  in the contemporary recording of war (newspapers such as the Evening News regularly sought out first-hand testimony of this kind, offering, too, the promise of monetary reward).

Seen in term of the archive, however, it was to participate in living history of a different kindIn these terms,  in the pink signalled  a phrase which was, as yet,  unattested in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary  (the section dealing with words in the range Ph-Piper had been published eight years earlier, appearing in June 1906). It would, in fact,  emerge as one of the most characteristic idioms of war-time discourse, constituting a familiar item in letters to and from the Front, as well as being appropriated into a range of other domains. Continue reading